TWN Info Service on Climate Change (Feb19/02)
20 February 2019
Third World Network

Landmark report on Himalayan mountains raises dire warnings due to climate change

Kathmandu, 19 Feb (Prerna Bomzan): A landmark assessment report (1) on the Hindu Kush Himalaya mountains released in early February this year, contains gravely alarming findings.

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

The assessment report is the first flagship publication of the HKH Monitoring and Assessment Programme (HIMAP), coordinated by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a regional inter-governmental organisation of the eight regional member countries, based in Kathmandu, Nepal, and was released on 3 February this year.

The report warns of significant warming in the region, in fact greater than global average, with projected temperature change of 2.5 ± (plus or minus) 1.5°C for the moderate scenario, while 5.5 ± 1.5°C for the more extreme scenario, by the end of the 21st century.

According to the report, the HKH region 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), directly sustaining the livelihoods of around 240 million people and nearly 1.9 billion people living in the 10 river basins, with more than 3 billion people dependent on food produced in the river basins.

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 1.5°C, 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 decline in massive glacier volumes is resultant 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 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”, states the report further.

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, vulnerability in terms of mountain livelihoods and wellbeing and ultimately, overarching mountain sustainability in the HKH region.

It also 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). The report states of 8790 glacial lakes covering a total of 801.83 sq km in the HKH, of which 203 lakes were potentially dangerous posing a GLOF threat in the future.

In terms of estimated cost of adaptation to climate change, the assessment argues “that the region would require USD 3.2 billion to USD 4.6 billion per year by 2030, which would increase to USD 5.5 billion to USD 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 often referred to as the “Third Pole’. The study states 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 emissions 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”.

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) addresses 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, and the book has great value in informing global debates and discourses” states the report further.

It further points out that “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”.

This assessment “focuses on various drivers of change all of which are influenced by impacts of climate change” and states that “mountain people and ecosystems tend to experience change more rapidly and with greater intensity. Mountain regions are no longer isolated from globalization. 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 also devotes “many pages of this assessment to considering alternative development pathways and discussing ideas for enhancing regional cooperation in the HKH for sustainable mountain development.”

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

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