Global warming is affecting the Himalayan “water towers”
The good news is that the 1999 forecast by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035 was wrong and based on inaccurate and untested speculation.
The bad news is that there’s a lot more to the story than that.
According to a study entitled “”Climate Change Will Affect the Asian Water Towers” published in last week’s edition of Science, global warming may nevertheless reduce the flow of melted glacier ice to the Brahmaputra and Indus rivers by 2050, threatening the delicate supply of water for irrigation and drinking in that densely populated region geopolitical region.
And that’s only part of the bad news. The report, prepared by three Dutch scientists (Walter Immerzeel, Ludovicus P. H. van Beek, and Marc F. P. Bierkens) warns that:
The Brahmaputra and Indus basins are most susceptible to reductions of flow, threatening the food security of an estimated 60 million people.
For those behind on their South Asian geography the really bad news is that the Indus river flows between the perennially conflicted nation-states of India and Pakistan. The two countries have not shied away from military confrontation–to the point of nuclear brinkmanship–in their border disputes over “hot-button” issues like the sharing of water that is sourced in the glaciers of the Himalayas.
Post-Glacier-gate euphoria may be shortlived
Many who still refuse to accept the global warming prognosis heaved a sigh of relief when the IPPC’s dire forecast of the disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers was discredited in January 2010.
But that debunking was merely an admission by one of the Nepalese scientists credited with the 2035 prediction that it was based not upon peer-reviewed scientific research but his own speculation.
Unfortunately, the truth was lost amid the chest-thumping and high-fiving that ensued on the part of the climate change gainsayers, some of whom deemed this a “scandal”(calling it, what else? “glacier-gate”) on par with the so-called “climate-gate” revelations of alleged fudging of IPCC historical temperature data at East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit.
So eagerly were the dissidents lined up to put the final nails in the coffin of “alarmist” global warming predictions that they ignored the bigger picture concerning the not so distant future of the so-called “water towers of Asia”.
That may explain why recent coverage of the release of the new Dutch report begins with a disclaimer that the IPCC got it wrong back in 1999 and then downplays or ignores its more ominous findings and implications.
Melting of glaciers threatens food security of 60 million people
The team of Dutch scientists who prepared the study–Walter Immerzeel, Ludovicus van Beek, and Marc Bierkens–confirm that melted ice from Himalayan glaciers is “extremely important in the Indus basin” and “important for the Brahmanputra basin” populations and that those two river basins “are most susceptible to reductions of flow, threatening the food security of an estimated 60 million people.”
Using satellite imaging, the team charted the glacial melting in five separate river basins fed by melting Himalayan glaciers: the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers. They studied three components of these sources: (i) the current importance of meltwater in overall river basin hydrology; (ii) observed cryospheric changes; and (iii) the effects of climate change on the water supply from the upstream basins and on food security.
Using a “hydrological modeling approach that incorporates uncertainty about the cryospheric response by employing a scenario analysis,” the team “made projections of future upstream discharge” based upon simulations of current rates of glacial discharge. The modeling approach assessed “future water availability from the upstream basins…… forced…with outputs from five general circulation models…over the period 2046 to 2065.
The study also modeled “two different scenarios of future glacier size…a best guess based on glacier mass-balance calculations assuming trends in degree days and snowfall between current time and 2050…and…an extreme (and unlikely) scenario with total disappearance of all glaciers to serve as a reference.”
“Consistent and Considerable Reduction” in Glacial Discharges Between 2046 and 2065
The report confirms that “upstream water supply” is essential to the maintence of irrigation water supplies for the Indus Basin irrigation systems which are “regulated through two major storage dams (Tarbela dam on the Indus River and the Mangla dam on theJhelum River)…[b]oth…located in the upper Indus basin and are fed predominantly by meltwater.”
As the study points out, “any change in upstream watersupply to these dams will have a profound effect on millions of people downstream. Our results show a substantial variation in changes in future water supply.”
Still, the scientists who wrote the report are careful to single out the IPCC’s 1999 predictions of catastrophic glacial melting in the Himalayas, stating: that “we conclude that although considerable cryospheric changes are to be expected, their impact will be less than anticipated by, for example, the 4AR of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)…[which]…suggested that the current trends of glacier melt and potential climate change may cause the Ganges, Indus,Brahmaputra, and other rivers to become seasonal rivers in the near future.”
The Dutch researchers “argue that these rivers already are seasonal rivers, because the melt and rain seasons generally coincide and a decrease in meltwater is partially compensated for by an increase in precipitation.” In the case of the Yellow river basin, they also suggest that any decrease in glacial melting is more than favourably offset by increases in rainfall so that the impact of global warming in that instance may be “positive” to that extent.
