Glacial melt in the Himalayas could spell water scarcity for billions of people

Asia’s towering mountain ranges, from the Himalayas to the Hindu Kush, provide water for some of the world’s most densely populated areas. As glacial melt accelerates, billions of lives and livelihoods will be affected.

The Himalayan, Karakoram and HinduKush mountain ranges soar above 7,000m in places – and the shadow they cast reaches across the Asian continent.

This is Asia’s water tower, a glacial landscape with vast quantities of freshwater trapped within its ice. It provides water to 2 billion people across the region, with a further 3 billion reliant on food grown here.

But now the glaciers are disappearing.

The Himalayan water cycle

Glacial melt is part of the water cycle. Melted snow and ice feeds the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra river systems, providing water for communities, agriculture, industry and hydropower stretching from India to China and beyond.

Climate change and pollution threaten this fine balance. Now the Himalayan glaciers are disappearing twice as fast as they were 20 years ago.

A 2021 study predicts this will cause river levels to rise until 2050, matched by increased flooding in the short term. But in the long term, the picture is one of wide-spread water scarcity.

What happens when the glaciers disappear?

While researchers expect more flooding as the rate of melting accelerates, this is no distant threat. Floods in Uttarakhand left more than 200 people dead or missing in early 2021. Satellite imagery has revealed a link with glacier collapse.

Long term, water insecurity is of particular significance to the region’s agriculture.

129 million farmers at least partly irrigate their lands with Himalayan meltwater. The London School of Economics reports, “Meltwater alone provides enough water to grow food crops to sustain a balanced diet for 38 million people.”

Meanwhile, the Himalayan-Karakoram river basins have installed hydropower capacity of 26,432 MW but a potential capacity of 500,000 MW. Glacial loss is a threat to reliable renewable energy production, as well as the development of this nascent sector.

It’s also here that the fate of the glaciers collides with urbanisation.

Urban populations are expected to rise by 68% by 2050 with 90% of that growth in low-income countries in Asia and Africa, increased demand for resources including water and energy will coincide with greater scarcity.

Food, energy and drinking water shortages will be felt in megacities such as Delhi, Lahore and Kolkata, whilst at the same time exacerbating rural flight.

Competition for resources isn’t contained by borders, either. In a 2019 paper on water security in Himalayan Asia, US think tank, the Atlantic Council highlighted the geopolitical implications of water stress, as India, China and Pakistan lay claim to overlapping territories and trans-boundary watersheds.

While violent conflict for water is unlikely in the short term, the paper notes that such claims “are part of emotionally fraught and historically laden disputes.”

Creating water security

A water secure environment provides adequate, reliable access to water for its populations, and is able to withstand some supply disruption. But what do researchers say this should look like in the Himalayan regions?

1. A 2020 Water Policy report recommends building a detailed picture of the scope and implications of Himalayan water scarcity. This includes mapping water sources and anticipating changing demand, particularly in urban and peri-urban areas.

2. There’s opportunity to expand on initiatives already being trialled in areas of urban water scarcity, such as harvesting rainwater. Modified consumption applies to industry, too – drip irrigation in agriculture, for instance.

3. Groundwater policies are essential to manage abstraction rates. Metering and variable pricing are the other side of this equation, as the relatively low cost of water is often a barrier to efficient consumption.

4. The Atlantic Council says technology will unlock greater water security. There are possibilities in desalination, plus biotech advances, including seeds that thrive under water scarcity.

It’s a sobering thought that climate change has outpaced the Himalayan glaciers and, with them, the water cycle.

But with scientists warning even ambitious climate change action won’t be enough to save the glaciers, addressing water security is now a priority.

Having passed the tipping point, our responsibility in this region is now one of custodianship and adaptability.

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