Himalayan blunder

The report entitled ‘Himalayan Glaciers’ released by the Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh says that there is no conclusive evidence to prove that Himalayan glaciers are melting due to climate change. Not taking any responsibility for the study, Ramesh is quick to add that it is meant to “stimulate discussions.”

I don’t understand the purpose of stimulating another discussion when the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has already accepted that glaciers are fast melting. Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if we learn subsequently that the paper was formally released to build up a case for river-linking. After all, billions of dollars are at stake and the lobby is still at work.

Nevertheless, the simple reason why there is no ‘conclusive evidence’ to show that the Himalayan glaciers are melting is because India had repeatedly turned down requests from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), for an exhaustive study of the Himalayan glaciers.

The Indian government, which treats glacier studies only for defence purposes, did not see any major threat from the melting of glaciers and the formation of the newly created lakes.
Perhaps India is waiting for another disaster to strike before it acknowledges the threat. Jairam Ramesh should realise that deflecting attention from the urgent need to do something more meaningful for protecting the Himalayan glaciers will be disastrous for the country’s environment and food security.

I draw your attention to a Himalayan disaster in waiting. This is based on a detailed report prepared by ICIMOD sometimes back.

It happened on Aug 4, 1985. Dig Tsho glacial lake, situated close to the Mt Everest region at a height of 4,365 metres above sea level, suddenly burst. Within the next four hours, estimates show that nearly 8 million cubic metres of water had drained from the lake. The torrent moved forward rather slowly down-valley as a huge ‘black’ mass of water full of debris. The surge waters from what is called as ‘Glacial Lake Outburst Floods’ (GLOF), completely destroyed whatever came its way.
Within the next few hours, the GLOF had completely destroyed civil structures of Namche (Thame) small hydel project (estimated cost of US $ 1.5 million), swept 14 bridges, long stretches of roads, trails, cultivated land and took a heavy toll of human and animal life.

Dig Tsho glacial lake was not the only one of its kind in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan mountain range that passes through Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bhutan. With the glaciers retreating in the face of accelerating global warming, the resulting melting of snow forms glacial lakes downstream.

While the total number of glaciers in the region is still unknown, ICIMOD had for the first time documented 3,252 glaciers in Nepal spread over 5,324 square km. More significantly, the number of glacial lakes has been computed at 2,323. Most of these, it is believed, have formed in the past 50 years or so.
ICIMOD had identified 20 glacial lakes to be potentially dangerous, including 17 that do not have any prior outburst history. These lakes are situated in very remote and higher reaches but the catastrophe that they cause can be devastating for the local communities and the country’s economy.

 Take the case of Tsho Rolpha glacial lake. Situated in the Rolwaling Valley in Dolakha district, the lake is only 110 km by a crow’s flight from the Capital city of Kathmandu. With the lake volume rising every year, the area increasing from 0.23 sq km in 1959 to 1.55 sq km in 1990, and the subsequent weakening of the damming moraines that hold the water, researchers term it as ‘potentially dangerous.’
Not only in the Himalayas, glaciers are receding at a fast pace the world over. East Africa’s Mount Kilmanjaro is expected not to have any snow cap by the year 2015, its snow cover having shrunk at an alarming 82 per cent between 1912 and 2000. The Alpine glaciers have reduced by 40 per cent in area and more than 50 per cent in volume since 1850. Since 1963, the Peruvian glaciers have retreated at the rate of over 155 metres a year.

 The Himalayan glaciers, however, are considered to be extremely sensitive to climate change as these accumulate snow during monsoon and shed it in summers. Other high-altitude glaciers on the other hand accumulate snow during winters and cast it off in summers.

The UNEP estimates that the bursting of glacial lakes is likely to become a major problem globally, especially in countries of South America, India and China. International pressure therefore has to be on both the giants to allow for scientific explorations and suitable remedial solutions to be put in place before the ‘inner line of control’ goes out of control.

Nothing better illustrates the urgency with which a massive global programme to save the mountains from an impending apocalypse. The mountain areas are already reeling under abject poverty and the accompanying destruction of the fragile habitat. Ignoring the serious and real threat of climate change will surely be still more catastrophic.

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