[permaculture] The Tragedy of the Himalayas By BRYAN WALSH/Times dec 14/water

Wesley Roe and Santa Barbara Permaculture Network lakinroe at silcom.com
Wed Dec 9 10:21:12 EST 2009

The Tragedy of the Himalayas
By BRYAN WALSH / LEH Friday, Dec. 04, 2009

The Indian town of Leh (altitude 11,500 ft.) receives almost no 
precipitation and depends on Himalayan glaciers to supply most of its 

The road to Khardung La begins in the Indian town of Leh on the 
northwestern fringe of the Himalayas. Exhaust-spewing army trucks 
rattle up the side of dry rock, past Buddhist monasteries clinging to 
the craggy mountainside and alongside small farms barely scraping 
fertility from the earth. Khardung La, the highest motorable mountain 
pass in the world, is more than 18,000 ft. above sea level, the air 
so thin that just standing there a few minutes leaves you feeling as 
if your head might lift off like a balloon. But if 65-year-old Syed 
Iqbal Hasnain is bothered by the altitude, he isn't showing it. The 
Indian glaciologist hops lightly from a car and walks to the edge of 
the pass, beneath fluttering Buddhist prayer flags. The rock is 
dusted with early winter snow, and there might not be much more this 
season or next, he says.
Reports from Leh indicate that precipitation has dropped during the 
past quarter-century as temperatures have risen, a possible 
consequence of climate change. But the real threat is to the heart of 
the greater Himalayas and the vast Tibetan Plateau, where more than 
40,000 sq. mi. of glaciers hold water in the largest collection of 
land ice outside the polar regions. "These glaciers are central to 
the region," says Hasnain, looking over Khardung La. "If we don't 
have snow and ice here, people will die."
(See pictures of Himalayan glaciers under threat.)
Scientists call it the third pole - but when it comes to clear and 
present threats from climate change, it may rank first. The 
high-altitude glaciers of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau - 
which cover parts of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and China - are 
the water tower of Asia. When the ice thaws and the snow melts every 
spring, the glaciers birth the great rivers of the region, the 
mightiest river system in the world: the Ganges, the Indus, the 
Brahmaputra, the Mekong, the Yellow, the Yangtze. Together, these 
rivers give material and spiritual sustenance to 3 billion people, 
nearly half of the world's population - and all are nursed by 
Himalayan ice. Monsoons come and go, filling the rivers at times and 
then leaving them lethargic, but the ice melt has always been regular 
and dependable in a region where water - or the lack of it - defines 
civilization. "This isn't like the polar ice caps," says Shubash 
Lohani, an officer with the Nepal program of the World Wildlife Fund 
(WWF). "You have a huge population downstream from the Himalayas who 
are dependent on it."
(Watch TIME's video "Creating New Land for Climate Refugees in Bangladesh.")
It's a population that is stressed for water, even if the ice doesn't 
disappear. According to the International Water Management Institute 
(IWMI), most of South Asia is already in a state of water scarcity, 
as is much of China. At the same time, the population in this part of 
the world is set to expand, even as economic growth increases 
competition for water used in agriculture and industry.

Regardless of the impact of climate change, there is a widening gap 
between water supplies and needs. In fact, a new report from the 
international consulting group McKinsey & Co. estimates that by 2030, 
India alone will have only 50% of the water that it needs under a 
business-as-usual scenario. Nor is Asia the only region that will 
grapple with water scarcity in a warmer world: the McKinsey report 
estimates that the globe will have 40% less water than it needs by 
2030 if nothing is done to change current consumption patterns. "The 
countries where water is already scarce are going to be the ones 
really vulnerable to climate change," says Colin Chartres, director 
general of the IWMI.

