Landmark report on Himalayan mountains raises dire climate change warnings

A new report on the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, which forms the origin of 10 major river basins and sustains the livelihood of 240 million people, warns that global warming will have detrimental effects on the timing and magnitude of streamflows and hence water supplies in the region. Prerna Bomzan elaborates.

A LANDMARK assessment report on the Hindu Kush Himalaya mountains released in February contains gravely alarming findings.

The report, entitled The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People, covers the eight countries in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan.

The assessment report is the first flagship publication of the Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme (HIMAP), an initiative coordinated by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a regional intergovernmental organisation of the eight HKH countries based in Kathmandu, Nepal.

According to the report, the HKH is regarded as 'a critically important geo-ecological asset' and forms the origin of 10 major river basins (Amu Darya, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Salween, Tarim, Yangtze, Yellow River). The region provides ecosystem services that directly sustain the livelihoods of 240 million people in the mountains and hills. Its resources directly and indirectly benefit almost 1.9 billion people living in the 10 river basins, with more than 3 billion people dependent on food produced in the river basins.

Significant warming

The report warns of significant warming in the region - greater than the global average - with a projected temperature change of 2.5 ± 1.5oC for the moderate scenario, and 5.5 ± 1.5oC for the more extreme scenario, by the end of the century.

It reveals that 'glacier volumes are projected to decline by up to 90% through the 21st century', and states that 'even if warming can be limited to the ambitious target of 1.5oC, volume losses of more than one-third are projected for extended HKH glaciers, with more than half of glacier ice lost in the eastern Himalaya'.

It states further that the observed and projected changes in the cryosphere (snow, ice and permafrost) - a key freshwater resource - will have detrimental effect on the timing and magnitude of streamflows and hence water supply in the region. The massive decline in glacier volumes is a result of decreased snowfall, increased snowline elevations and longer melt seasons.

'More than half the basins in the extended HKH are expected to have reduced glacier melt contributions by 2100,' which would mean a direct bearing on both the ecology and economy of the region as 'industry, agriculture and hydroelectric power generation rely on timely and sufficient delivery of water in major river systems', says the report.

The impacts of climate change are recognised in the majority of the key findings, such as increased biodiversity loss, food and nutrition insecurity, rural-to-urban migration, and vulnerability of mountain livelihoods and, ultimately, of mountain sustainability in the HKH region.

The report reveals that 'changes in the cryospheric system may also pose challenges for disaster risk reduction in the extended HKH region', given the projected higher risk of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). Of 8,790 glacial lakes covering a total of 801.83 sq km in the HKH, 203 lakes are potentially dangerous in terms of posing a future GLOF threat.

With regard to the estimated cost of adaptation to climate change, the assessment says the region would require $3.2 billion to $4.6 billion per year by 2030, increasing to $5.5 billion to $7.8 billion per year by 2050.

The extended HKH region defined by the comprehensive study covers the Hindu Kush-Karakoram-Himalaya-Tibetan Plateau-Pamir mountains as well as the Tien Shan ranges. The region is the largest area of permanent ice cover outside of the North and South Poles and is thus often referred to as the 'Third Pole'. It is home to four global biodiversity hotspots, 330 important bird areas and hundreds of mountain peaks over 6,000 m.

The per capita fossil fuel CO2 emission from the HKH is one-sixth of the global average, but the region 'immensely suffers from the impact of climate change', underlines the report.

'The HKH is sensitive to climate change - air pollutants originating within and near the HKH amplify the effects of greenhouse gases and accelerate the melting of the cryosphere through deposition of black carbon and dust, the circulation of the monsoon, and the distribution of rainfall over Asia.'

Important knowledge source

The assessment report aims to: (i) establish the global significance of the HKH; (ii) reduce scientific uncertainty on various mountain issues; (iii) lay out practical and up-to-date solutions and offer new insights for development of this region; (iv) value and conserve existing ecosystems, cultures, societies, knowledge and distinctive HKH solutions that are important to the rest of the world; (v) address contemporary policy questions; and (vi) influence policy processes with robust evidence for sustainable mountain development.

'Global assessments and programmes like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) can now benefit from an important knowledge source about this region,' writes ICIMOD Director General David Molden in the report's foreword.

The report states: 'In spite of the vast expanse of mountains and their importance in the world, as a unique and exclusive land form, they have been largely ignored within better known environmental assessments such as the IPCC and Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. In those assessments, mountains are not examined in detail: scientific knowledge is scattered and traditional indigenous knowledge systems are mostly absent. This assessment intends to fill these gaps and provide information for improved decision making in and for the HKH.'

The assessment, which 'focuses on various drivers of change all of which are influenced by impacts of climate change', states that 'mountain people and ecosystems tend to experience change more rapidly and with greater intensity. Mountain regions are no longer isolated from globalisation. The HKH's biodiverse resources, rich indigenous knowledge systems, and enormous reservoirs of water provide vibrancy to the region and beyond. Understanding how these features may change over time is extremely important.'

The report comprises 16 chapters that consider status, trends and scenarios on environmental, economic and social systems of the HKH region, and comes up with recommendations that build into key policy messages.

More than 300 researchers, practitioners, experts and policy makers were engaged for this assessment.

The report is available at           

*Third World Resurgence No. 335/336, 2018, pp 40-41