Tuesday, 23 July, 2024

Climate Change In Himalayan Region

Kushal Pokharel


The Hind Kush Himalayas have remained a prime source of 10 major river basins providing residence to an estimated 1.9 billion people with a range of ecosystem services- water, food, energy among others. However, a latest ICIMOD report states that the Hind Kush Himalayan region is likely to lose one-third of the total volume of glaciers if global warming can’t be maintained below 1.5 degree Celsius. Glaciers have thinned, retreated, and lost mass since the 1970s, barring some parts of the Karakoram, eastern Pamir, and western Kun-lun. Amid this scenario, it is projected that mass loss will continue in most regions, with possibly large consequences for the timing and magnitude of glacier melt runoff and glacier lake expansion. Glacier volumes are projected to decline by up to 90 per cent through the 21st century in response to decreased snowfall, increased snowline elevations, and longer melt seasons. Consequently, around 240 million people who depend on water from snow and ice melt will have an immediate impact, the report warns.
The Himalayas and mountains of South Asia particularly in Nepal, India and Bhutan share one of the world’s greatest freshwater resources- water from the snows of Himalayas and the monsoon which the mountain creates. Seventy per cent of the world’s freshwater is frozen in glaciers. While the estimates on the total number of glaciers in the Himalayas varies, inventories by various institutions suggest that there are well over 5,000-6,500 glaciers in the Himalayas and above 3000 glaciers in Nepal.
South Asia (SA) is recognised as a highly vulnerable region to climate change. Considered as one of the most ecologically diverse sub-regions, SA expands from the Indian Ocean in the south to the Himalayas in the north. With a significant variation in rainfall, temperature, altitude and soil conditions, SA is witnessing varied pattern of human interventions resulting in an extremely diverse and complex landscape. While some portions of the region get an annual average precipitations as little as 100 mm, there are few regions that receive as much as 5000 mm. Ranging from the tropical rain forests in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to alpine meadows in the Himalayas in Bhutan, Nepal, India and Pakistan, the impact of climate change is growing.
SA is witnessing an increasing population and by 2020 it is expected to grow by 1.82 billion . Despite the fact that the region is in the direction of achieving high economic growth, inequality is growing, resulting in persistent poverty. Rapid industrial expansion owing to population pressure have adversely affected the natural resource base and resulted in major changes in the land use patterns. Having said that, a greater spatial diversity among the drivers of climate change can be observed pertaining to particular mountain ecosystems or trans-boundary landscapes. Even though several studies have been carried out in this region over the last few decades, an inherent problem exist in terms of disseminating knowledge gathered which has largely remained scattered often failing to reach the wider audience be it in government, private or community sector.
Studies suggest that extreme weather events continue to threaten the existence of humanity in SA owing to climate change. The growing emergence of floods and cyclones in low-lying Bangladesh and Maldives is projected to spread in Dhaka, Karachi, Kolkata and Mumbai in the future. Particularly the South Asian megacities- Chennai, Karachi, Dhaka, Mumbai and Kolkata are vulnerable to extreme shocks such as coastal flooding and storm surges in addition to rising sea-levels. There is an evidence of rapid climate changes in elevated areas further implicating the hydrology, ecological conditions and socio-economic settings. While challenges loom large in the form of environmental degradation, rapid urbanisation including loss of traditional culture, opportunities in terms of improved connectivity- transportation and communication in addition to market exchanges and networks are emerging.
An uneven pattern of increment in average annual temperatures across South Asia has been observed of late. While Western Afghanistan and south-western Pakistan have experienced highest increment with average temperatures rising by 2 degree during the period of 1950-2010, southeastern India, western Srilanka and northern Pakistan have witnessed an increment of 1.25 degree Celsius in the same period.
Interestingly, the net positive effects of changes in average weather have been indicated in the context of Nepal and Afghanistan contrary to other South Asian countries. Occurrence of more rainfall is likely to boost the GDP of Nepal which is heavily reliant on monsoon agriculture. Furthermore, there is an increasing evidence of improved crop yields in the mountainous region of Nepal as a result of warming temperature. However, long term results will be adverse; so it is urgent to take climate action before the problem elevates to a tipping point.
Climate change has a profound impact on the living standard of the people. Such impacts range from agricultural and labour productivity to migration and health. An inversely proportional relationship between the Gross Domestic Product and rising temperatures has been suggested.
It has thus become urgent to develop working strategies to deal with these alarming impacts of climate change in the Himalayas. The strategies should be for short term, mid-term and long term.

(The author is a member of the Social Science Faculty at NIMS.)