That makes the security of the Himalayan glaciers all the more 
important for the region and their potential loss all the more 
threatening. While it's difficult to get a comprehensive assessment 
of the tens of thousands of glaciers in the Himalayas - all above 
10,000 ft. - independent scientific studies indicate that the third 
pole is melting fast, probably because of warming temperatures 
brought on by climate change. Since 1960, almost a fifth of the 
Indian Himalayas' ice coverage has disappeared, and the 2007 
global-warming assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate 
Change judged that glaciers in the Himalayas were "receding faster 
than at any other place in the world." If global warming goes 
unchecked, the Himalayan melt will certainly get worse. This year 
Chinese researchers projected a 43% decrease in glaciated area by 
2070. If that happens, the impact could be catastrophic. Losing 
Himalayan meltwater would only stress the remaining resources 
further. High-mountain states like Nepal and Bhutan could suffer 
flash floods as glacial lakes gave way under the rush of accelerated 
melting. And since the rivers of the Himalayas are shared by nuclear 
powers that have engaged in violent conflict over the past 
half-century - India, Pakistan and China - the threat of a war over 
water can't be denied. "The warming of the past 20 years is getting 
more and more intense," says Yao Tandong, head of China's Institute 
of Tibetan Plateau Research. "If warming continues, [the impact] will 
be even more serious."

Whether the warming will continue is largely up to us. Next week, 
representatives from more than 190 nations will meet in Copenhagen, 
where they will work to hammer out a new, more equitable - and more 
effective - global climate deal. Expectations for the summit have 
been tamped down in recent weeks, in part because of sluggishness on 
the part of the U.S. Senate, which has yet to act on a bill that 
would cap and reduce the country's carbon emissions. There is some 
good news: President Obama will be in Copenhagen, and the U.S. is 
pledging to cut carbon emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, while 
China is promising to improve its energy efficiency. But now is the 
time to make the hard decisions that will set the world on a cleaner 
path, one that gives us a chance to avoid truly dangerous climate 
change. The potential loss of Himalayan ice is by no means the only 
threat from global warming, but it's one that can be seen in real 
time, with our own eyes. It can be hard to imagine the amount of 
energy it takes to melt a mountain glacier; it will take even more 
imagination to stop the melting. "We must have a global policy to 
reverse this trend," says Madhav Kumar Nepal, the Prime Minister of 
Nepal, whose impoverished country will be an early victim of warming. 
"This question is one of survival."

Scenes from a Warmer World
There's a saying about Leh that "the passes are so high and the land 
is so barren, only a dear friend or a serious enemy will reach here." 
That truth overlooks the stark beauty of this town of 27,000 in 
India's mountainous Ladakh region, but it accurately captures the 
harsh climate. At 10,000 ft. and surrounded by even higher mountains, 
Leh is in a cold desert, receiving less than 5 in. of precipitation a 
year. Young Buddhist monks in training carry tanks of water to the 
towering monasteries poised in cut-rock valleys. The region is 
permanently water-stressed, and the growth of tourism there has only 
stretched resources thinner. Without snowmelt from the mountains 
above and the Indus River, which flows south of the town, it's 
difficult to imagine anything living there at all. "Leh has always 
been dependent on the glacier for our livelihood," says Nisa Khatoon, 
who runs the WWF office in Leh. "When there is less snowfall, less 
ice, there is a water problem for Leh."

That's exactly what seems to be happening in Leh, whose people, along 
with those in other high-altitude regions of the Himalayas, are the 
first in the world to feel the impacts of ice loss. According to a 
study by the French environmental group GERES, average winter 
temperatures in the region have risen 1C, and snowfall has generally 
declined over the past 25 years. Although relatively little 
scientific study has been done on the cumulative effect of that 
warming on the ice and snowpack in the region - a problem that crops 
up repeatedly in research on the Himalayas, where sheer 
inaccessibility makes science expensive and dangerous - elders in the 
region say the ice they remember from childhood is long gone, having 
receded up the mountains, and water isn't as plentiful as it once was.

