Billions Rely on Himalayan Glaciers for Water. But They're Disappearing.
“This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of.”
At least one-third of the Himalayan glaciers will disappear by the end of the century even if countries entirely curb their greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, according to a new report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development.
The Himalayan glaciers play a critical role in supporting Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, China, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.
More than 1.9 billion people rely on the water that flows from the glaciers, whether for drinking, agriculture, energy, or other purposes. As the region warms, critical rivers and groundwater sources could eventually dry up, which could trigger conflicts, undermine economies, and spur mass migration, the report argues.
International trekkers pass through a glacier at the Mount Everest base camp, Nepal. Scientists say a third of the ice stored in Asia’s glaciers will be lost by the end of the century even if global warming stays below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
If emissions continue to be released into the atmosphere beyond 2050, then up to two-thirds of the Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2100.
Since global emissions are still rising, and countries have been slow to transition away from fossil fuels, this is the more likely scenario, the report argues.
In fact, if emissions remain steady over the next several decades, temperatures throughout the region could rise far more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the maximum temperature increase the Paris climate agreement recommends. The World Bank warns that the planet warming by 4 degrees Celsius would cause doomsday climate catastrophes.
“Global warming is on track to transform the frigid, glacier-covered mountain peaks of the Hindu Kush Himalayas cutting across eight countries to bare rocks in a little less than a century,” Philippus Wester of the center, who led the report, told the AP.
The glaciers sit atop the Hindu Kush Himalaya mountain peaks where more than 240 million people live. The communities around the mountain range get water directly from pools created by the massive ice hunks. Numerous rivers that provide water to billions of people throughout Asia, including the Ganges, Yangtze, Irrawaddy, and Mekong, all originate from the Himalayas. These rivers serve as the primary source of water for many in these regions.
In the short term, these rivers are expected to flood more frequently, which could destroy neighboring homes and farmland. As the glaciers shed more of their ice, however, the rivers are eventually expected to run dry, adding strain to agricultural activity throughout the region.
Without a reliable source of water, crop yields are expected to decline, potentially threatening food security in multiple countries. Already, more than 30% of the people living in the countries bordering the Himalayas do not have access to enough food and 50% experience malnutrition, according to the report.
An aerial view of the Siachen Glacier, which traverses the Himalayan region dividing India and Pakistan, about 750 kilometers (469 miles) northwest of Jammu, India.
The weakened flow of rivers fed by the glaciers will also impact hydropower dams that generate a significant portion of the region’s energy, according to the Guardian.
These changes are expected to lead to an increase in regional migration and climate refugee levels in ways that could exacerbate geopolitical tensions. For example, more than 90% of Afghanistan’s agriculture depends on groundwater sources created by the Himalayan glaciers. If these sources dry up in the decades ahead, millions of people could be left without a source of food or income, driving people to find relief across the border in Pakistan where the government has cracked down on refugee populations in recent years.
The new report also explores the impact of the glacier’s rapid depletion on air quality, gender issues, and poverty. More than 350 researchers from 22 countries contributed to the report, which took five years to complete.
“This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of,” Philippus Wester, the lead author, told the Guardian. “In the best of possible worlds, if we get really ambitious [in tackling climate change], even then we will lose one-third of the glaciers and be in trouble. That for us was the shocking finding.”