The voluminous 627-page report titled Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Climate Change, Sustainability and People put together by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) states that even in the best-case scenario, the Himalayan mountains will lose more than one-third of their ice by the end of the century. An earlier report was even scarier, it said the Mt Everest region would lose 90% of its ice by 2100.
But that would happen only if global average temperatures can be capped at a 1.5oC increase above pre-industrial levels. Most scientists agree that target is unlikely to be met. If current emission trends continue, the world will actually be hotter by between 4.2-6.5oC by 2100 – in which case two-thirds of Himalayan glaciers will be gone.
Himalayan peaks are warming between 0.3 to 0.7oC faster than the global average, and the loss of Himalayan ice would have devastating consequences for 1.6 billion people living in the mountains and downstream countries. Climate models show that summer flow in the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra and their snow-fed tributaries will actually rise till 2050 as the glaciers melt away, but will start decreasing after that because there will be no more ice left. Measurements show that glaciers in the Central and Eastern Himalaya are shrinking at 40cm/year, and some are receding up to 30m/year.
After the controversy surrounding a 2007 report by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) that predicted all Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035, scientists have been much more careful in making similarly wild predictions. Which is why ICIMOD deployed 210 scientists from 20 countries in this five-year study to assess the latest knowledge from peer-reviewed journal findings.
The new assessment is only slightly less alarming. Although the timeframe has been pushed back to the end of the century there is still very little time to fix the problem even if global carbon emissions are cut in the coming decades. So, we know what the problem is and we know the solution. What are we going to do about it?
ICIMOD Director David Molden has anticipated that question. He said at the report’s launch in Kathmandu on Monday: “This is not just going to be another book on the shelf. We hope to spark policy dialogue by putting climate action on the political agenda by putting the state of the knowledge in one place.”
The assessment is a unique scientific partnership between ICIMOD’s member countries, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, China, India and Nepal. The Centre is now spearheading an effort to set up a Himalayan Council, much like the Arctic Council which is working on the north polar region.
The concerns of the world’s mountain regions and the amplified impact of global warming on the world’s mountains were mentioned only tangentially in the last two IPCC report. This assessment, in which IPCC scientists also took part, is expected to put the Himalayan region firmly on the global agenda as well.
The hydro-meteorological impact of climate change will go beyond countries like Nepal or Bhutan. Heavily populated and rapidly developing downstream areas of China, Southeast Asia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh will face severe water crisis. And then there is the indirect impact of the warming on weather and monsoons, as simulations show increased frequency of droughts and floods.
Himalayan countries have always struggled against poverty, marginalisation, state neglect, inequality, discrimination, out-migration, and these problem predate climate change. What global warming does is make all the existing structural problems worse.
For example, the assessment shows that half the children living in Himalayan villages are undernourished. Nepal’s national poverty rate is 23%, but 42% of the country’s mountain dwellers are poor. Because they have fewer choices, the poorest are already beginning to suffer from erratic weather and other impacts of climate change, adding to the push-factors in outmigration.
The report also lays out policy options for countries in the Himalaya, which include increased cross border cooperation among them to battle common threats. One concrete step would be China, Nepal and India cooperating on disaster early warning on future Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs). The report also calls for added investment in meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal targets which would build resilience among mountain peoples by giving them more options to adapt.
Two of ICIMOD’s member countries, China and India, are both suffering the impact of climate change along their common mountain frontier. Together, the two giants are the biggest emitters of greenhouses gases in the world. It no longer makes sense now to talk only about adapting to climate change, Himalayan countries need to also start mitigating their carbon emissions and switching to renewables.
They need to do this not just to save the Planet, but to also save their fossil-fuel dependent economies and diversifying their energy mix towards renewables.