Scientists at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) — a regional intergovernmental learning and knowledge sharing center serving the eight regional member countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayas based in Nepal – have warned in a report that 33 percent of the ice in the Himalayas and Hindu Kush will thaw by the end of this century. According to the report, the effects will be disastrous, not only disrupting river flows essential for growing crops, but also reducing the regions ability to produce hydropower. The study – authored by 210 researchers – specifically mentioned the Yangtze, Ganges, Indus and Mekong rivers.
The report maintains that even if there is a dramatic cut in greenhouse gas emissions and the rise in global temperatures is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, it will not be possible to reverse this damage. However, should the world fail to cut emissions as much as two-thirds of the mountain range’s ice stores could be lost.
Limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels requires cutting emissions to zero by 2050.
The Hindu Kush Himalayas are considered the ‘third pole’ after the Arctic and Antarctic due to the massive amount of ice they hold. These glaciers are a critical water store for the 250 million people who live in this region, whereas at least 1.65 billion people are dependent on the aforementioned major rivers.
“This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of,” said Philippus Wester of ICIMOD, who led the report. “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.”
Wester said that, despite being far more populous, the HKH region had received less attention than other places, such as low-lying island states and the Arctic, that are also highly vulnerable to global warming.
Professor Jemma Wadham of the University of Bristol added, “This is a landmark piece of work focused on a region that is a hotspot for climate change impacts.”
The melting glaciers will increase river flows through to 2050 to 2060, raising the risk of high-altitude lakes bursting their banks and engulfing communities. But from the 2060s onwards, river flows will begin to decline. The Indus and central Asian rivers will be most affected. “Those areas will be hard hit,” said Wester.
The decline in river flow will cut the ability of countries in the region to produce hydropower. However, the most serious impact will be felt by farmers on the region’s foothills and further downstream. The absence of predictable water flows could decimate local agriculture.
The study states that the impact of this phenomenon is already being felt. Changes to spring melting already appear to be causing the pre-monsoon river flow to fall just when farmers are planting their crops. According to Wester, the monsoon is also becoming more erratic and prone to extreme downpours. “One-in-100 year floods are starting to happen every 50 years,” he said.
The report also highlights that the most vulnerable people in this area live on less than $1.90 a day, and they are far from any kind of help should a climate disaster strike.