The community has been forced to adapt in unexpected ways. Chewang 
Norphel, a 74-year-old engineer who has lived in the region his 
entire life, has been building what he terms artificial glaciers, 
stone cisterns that can gather and store what meltwater exists. 
Because he keeps his "glaciers" in the shade - and because they're 
small, less than 30,000 sq. ft. - the water stays frozen after the 
winter and can be tapped in the spring to irrigate the farming 
villages that surround Leh. His invention is a way to compensate for 
the area's fluctuating water levels, but it's no replacement for 
glacial ice, which locals say is vanishing. "I have seen glaciers 
disappear in my own life," says Norphel. "I don't need the scientific 
data. I am the scientific data."
The ice loss is visible elsewhere too, including on the world's 
tallest mountain, in neighboring Nepal. The famous Khumbu glacier, 
near the end of the trail to the base camp for Mount Everest, has 
receded 5 km since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary first ascended 
the peak in 1953. Sherpas who guide climbers up the mountain today 
say the trekking has gotten more treacherous and the trail harder to 
predict as warming has stolen the ice. More dangerous are the risks 
of bursting glacial lakes and flash flooding because of glaciers 
weakened by warming. The early stages of Himalayan melt will result 
in an increase of water flow and pressure within glaciers; when 
glaciers give way, releasing hundreds of thousands of gallons of 
water per second, entire villages could be wiped out in an instant, 
as happened at the glacial lake of Dig Tsho in 1985. "This threat is 
not theoretical for us," says Dawa Sherpa, a veteran Everest trekking 
guide. "This is real, and it will happen more and more. We don't see 
a very bright future."

In Nepal it's easy to gauge the threat of warming, where the 
vanishing glaciers can be seen with one's own eyes. But downstream, 
in the farmland and cities of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China, 
the consequences are both more dire and less evident. According to 
the estimate of an Indian researcher, melt from the glaciers of the 
Himalayas supplies the rivers of Asia with more than 300 million cu. 
ft. of water every year - as much as 50% of the water flow of some 
major rivers (like the Indus, which irrigates India and Pakistan), 
according to the International Center for Integrated Mountain 
Development, an advocacy group based in Kathmandu, Nepal. Although 
more-rapid melting from warming would increase that water flow in the 
short term, potentially aiding agriculture, it would be like making 
ever larger withdrawals out of a limited bank account: eventually it 
will run dry. Given how fickle the monsoon can be - and the 
additional risk of climate change weakening those vital rains - the 
water tower of the Himalayas becomes all the more important. "It is 
the ice melt from these glaciers that sustains irrigation," says 
Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute. "The melting 
of these glaciers is the most massive threat to food security that we 
have ever projected."

It is also a threat to global security. In developing nations such as 
China and India, growing prosperity means ever greater demand for - 
and potential battles over - water. For countries that have long 
grappled with famine, that's a frightening possibility and one that 
could trigger international conflict. The rivers of the Himalayas 
crisscross international borders, while the mountains are shared by 
several nations. Already China has come under fire from its neighbors 
for damming rivers that eventually flow into other nations. And while 
security experts point out that cross-border conflict over water has 
been relatively rare - even India and Pakistan have so far managed to 
share the Indus - water scarcity has frequently led to internal civil 
conflict. In a water-stressed region with nuclear capabilities, it 
could be disastrous to let the most valuable commodity become rarer 
still. "Climate change is a real specter that we don't fully 
understand yet," says the IWMI's Chartres. "The impacts already seem 
to be stronger than we expected, and we could have real difficulties 
in the developing world."

The Search for Science
The trouble is that while melting glaciers remain a leading indicator 
of climate change, determining exactly how quickly they're melting 
has been difficult, especially in the remote Himalayas. Data on the 
ground remain thin, and records may go back only a few decades or are 
all but nonexistent in the case of many glaciers. Nor does it help 
that the nations that share the Himalayas do so jealously. India does 
not allow Chinese researchers to visit its glaciers, China is 
sensitive because of concerns over Tibet, and India and Pakistan 
cooperate little on science or almost anything else.

There is, unsurprisingly, active scientific disagreement about the 
impact of climate change on the glaciers. An Indian-government-backed 
report published in October claimed that many Indian glaciers are 
stable or that the rate of retreat has slowed in recent years, 
despite clear warming. Critics pointed out that the report was not 
peer-reviewed in a scientific journal and had major data gaps. But 
the lack of clarity makes it that much more difficult for 
policymakers to craft the right response. "The Himalayan data just 
isn't there," says Richard Armstrong, a senior research scientist at 
the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., who is 
skeptical that the glaciers are receding rapidly. "These glaciers are 
at a very high altitude, and what precipitation they get tends to 
fall as snow, which can add to their mass. There's a tendency to 

