View from the Himalayas | The ‘Third Pole’ is drying up - Hindustan Times

View from the Himalayas | The ‘Third Pole’ is drying up

Nov 02, 2023 09:00 AM IST

From the lap of Mount Everest, UN chief warns the Himalaya is caving in and the reduced water flows in the rivers will impact millions all over South Asia

From the lap of Mount Everest in Nepal, the visiting United Nations Secretary-General warned the world of the impending climate crisis and its effects on millions of lives and livelihoods all over South Asia.

Mount Everest, the world highest peak, and other peaks of the Himalayan range are seen through an aircraft window during a mountain flight from Kathmandu, Nepal (REUTERS/Monika Deupala//File Photo) PREMIUM
Mount Everest, the world highest peak, and other peaks of the Himalayan range are seen through an aircraft window during a mountain flight from Kathmandu, Nepal (REUTERS/Monika Deupala//File Photo)

“The rooftops of the world are caving in,” António Guterres made a televised address from Syangboche, at 3,780 metres, in the Everest region with the depleting level of snow in the Himalaya as the backdrop. “Glaciers are icy reservoirs,” he said. “The ones here in the Himalaya supply fresh water to well over a billion people. When they shrink, so does the flow.”

The Himalaya, also called The Third Pole, is the largest source of stored water after the polar regions. The glaciers in Nepal have melted 65% faster in the last decade than in the previous one; the country has lost almost a third of its ice volume in 30 years. Glaciers high in the Himalaya feed large river systems all over South Asia, home to over 1.8 billion people. Massively reduced water flows on the Himalayan rivers, such as the mighty Indus, the Ganges and Brahmaputra, have threatened crops, livestock and local economies of communities across the region. Low-lying countries and communities could be erased altogether.

There have been several studies on the melting glaciers in the remote Himalaya and the impact on human lives. But disasters continue to strike, and denser settlements and people living downstream in big cities, face the brunt of it. In early October, the Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) high up in South Lhonak Lake led to floods in the Teesta in Sikkim and incapacitated a 1,200MW hydroelectric plant, which powers cities downstream. More than 179 people died in the floods.

The climate reality check

On the Indian sub-continent temperatures are predicted to rise above an average between 3.5° C and 5.5° C by 2100, according to a study by Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an intergovernmental knowledge centre working on the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, which runs across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and India.

An ICIMOD study carried out in the Poiqu basin in Tibet in 2004 revealed that the glaciers area had decreased by over 5% within 12 years from 1988 to 2000 and some valley glaciers have retreated by up to 68m per year. Similarly, the position of the Gangotri Glacier snout in the Indian Himalaya has shifted about 2km upwards from 1780 to 2001.

In Bhutan, glacier retreat was approximately 8% in 66 glaciers that were studied from 1963 and a satellite image taken in 1993 while some small glaciers have disappeared completely. From 1962 to 2000, the retreat of the Imja glacier in the Everest region — not too far from where the UN Secretary-General travelled to earlier this week — is found to be one of the highest in the Himalaya.

The increased rate of glacier retreat results in rapid accumulation of water in lakes, which may lead to sudden breaches of their unstable moraine dams, as happened in Sikkim early this month.

The resultant discharges of huge amounts of water and debris — GLOF — often have catastrophic effects downstream. Another study conducted by ICIMOD in 2006 generated an important baseline information of approximately 15,000 glaciers, which cover a total area of 33,400 square km and include 9,000 glacial lakes, of which 200 are potentially dangerous glacial lakes in Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan and some selected basins from India and Tibetan region of China.

The study also revealed 21 GLOF events from the Hindu Kush Himalayan region. Records of past GLOF events illustrate that once in every three to 10 years, a GLOF has occurred in the region of Nepal, Bhutan and China causing varying degrees of socioeconomic impacts.

In the face of accelerating global warming, retreating and shrinking glaciers in the Himalaya are clear indicators of climate change. There are several predictions of glaciers melting that are accompanied by impacts on millions of people whose survival depends directly or indirectly on these freshwater reservoirs. In addition, the increase of lakes dammed by the moraine will augment the frequency of GLOF in the near future. It is difficult to speculate or to predict just how glaciers will retreat in the Himalaya, but now is the time for a rigorous attempt to monitor the glaciers' environment and to initiate mitigation measures for GLOFs, warns ICIMOD.

The impact

Just looking at the broad scenario: millions in South Asia depend on meltwater from the Himalayas. An international team of researchers led by Arthur Lutz, hydrologist at Utrecht University and lead author of a study published in Nature Climate Change determined how great the impact of melting glaciers will be on the downstream water supply in the future, and how the pressure on different water sources will increase. The new model of study incorporated changes in snowfall and glaciers in the high mountains, as well as changes in water use for downstream agricultural crops. Global warming causes glaciers to start melting earlier in the year, just when crops are being sown. While this is favourable for farming, the study suggested, there is less meltwater later in the year, when crops need it most.

Here’s a dire scenario of the climate crisis, as this study laid out. Climate change also makes rainfall more irregular, so farmers must pump more groundwater later in the year to compensate for a shortage of rain and meltwater, and as a result, the farmland needs to be expanded further to feed more people.

“I am here in the Himalaya where glaciers are melting at a record level,” said Guterres in a televised message from the Everest region. “Like in Greenland, like in Antarctica, sea levels are rising. And here we see floods. We see landslides. We see communities being dramatically impacted. We must stop this madness.”

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