However, it is the critical region encompassing the Indus and Brahmaputra river basins which they expect to experience consistent and considerable reduction in late spring and summer glacial discharges between 2046 and 2065. The authors conclude:
These anticipated changes will also have considerable effects on food security. By relating changes in upstream water availability to net irrigation requirements, observed crop yields, caloric values of the crops, and required human energy consumption, one can estimate the change in the number of people that can be fed . The results (based on a best guess of 2050 glacier area) show a sizable difference between the five basins. Estimates range from a decrease of –34.5 ± 6.5 million people that can be fed in the Brahmaputra basin to –26.3 ± 3.0 million in the Indus basin, –7.1 ± 1.3 million in the Yangtze basin, and –2.4 ± 0.2 million in the Ganges basin, and an increase of 3.0 ± 0.6 million in the Yellow River basin. In total, we estimate that the food security of 4.5% of the total population will be threatened as a result of reduced water availability…Clearly, upstream discharge and downstream food security of the Indus and Brahmaputra basins are the most sensitive to climate change. We conclude that Asia’s water towers are threatened by climate change, but that the effects of climate change on water availability and food security in Asia differ substantially among basins and cannot be generalized. The effects in the Indus and Brahmaputra basins are likely to be severe owing to the large population and the high dependence on irrigated agriculture and meltwater.
No end in sight to Indo-Pakistani political and military tensions
If the half-last century of Indo-Pakistani relations are any indicator, it will be next to impossible for the two countries to bury the hatchet on this joint crisis.
At least one Indian strategic expert, Subrahmanyam Sridhar, observed in a 2005 research monography that “recent stresses and strains in the observance of the Indus Water Treaty have had many analysts including this author believe that water sharing will take a politically charged dynamic and may even replace Kashmir as the primary source of conflict between India and Pakistan.”
According to Sridhar, following the world water summit held in Kyoto, Japan in March 2003, there were “simultaneous messages of hope and distress regarding the availability of water to meet surging worldwide demand in the coming decades” which were “especially serious in the Indian subcontinent, a region that is home to one-fourth of humanity and to three of the mightiest rivers of the world: the Indus , Ganges and Brahmaputra…”
Noting that these critical water sources are governed by four major bipartite treaties including the 1960 Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan , Sridhar suggested that the historical conflicts between India and Pakistan dating back to the war and partition in 1947, and in continuing mediation attempts by the U.S. government and the World Bank provided impermanent solutions to the conflict:.
In September 1960, following the intervention of an international consortium. a treaty was concluded between India and Pakistan governing the Indus irrigation system. The ensuing Indus Basin Project saw the construction of two large dams, five barrages, one siphon and seven canals to transfer water between the hostile states.
Today, the Indus river system accounts for just under two-thirds of irrigation water flowing to the parched terrain of Pakistan. But political tensions continue to erupt over the precarious water sharing arrangements.
Now global climate change is exerting even further pressures on that fragile compromise. As the Indus river system is dependent upon the Himalayan glacial runoff for 90 per cent of its water, and that source also carries a heavy proportion of sediment during the summer and rainy seasons, the result has been a significant loss of dam capacity for Pakistan’s biggest dams in the system, which in turn threatens crop yields in the irrigated areas.
As Sridhar and other analysts point out, that creates “a serious problem in a country [Pakistan] which depends on river irrigation, rather than the monsoon rains, for 74 per cent of its total cultivated land.”
Understandbly, that has led to organized political opposition to the dam system within Pakistan leading to a lack of consensus within the country over the availability and allocation of that vital and scarce natural resource.
To add fuel to the fire, Pakistan also relies on the Indus river system to bolster its national defense system through the construction of a network of strategically located canals which it floods during military conflicts or apprehended confrontations with its Indian “neighbours’ to prevent Indian military equipment and weaponry from crossing the border.
For example, in 2002, during Operation Parakam, the Pakistani government drained off a substantial amount of its supply of irrigation water into these canals creating a shortfall of up to 70 per cent of its normal supply.
Apart from the so-called “Kashmir problem,” this water-related dispute occurred at the high-point of political tensions between India and Pakistan at the beginning of the new millenium. It also forced international observers to acknowledge that unrestrained conflict between the two countries was verging on nuclear confrontation.
Then as today India was estimated to possess between has thirty and three dozen nuclear warheads, marginally less than Pakistan’s estimated 48 warheads. India also maintains missile delivery systems to target Pakistan. Both nations are believed to also possess stockpiles of more antiquated “fission weapons” with explosive power of between 5 and 25 kilotons.
The continuing decline in glacial water supply due to global climate change will therefore exacerbate an already tense situation between India and Pakistan.
The continuing discord and lack of compromise on the construction of needed additional irrigation facilities is proving fatal to Pakistani’s semi-arid geography and will compel a switch to high-yield crops with shorter growing cycles at added cost to farmers.
Yesterday, India’s foreign minister Nirupama Rao emerged from a conference held to discuss the Afghanistan-India-Pakistan foreign relations crisis calling for “creative solutions” to the Kashmir independence issue and encouraging the Pakistani government to “shed its insecurity” and not to view “India’s growth in subjective or negative terms”.
Then Rao went further, stating that while India wished nothing but peace and economic prosperity for its neighbour, “Pakistan must act effectively against those terrorist groups that seek to nullify and to destroy the prospects of peace and cooperation between our two countries.”