What's needed is cold, hard data in a cold, hard place. That's what 
Syed Iqbal Hasnain is after. A senior fellow at the Energy and 
Resources Institute in New Delhi, he began his career as a 
hydrologist before switching to the more demanding field of 
glaciology. For years he and a small band of students have climbed 
Himalayan glaciers, like the East Rathong, measuring them and 
tracking their changes. It's hard and expensive work - "not something 
Indian youth prefer as a profession," he says with a chuckle - but 
he's managed to add to the small body of scientific literature on 
Himalayan ice. Now he's embarking on a joint project with the eminent 
climatologist V. Ramanathan of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography 
and Eric Wilcox, an atmospheric scientist at NASA, to determine 
exactly how quickly some benchmark glaciers in the Indian Himalayas 
are melting. Hasnain's team will do the fieldwork, driving stakes 
with global-positioning-system capability into glaciers to let the 
researchers know year by year how the ice is changing. NASA will be 
able to augment that research with satellite data. The team will also 
test Ramanathan's hypothesis that black carbon - the heavy black soot 
from diesel combustion and wood-burning that pollutes local air - 
could play a large part in the melting of the Himalayas in addition 
to more traditional greenhouse gases. "Putting all this together, we 
can begin to get a reasonable estimate of the regional melt," says

An Agenda for Copenhagen
For Hasnain, who has devoted his career to studying the dynamics of 
Himalayan ice, establishing a firm benchmark will help clear up the 
uncertainty that still clouds the subject. But he has little doubt 
that the glaciers are melting fast, and he knows saving them will be 
vital for India, as well as the rest of Asia and the world. That will 
mean reducing carbon emissions. "The debate is over," he says. "We 
know the science. We see the threat. The time for action is now."

The place for action will be Copenhagen, the Danish capital, where 
diplomats from will meet from Dec. 7 to Dec. 18 to discuss a new 
global climate treaty. With the Kyoto Protocol - a flawed deal that 
the U.S. repudiated and places few demands on major developing 
nations - set to expire in 2012, time is running out to approve a 
more effective and equitable agreement, one that could put the world 
on the path to a safer future in which water will be more plentiful 
and damaging storms and other natural disasters less frequent. Global 
CO2 emissions rose 31% from 1997 to 2008, and emissions from China 
alone, now the world's biggest emitter, have more than doubled. 
Instead of leveling off, as many skeptics have argued, the observed 
effects of climate change, including glacial melt and species loss, 
have largely accelerated since 1997. "Global warming hasn't paused or 
declined or reversed," says Eric Steig, a climatologist at the 
University of Washington and a co-author of a just-released climate 
science update. "There is the possibility that the climate system 
could continue to warm to the highest end of the envelope of climate 

But turning back the momentum of climate change will be a momentous 
undertaking. A 2008 study by Ramanathan concluded that even if we 
halt the growth of greenhouse gas emissions immediately, we're 
committed to 4.3F of warming over the next several decades. While the 
global community, including the G-8 in a statement last year, has 
agreed not to allow the global temperature to rise more than 3.6F 
above preindustrial levels, we're already at 1.37F.

The longer we wait to change, the more carbon we add to the 
atmosphere and the greater the chance that we'll be locking ourselves 
into truly catastrophic warming. At Copenhagen and beyond, the 
mission to halt climate change must be led by the U.S. - though the 
major developing nations that will be responsible for most of the 
world's carbon emissions must follow closely. "This isn't an 
environmental problem. It's a humanitarian problem global in scope," 
says Frances Beinecke, president of the environmental-advocacy group 
Natural Resources Defense Council. "The longer we wait to act, the 
more expensive those changes will be."

If that's not enough, there are any number of other reasons to cut 
carbon: to create clean-energy jobs, to break our dependence on 
foreign oil, to cut pollution, to save money through energy 
efficiency. But ultimately we need to act because if we fail to do 
so, the science tells us that we are committing ourselves to an 
unstable and dangerous world in which geographic, economic and 
national security - not to mention the health of all earth's species 
- may be at stake. There are glimpses of that different world in the 
Himalayas, where warming has happened faster than elsewhere on the 
planet, where a mountain as immutable as Everest is changing before 
our eyes. "To me, continuing down our path is akin to committing 
suicide," says Ramanathan. "But for my granddaughter, I'm optimistic 
that we're going to solve these problems." If we don't act today, we 
will fail to safeguard tomorrow for everyone's children.

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