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Climate change threatens loss of Hindu Kush Himalaya glaciers

New Delhi : Current levels of greenhouse gas emissions would lead to five degrees of warming and lead to loss of two-thirds of the glaciers of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region by the end of this century, a new research report by the Kathmandu-based The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) has warned.

The report was commissioned by the eight countries in the HKH region, namely Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan and its conclusions are alarming as the area is vast and is home to 10 of the most important river systems.

The Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region is also known as the world’s 'Third Pole' for its vast store of ice, and is home to Mount Everest, K2 and many other soaring peaks. Ice melt is the only water source for 250 million mountain dwellers and 1.65 billion people live in downstream valleys.

The report, titled HIMAP for the Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme, looked at 16 components of change in the HKH region and helps fill in a gap left by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that had limited information from and about the region.

“The massive size and global significance of the Hindu Kush Himalaya region is indisputable, yet this is the first report to lay down in definitive detail the region’s critical importance to the well-being of billions and its alarming vulnerability, especially in the face of climate change,” said ICIMOD Director General David Molden.

One of the areas of key concern is the cryosphere, or ice coverage, in the region, which is home to the most glaciers after the polar regions.

The report says that 36 per cent of the volume of these glaciers will be gone by 2100 if the world manages to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. If this temperature increase hits 2 degrees Celsius, 49 per cent of the volume of these glaciers will be gone.

The retreat of these glaciers will have an immediate impact on the 250 million people that live in the mountains, many of whom are critically dependent on the water flow from snow and ice melt. Given that poverty rates in these regions is 33 per cent, significantly higher than the overall 25 per cent for the eight countries that border the region, this will be a disaster in itself.

Also, more problematic issues will be downstream to these regions, inhabited by 1.65 billion people, and one of the basins most impacted will be the Indus – that straddles China, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

One of the reasons is that the Indus River is the one most dependent on snowmelt and glacier melt contributing close to 80 per cent of its water flow – compared to the Ganga and Brahmaputra, which are mostly dependent on rainfall runoff. As the glaciers retreat at a sharper pace, this basin will have more water flowing in, but in an increasingly unpredictable manner.

The HKH region covers 3,500 kilometers and the glaciers feed 10 of the world’s most important river systems, including the Ganga, Indus, Yellow, Mekong and Irrawaddy, and directly or indirectly supply billions of people with food, energy, clean air and incomes. Additionally, the region contains four of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.

Though the mountainous region was formed around 70 million years ago, its glaciers are extremely sensitive to the changing climate.

The glaciers have been retreating since the 1970s, when global warming first set in, and the changes have ripple effects throughout the region. Glacier melt is exacerbated by air pollution that comes from one of the most polluted areas in the world. The pollution deposits black carbon on the glaciers, hastening their melting and changing monsoon circulation, and rainfall distribution over Asia.

As the glaciers melt, the water flows into lakes and rivers, at times causing sudden flooding.

This, then, leads to the destruction of crops and other important habitats. As a result of the HKH ice melt, more water is expected to surge through the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers, forcing a change to the agriculture in the valleys around them. As the number and intensity of these disasters increase, more than one billion people, already very vulnerable, are at risk.

"This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of. Impacts on people in the region, already one of the world’s most fragile and hazard-prone mountain regions, will range from worsened air pollution to an increase in extreme weather events. But it’s the projected reductions in pre-monsoon river flows and changes in the monsoon that will hit hardest, throwing urban water systems and food and energy production off kilter", said ICIMOD’s Philippus Wester, also lead author of the report.

As the Nepal earthquake in 2015 laid bare, mountain cities and settlements are vulnerable to disasters—from landslides and erosion to debris flows and floods. As the number and intensity of these disasters increase, more than one billion people are at risk.

These changes hit the region’s poor hardest. About one-third of the 250 million HKH mountain people live on less than $1.90 a day; more than 30 per cent of the region’s population doesn’t have enough to eat, and around 50 per cent face some form of malnutrition, with women and children suffering the most.

The realities of mountain life, such as inaccessibility, fragility and remoteness, make it difficult for people to earn a living in the region; nonetheless, the report points out that mountain people have the potential to earn incomes by better utilizing the region’s resources, such as hydropower potential.

For example, HKH has a huge hydropower potential of ~500 gigawatts, enough to power half a billion homes in the region. Nonetheless, more than 80 per cent of the rural population, most of whom live in mountain regions, rely on traditional fuels, such as firewood or dung, for cooking, and about 400 million people in HKH countries still lack basic access to electricity.

Despite the cultural and political diversity of the countries studied, they are united in the unique challenges facing mountain regions, which will only get worse with climate change and glacial melt, the report asserts, while calling for greater recognition of mountain areas and the HKH region in global climate efforts.

“There are rocky times ahead for the region: between now and 2080, the environmental economic and social conditions laid out in the report could go downhill,” said Eklabya Sharma, deputy DG of ICIMOD. “Because many of the disasters and sudden changes will play out across country borders, conflict among the region’s countries could easily flare up. But the future doesn’t have to be bleak if governments work together to turn the tide against melting glaciers and the myriad impacts they unleash.”

“We need to start thinking of mountain regions as climate hotspots worthy of urgent attention, investments and solutions,” Dasho Rinzin Dorji, ICIMOD board member from Bhutan, said.

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