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Climate Change, The Himalayas And India

By Marianne de Nazareth

26 January, 2010

“Climate change and the effects of atmospheric pollution will continue to affect the world during the coming 50 years.”

Dr. Andreas Schild, Director General of the International Centre for Integrated mountain Development (ICIMOD), Kathmandu, Nepal is a development specialist with over 30 years of experience in designing, planning, executing, and monitoring cooperation programmes, mainly in sustainable natural resource management and rural development. He is familiar with the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region through various long-term assignments (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal) and multiple missions to all of ICIMOD’s regional member countries.

Dr. Schild was awarded the Sir Edmund Hillary Himalayan Environment Award by the Hon’ble Dr. Karan Singh, MP of the Government of India, Advisor to the Trust, and Chairman of the Award Committee, at the Headquarters of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) in New Delhi, India, on 14 October 2008 for his outstanding contributions, successful leadership, and strong commitment towards sustainable development over the last 30 years.

In an interview, Dr Schild explains the seriousness of the impact of Climate Change in the Himalayan region for the whole of India.

1) What is the impact of Climate Change on water resources and livelihoods in the greater Himalayas

Rising temperatures lead to less precipitation in the form of snow. This reduces the snow cap and also in a longer-term causes reduction in the size of glaciers. This in turn influences very seriously the discharge of water in the pre monsoon period. The rivers carry less water. More water in summer and less in winter has to be expected. The consequence in the mountains is increased vulnerabilities in the form of flash floods and landslides. Less water in the pre monsoon period will affect the availability of water for irrigation and will affect food security.

2) During a visit to ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) you told us about the melting glaciers in the Himalayas. Comment.

According to remote sensing observation, it is estimated that above 90% of the glaciers are receding. This is also substantiated by some ground based monitoring. Some glaciers are expanding, particularly in the Karakorum, or at least the terminus positions are advancing. There is no systematic analysis of the ice mass (mass balance survey) of the glaciers. We do not know either, why certain glaciers are expanding. It is possible that this is due to intensified winter westerlies in the western Himalayas (part of changing precipitation patterns) or due to internal re-orientiation of the glacier such as increased elasticity due to increased temperature.

3) What are the observed and projected trends you can see?

The most spectacular trends are the creation and growing of glacier lakes. They constitute a potential danger of lake outbursts (GLOF) particularly due to the receding of permafrost and the consequent weakening of the moraines, or due to some external triggers such as rock/ice avalanche into the lake. The growing number of lakes and their growing size is cause for concern. Conceptually, decreasing snow cover and glaciers could lead to a decline in the water discharge of the Himalayan rivers, especially during the lean seasons. However so far we have only rough estimates based on remote sensing, and trends in the river flow at basin scales have not been substantiated by data.

4) Have precipitation trends changed in the Himalayas with Climate Change?

The changing precipitation patterns show an increasing number of dry days and a higher concentration of rainy days. The trends show some weakening in the western Himalayas and higher intensity in the east. How this trend will develop in future is not clear. It is possible that the higher temperatures at the higher altitudes, particularly in the Tibetan plateau, will influence the winds and therefore also the monsoon.

5) What are the adaptation methods you suggest?

Even the best international conventions and agreements mean that climate change and the effects of atmospheric pollution will continue to affect the world during the coming 50 years. The Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau as highly sensitive mountain systems will be particularly affected and will feel the consequences of climate change dramatically. In no mountain region of the world will the effects be as directly linked with livelihood systems as in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region. Assuming that mitigation will have positive impacts only in the second half of the century, we need to learn how to adapt to these changes from a mountain perspective.

In general we have to say that poverty, and lack of infrastructure and basic services to the rural population are so important that any adaptation agenda is very close to the traditional development agenda – a sustainable one. We can make the difference between short, medium and long-term measures.

Immediately we have to be aware that changing rainfall patterns, melting glaciers and droughts create new vulnerabilities. Early warning systems, risk mapping, creating awareness and capacity development are immediately required. Flood and flash flood risk mitigation, e.g. early warning systems, GLOF risk mitigation (lake lowering), improved infrastructure (embankments, river training), and not least improved management/governance of such infrastructures are important measures which can be planned now. Adaptation in the mountains also means that we have to learn from the community-adopted and adapted practice: communities have learned to deal with hazards and we cannot expect that governments will be able to intervene everywhere. Often it can only create enabling policy, institutional and financial environments.

A second set of facilities refer to the planning of infrastructure and productive structures in such a way that the new hazards are being considered. Watershed development, rain and snow/ice water harvesting and storage are becoming priority issues. This leads to very concrete programmes: how can we reduce the outflow of water when we have too much, to make it available when we need it most. Can glacial lakes considered a hazard become a potential source of water and power. Should we not be promoting water storage at high altitude? Conservation and management of wetlands are important. We should also scale up interesting regional experience of farm level water harvesting – e.g., water ponds.

Adaptation also means that the mountains validate their potentials. Hydropower generation, ecotourism, and the conservation and management of biodiversity are unique assets which contribute to strengthening resilience and adaptation. But we should move a step further: climate change and global warming on the one hand and economic development with the growing middle class on the other. A higher percentage of the population is changing their way of living; and there is an increasing awareness among them about the importance and relevance of ecosystem services in the mountains. These services are partly considered as public goods and have no market currently. We have to create awareness for these services and to put a price tag on them. Sustainable mountain systems with a resilient population are in the interest of the nation and the region, but also globally. Of course this is a long term vision for financing adaptation. We might have access also to carbon funds. But let us not forget about the low hanging fruit as well: remittances are four times as important as development cooperation funds in Nepal. Let us devise clever policies to tap these resources. If we have the energy for designing and implementing good policies for the use of remittances, especially targeting rural areas, and we do better foreign aid coordination, then we have already made a good start towards climate change adaptive development.


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