Melting Himalayas put billions at risk

  • The Hindu Kush Himalayan region is under severe stress due to climate change and may lose a majority of its glaciers by the end of the century.
  • A report has warned that more than one billion people are at risk in the Himalayan region from natural hazards. Lack of food security is also a result of the rising temperatures.
  • The report also revealed that women in the region are more susceptible to natural disasters than men while experts highlighted the impact on rich and middle-income groups, in a shift from the usual climate change narrative.
  • It calls for greater transboundary cooperation for sustainable mountain development.

The Hindu Kush Himalaya region that supports nearly 40 percent of the global population, directly or indirectly, is under severe stress with rising global temperatures.

Even if the world manages to keep to its Paris Agreement commitments and limits the rise in global temperature to 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels, the Himalayan region is expected to lose 36 percent of its glacier volumes by 2100, states a recent report.

In a shift from the usual climate change narrative, the hardest hit by this global warming in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) are not just the most vulnerable low income groups, but also rich and middle-income people. Further, women in the region are more susceptible to natural disasters than men, highlighting a need for revision in policies and responses to disasters that often overlook the socio-cultural situation of women.

The report, ‘Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability, and People’, prepared under the Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme (HIMAP), was released on February 4 by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an intergovernmental organisation in Kathmandu (Nepal). The report is a result of three years of work by about 350 researchers.

With looming glacier loss, the region could also witness an increase in natural hazards like glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), rise in temperature and precipitation and significant loss of biodiversity by the year 2100, said the report. More than one billion people are at risk in the region with increasing magnitude and frequency of natural hazards.

It emphasised that “glaciers have thinned, retreated, and lost mass since the 1970s, except for parts of the Karakoram, eastern Pamir, and western Kunlun.”

“Trends of increased mass loss are projected to continue in most regions, with possibly large consequences for the timing and magnitude of glacier melt runoff and glacier lake expansion. Glacier volumes are projected to decline by up to 90 percent through the 21st century in response to decreased snowfall, increased snowline elevations, and longer melt seasons,” the report said.

The report is the first comprehensive assessment of the Himalayan region in a series of monitoring and assessment reports. It deals with major issues such as climate change, biodiversity, energy, cryosphere (frozen water), water, food security, air pollution, disaster and resilience, poverty, adaptation, and gender and migration.

It is significant as the HKH region covers an area of 4.2 million square km across eight countries that includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. The region is the source of 10 major river basins and also home to four of 36 global biodiversity hotspots.

Nearly 1.65 billion people living in the downstream areas of these river basins benefit directly and indirectly from its resources with more than three billion people benefit from the food produced in its river basins, says the report. The region directly sustains the livelihood of 240 million people living in the Himalayan region.

Impacts on the rich, women

ICIMOD’s Philippus Wester, who was the coordinator of HIMAP, said that the most compelling argument of the report is that the impact on HKH in case global warming is limited to 1.5 degree Celsius. He explained that until recently the climate change narrative was that it would hit the vulnerable the most but actually “it is going to hit the rich and the middle-income people more than the poor.”

“If you are poor and vulnerable you don’t have that much and you are trying to survive anyway. But if you are middle income you have your house your car and then the flood comes and everything is gone. I think that realisation that it is actually going to impact the society is making a difference. It (climate change impact) is happening now and is hitting much harder than we thought and affecting everyone,” Wester told Mongabay-India.

The report also emphasised that people in the mountains are more vulnerable to food and nutritional insecurity. It said that over 30 percent of the population in the HKH region suffers from food insecurity and around 50 percent face some form of malnutrition, with women and children suffering the most.

The report said that women in the Himalayas are more susceptible to natural hazards than men. Photo by Luca Galuzzi/Wikimedia Commons.

The report also said that women in the region are more susceptible to natural disasters than men, as policies and responses overlook the oppression and exclusion that women face.

Chandra Gurung Goodrich, who is ICIMOD’s senior gender specialist, explained that they found in their assessment that women are entering into spaces which earlier they were not allowed in. “So they have gained a lot of capacity and skills. But it is not reflected in the policy-making process. Policies are still very male-dominated and the processes are very patriarchal. So, I think it’s time to capitalise and bring them in decision making considering their knowledge and perspective,” she said.

Discussing about lack of access to energy, the report noted that the Himalayan region remains energy-poor despite its vast hydropower potential of around 500 gigawatt, of which only a small fraction is actually developed. It noted that measures to enhance energy supply have had less than satisfactory results because of low prioritisation and a failure to address the challenges of remoteness and fragility.

The report noted that it is important to address the question of energy as more than 80 percent of the rural population in HKH countries relies on traditional biomass fuels for cooking and about 400 million people still lack basic access to electricity.

While replying to Mongabay-India’s query regarding the massive hydropower projects planned in the ecologically fragile Himalayan region, ICIMOD’s Nakul Chettri, who was also one of the authors of the report, said they are trying to encourage zonation.

“Where to have dams and where not to have dams – you have to have the balance. That is the way forward. Many other countries are following this model of balancing development and conservation,” Chettri said.   

Call for transboundary cooperation

The HKH region is popularly referred to as the “third pole” of the world as it has the largest area of permanent ice cover outside of the north and south poles. This geologically fragile region is undergoing rapid change due to factors like climate change, disasters, economic growth, globalisation, infrastructure development, land use change, migration and urbanisation.

