Syed Iqbal Hasnain:Climate change and black carbon are causing the glaciers in the Hindu Kush-Karakorum, Himalaya, and Tibetan plateau to melt. Their waters feed the river systems throughout South Asia and Southeast Asia, and are essential for drinking water and for irrigating wheat, rice, and other crops throughout the region on which the local populations depend. These crops are also significant trading commodities for China, India, and other countries.
As those flows diminish, through attrition and through diversion into dams and upstream uses, the sustainability of populations downstream is at great risk. Thus the melting glaciers of Tibet and surrounding mountains present the ‘perfect storm’ of a highly complex and interconnected bio-social system on the brink of a breakdown with dire consequences for the region and the world.
Unchecked global warming via greenhouse gases and enhanced heating by black carbon aerosols threaten to substantially reduce the Himalayan glaciers that contribute 80 % flows in the upper Indus river system. What makes glacial melt is so critical, is the timing at which it occurs. Glacier melt predominantly drive flows during the dry spring and fall months, the so-called ‘shoulder months’ just before and after the monsoon rains. As much of glacier ice in Himalaya is close to phase change and it does not take much to move it from solid to liquid.
A USAID report of 2010 succinctly raises the dangers of glacier lake outburst floods(GLOF) caused by melting “Himalayan-Karakorum glaciers involving large impoundments by short-lived, unstable debris/ ice dams that block tributaries of Indus river system…..causing outburst floods’. The rapidly tipping mass of glaciers and unpredictability in the amount of runoff is causing great concern in water-dependent sectors, such as agriculture and power generation.
The Indus and Sutlej rivers originate in the ice fields of the western Tibetan plateau, an area experiencing exceptionally high warming 0.30C per decade above 4000 meters, twice the global average. The glacial retreat in Tibetan plateau is driven by warming due to the thickening of the global greenhouse blanket, but the rapidity of glacier retreat during the past 25 years suggests additional warming may be playing a critical role.
I was one of the contributing authors of a report published by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 2011 on ‘Integrated Assessment of Black Carbon and Tropospheric Ozone: Summary for Decision Makers’. This report mentions that Himalaya and Tibetan plateau are regions where black carbon is likely to have profound impacts on the ice fields and glacier melting. Reducing emissions by coal fired power plants, diesel trucks and bio-mass burning in the Indian sub-continent and China should reduce glacial melt and, consequently, the danger of glacial lake outbursts floods in these regions.
Another area of concern in south Asia is extremely limited water storage capacity in countries like Pakistan and India, for example, less than 250 cubic meters of water per capita compared to more than 5000 cubic meters per capita in countries like Australia and USA. The lack of water storage capacities leaves the already vulnerable populations at great risk of fluctuations in water flows and changes in monsoon patterns. Investments can be increased in natural and constructed to stave off water storages.
Upstream water supply is crucial to sustain reservoir systems, which are used to store and release water to downstream areas when most needed. Irrigation water for the Indus basin irrigation system in Pakistan, which is the largest irrigation network in the world, is, regulated through two major storage dams (Tarbela on Indus River and the Mangla on the Jhelum River). Both are located in the upper Indus basin and are predominantly fed by 80 % melt waters. Any change in upstream water supply will have a profound effect on millions of people downstream. A recent study shows a substantial variations and changes in future water supply. It is estimated that water supply in the upper Indus will drop more than 8.4 % by 2065.
Water has been a consistent flash point between India and Pakistan. As the downstream neighbor, Pakistan fears Indian withdrawals or diversions could choke off its water supply. On other hand in upstream, India worries that Pakistani concerns and demands on the Indus’ flow could curtail possibilities for developing the river for power projects. In both countries, the waters of the Indus have become matter of state and moved to the top of the policy agenda.
The Indus Water Treaty (IWT), which Pakistan and India signed in 1960, gave each country unfettered access to three rivers and limited rights to the other nations rivers,’ joint commission oversees the treaty, which has worked well over the years. For India, the hydro- projects are vital to harnessing Indus water to fill in serious energy shortfall that crimps its economy. About 40 % of India’s population is off the power grid, and lack of electricity has hampered industry. Both countries are confronting very serious water and power issues on Indus River.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Himalaya team
Started in year 2010, ‘Climate Himalaya’ initiative has been working on Mountains and Climate linked issues in the Himalayan region of South Asia. In the last five years this knowledge sharing portal has become one of the important references for the governments, research institutions, civil society groups and international agencies, those have work and interest in the Himalayas. The Climate Himalaya team innovates on knowledge sharing, capacity building and climatic adaptation aspects in its focus countries like Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Climate Himalaya’s thematic areas of work are mountain ecosystem, water, forest and livelihood. Read>>