Are we carelessly letting the Himalayas die?

Are we carelessly letting the Himalayas die?

It’s business as usual in Bangalore. The roads are full of honking cars, stressed out citizens and a simmering anger towards power cuts and water shortages, that the city is perennially reeling under.

Transfer your gaze to the pride of India, our venerable Himalayas. This is the planet’s ‘Third Pole’ — the Himalayas and the vast Tibetan plateau. In all the hue and cry being made about other issues about Climate Change, no one has spoken about the threat to the region’s cryosphere — the Himalayan glaciers, which are our vast, frozen store of fresh water. We just take them for granted, and suffer under the grand delusion that the Himalayas will last forever.

Here are a couple of facts worth ruminating about The Himalayas are the water tower of South Asia. On the Tibetan plateau with is the largest high altitude land mass on earth lie 45,000 individual glaciers. These glaciers feed all the major river systems in Asia — mainly the Yangtzse, the Yellow, the Brahmaputra, Mekong and Salween rivers.

Almost 1.3 billion of the world’s population, living in the river basins down stream, depends on water from these rivers. India, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, have been dependant on these life sustaining waters for their agriculture since time immemorial.

Secondly, temperature increase is widespread over the globe. But the rates of warming in the Hindu Khush-Himalayan region (HKH) are significantly higher than the global average. Within the region the rates in the western Himalayas, eastern Himalayas and the plains of the Ganga basin over the last 25 years are lower than those of the central Himalayas (Nepal) and the Tibetan plateau.

With the steady and rapid rise in global warming and Climate Change, temperatures are rising twice as fast as the global average and the glaciers are in rapid retreat, according to Andreas Schild, Director General of ICIMOD ( International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development). This is the most visible impact of climate change in the Third Pole and the retreat of the Himalayan glaciers is at a higher rate than glaciers in other mountain ranges.

Effects of de-glaciation

Today, the permanent snowline has moved significantly higher than before. Continued de-glaciation could have a profound effect on the water in the ten large river basins originating in the HKH region. So as a consequence, river discharge will naturally increase due to this accelerated ice melt and finally dry out.

The new phenomenon which has also raised the antennae of the scientific community, is that glacial lakes have formed in many places in the area left by retreating glaciers. ICIMOD has identified 8,790 glacial lakes and some 204 of these are potentially dangerous. Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF’s) have been witnessed with catastrophic consequences in Bhutan, China and Nepal during the 20th century. Villages below these lakes are liable to get wiped out as the lake burst also carries huge amounts of moraine which contain large rocks and debris.

Our Himalayas are in trouble. For us in India, that could have far reaching consequences on our water supply. It’s time we sat up and realised that the water resources from these glaciers which cover 1,12,000 sq km provide long term and short term water storage. Climate Change is affecting the amount of snow and ice and glacial melt. There is an urgent need to understand these changes and the implications for down stream water availability and the impact on livelihoods and life in the Third Pole itself.