The report stressed that changes on the roof of the world is “having and will have major consequences” not only for people living in the region but globally and thus actions at “national, regional, and international scales are urgently needed to sustain this global asset.”

It called for greater transboundary cooperation in regional aspects of conservation and development across the HKH.

The ICIMOD report warns of major natural hazards in the region including glacial lake flood outbursts. Photo by Nadeemmushtaque/Wikimedia Commons.

The report said that if global warming is limited to 1.5 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as committed in the 2015 Paris Agreement, warming will likely be at least 0.3 degree Celsius higher in the HKH and at least 0.7 degree Celsius higher in the northwestern Himalayas and Karakoram.

The ICIMOD report stressed that it is a critical moment for the region as it will face significant risk if decision makers, governments, institutions and communities continue with business as usual. It recommended for establishing a high-level, empowered, regional mechanism to strengthen regional energy trade and cooperation.

Eklabya Sharma, who is ICIMOD’s deputy director general, said the two points of the report are that “urgent action is needed and there is a huge cost regionally and globally for non-action.”

Disappearing biodiversity and changing weather patterns

The rapid changes in the region will also affect biodiversity in HKH that provides ecosystem services to two billion people, which is more than any other mountain system in the world. The report said that global and regional drivers of biodiversity loss like land use change and habitat loss, pollution, climate change, and invasive alien species —are prevalent and increasing in the HKH. On average, 35 new species were discovered each year in the eastern Himalaya between 1998 and 2008 but the richness of the biodiversity of the region is under threat, and the report warned that “1/4 of the endemic species in the Indian Himalaya could be wiped out by 2100”.

The report also warned that the region’s climate has changed significantly and is projected to change more dramatically in the future noting that, “There has been a rising trend of extreme warm events in the HKH over the past five to six decades, a falling trend of extreme cold events, and a rising trend in extreme values and frequencies of temperature-based indices (both minimum and maximum).”

It highlighted that warm nights have increased throughout the HKH, and extreme absolute temperature indices have changed significantly. “The number of intense precipitation days and intensity of extreme precipitation have increased overall in the last five decades. If these trends persist the frequency and magnitude of water induced hazards in the region will increase in the future,” the report said.

The 2013 floods in Uttarakhand in India is one example of an extreme weather event where intense rainfall and glacial lake outburst led to massive loss of lives and property. Thousands of people died in the disaster and the impact is still visible nearly six years after it happened.

As per the report, snow-covered areas and snow volumes will decrease in most regions of the region over the coming decades due to increased temperatures and snowline elevations will rise.

It said that the glacier mass loss would accelerate through the 21st century, and higher-emission scenarios will result in an even faster mass loss. But it warned that as glaciers continue to retreat, there is an increased risk of dangerous glacial lake outburst floods.

“Glacial lakes frequently occur in the extended HKH, and numerous new lakes will form in response to cryospheric change. Since the 1990s, glacial lakes show a clear increase both in number and in the area. Several glacial lakes in the extended HKH are potentially hazardous,” the report said. It highlighted that as of year 2000, the HKH has witnessed more than 33 identifiable GLOFs and the number is increasing.

Read Mongabay-India’s article on a study of Himalayan glaciers that are wasting away and threatening mountain communities

The analysis also highlighted that due to climate change, a consistent increase in streamflow is expected at large scales for the upstream reaches of the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra rivers until at least 2050.

“In the Indus, this increase will result from increased glacial melt for a limited period, while in the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, it is expected to result mainly from increased precipitation,” said the study while emphasising that pre-monsoon flows are expected to decline, with implications for irrigation, hydropower and ecosystem services.

The Himalayas are under severe stress due to climate change and could face a massive loss of glaciers by 2100. Photo by Sumita Roy Dutta/Wikimedia Commons.

“Climate Change in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region can certainly lead to a rise in sea level. What is more dangerous is that in all the deltas (of the region) there will be more silt and deposition of sand leading to infertile land which will ultimately impact livelihood. The other major impact of climate change will be on biodiversity as it will decrease. There may also be a lot of disasters in the region due to climate change which will put lots of lives at risk,” ICIMOD’s Sharma told Mongabay-India.

Air pollution impacting the Himalayas

The report said that air pollution in the Himalayan region is on the rise and regional air quality has worsened in the past two decades, with the adjacent Indo-Gangetic plains being now one of the most polluted regions in the world.

It said air pollution has large impacts on the Himalayas, affecting not just the health of people and ecosystems, but also climate, the cryosphere, monsoon patterns, water availability, agriculture, and incomes.

“The HKH is sensitive to climate change — air pollutants originating within and near the HKH amplify the effects of greenhouse gases and accelerate melting of the cryosphere through the deposition of black carbon and dust, and changing monsoon circulation and rainfall distribution over Asia,” said the report while warning that shifting monsoon patterns may result in episodes of intense precipitation, leading to further increases in floods, landslides, and soil erosion.

Read the Mongabay-India story on how warmer winters in the Himalayas are triggering avalanches

Banner Image: The Himalayan region, directly and indirectly, supports more than three billion people of the world. Photo by Dnor/Wikimedia Commons.

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