Global Warming and Melting Glaciers In South Asia: Environmental, Economic, and Political Implications

SARID, September 17, 2004

By Jasmin Mehovic and Janaki Blum (,


The impact of global warming is visible in communities throughout the world as demonstrated most recently and dramatically in North America and Europe, where unexpected heat waves and storms caused by the shifting climate decimated crops and inflicted serious financial losses on farmers. Inhabitants of low lying islands, such as Tuvalu, the Maldives and the Solomon Islands, are finding their drinking water adulterated by rising seas that also threaten to obliterate parts of their national territories. Even more catastrophic is the rapid shrinking of mountain glaciers that feed lakes and rivers; the ultimate outcome is the drying up of vital meltwater sources for irrigation, hydroelectric schemes and drinking. The retreat of glaciers in the Andes is already plummeting water supplies in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. People in the South Asian part of Himalayas are not exempt: Melting glaciers in the world’s highest mountain range are swelling local lakes, triggering flash-flooding in the narrow valleys below. In 1994, a glacier-lake outburst in the Lunana region of Bhutan flooded a number of villages, endangering the lives of thousands of people. The burst of the Dudh Koshi Lake in Nepal in 1997 had similar repercussions. This trend, experts argue, will accelerate in the next half decade, creating social and economic problems not only for the villages in the Himalayan foothills but also for the entire South Asian region.

Hazardous glacial lakes

Mountain regions are more sensitive to climate change than their rugged topography might suggest. A study by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) reveals that the temperature in the Himalayan region has risen by almost 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 1970's. This shift in climate causes meltdown of snowfalls and glaciers - at the fastest rate in the world (50 feet/15 m per year in northern India) - even in winter, causing icy water to accumulate in lakes hedged by unstable dams of sediment and stone. As the lakes swell, the dams often burst, sending muddy streams down the narrow valleys. In addition to life and property – including bridges, hydro-electric plants and tourist facilities – the flood, laden with massive boulders and sediment, also devastates agricultural lands and irrigation systems in the valleys below.

Experts warn that unless urgent action is taken, the frequency of these accidents will increase dramatically in five to ten years time, with catastrophic consequences for people and property in this part of the Himalayas. UNEP scientists have surveyed more than 4,000 glaciers in Nepal and Bhutan and concluded that 20 glacial lakes in the Bhutanese Himalayas and 24 glacial lakes in Nepal pose a potential hazard. They warn that a number of lakes are still unexplored, especially in India (where most of the Himalayas lie), Pakistan, and Afghanistan. In order to make a comprehensive report, UNEP-ICIMOD’s (United Nations Environment Programme - International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) study will expand to all South Asian countries, including China, as well neighboring countries in central Asia.

Far reaching effects

The Himalayan mountain range has the highest number of glaciers beyond the polar regions. Himalayan glacial lakes are the source of the major rivers in Asia that support about 2 billion people. Thus the meltdown of glaciers represents a danger not only to the immediate surroundings, but to neighboring countries as well. This August, fearing that water from a melting glacier in China could spill over into northern Indian territory, the authorities in the Indian states of Himachal Pradesh and Punjab evacuated thousands of people from high risk areas. A month earlier, a sudden release of floodwater from a hydroelectric project in Bhutan caused floods that endangered the lives of people in Assam and West Bengal.

But flooding is not the only problem. The meltdown of Himalayan glaciers will ultimately reduce the amount of water in the glacier-fed rivers such as the Ganges, the Indus, and the Brahmaputra. On one hand, this will result in the decline of hydroelectric production across South Asia, triggering a crisis among those countries for whom this is the main source of energy. On the other, decreasing reserves of drinking water in the region will affect hundreds of millions of people, including those in New Delhi, Karachi and Calcutta. Fisheries, wildlife, and agriculture will also suffer. Disturbances to glacial lakes located in the sensitive border regions such as Kashmir, between India and Pakistan, may also have serious military consequences. Needless to say, as the population in the region grows, and as improving living standards and growing industrialization demand more water, this issue will become not only the focus of environmental and public health debates, but also the cause of serious political conflict among the countries of the subcontinent.

Global warming

Evaluating the possible consequences of global warming implies a parallel study of its origins as well of strategies to cope with it. Although some people believe the worldwide rise in temperature to be a naturally occurring climate variation, a growing number of scientists concur that it is an outcome of raised levels of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide and methane, in the atmosphere. As the earth’s surface absorbs the sun's rays, the heat bounces back, and a part of it ultimately escapes into space. On its way through the atmosphere the heat is absorbed by carbon dioxide and methane molecules; this process raises the temperature on the earth's surface. The more carbon dioxide there is in the atmosphere, the more heat is entrapped. This phenomenon is called the “greenhouse effect,” named for the way the glass panes of a greenhouse capture heat and warm the space inside.

The increasing amount of greenhouse gases is a result of the industrial nations’ incremental use of fossil fuels over the past two centuries. During the industrial revolution, in the mid 19th century, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 265 ppm (particles per million). Today, that level is 340 ppm. If the situation goes unchecked, scientists warn, the level could reach 600 ppm by 2050. As a result, average global temperatures are expected to rise 1.4 - 5.8 degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st century. The only way to prevent this relentless warming would be to limit deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels, as well as to begin employing environmentally sound sources of energy.

Climate Treaties

Unfortunately, most countries now are heavily dependent on energy from fossil fuels. Many governments are under heavy pressure from various lobbies to not interfere in prevailing business practices and to disregard goals set up by international treaties on global warming. One such treaty, signed at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 (which was attended by 35,000 people and 106 national leaders) was the result of an agreement on climate that recognized global warming as a grave problem. The summit set up a system of governing policies, obliging industrialized nations to stabilize their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by the year 2000 while giving financial aid to developing countries to support energy efficiency and develop sources of clean energy. The 1997 Kyoto Treaty legally bound industrial nations to reduce worldwide emission of greenhouse gases by an average of 5.2% below their 1990 levels over a ten-year period. However, many of the world largest emitters of greenhouse gases have not complied with Kyoto Treaty bindings. The current global economic situation, marked by fierce competition and aggressive outsourcing practices, is likely to make the recommendations of the Kyoto agreement even less significant among global business policymakers in the years to come.

Tourism affected

Interestingly, while the business community as a whole is overwhelmingly opposed to international climate agreements, a number of business sectors are calling for more attention to global warming. Real-estate developers in many coastal vacation areas, as far apart as the Florida Keys and Cape Cod in the USA, are finding their properties less appealing to potential buyers as the rising sea level leads to fears of erosion and coastal storms.

Tourist organizations throughout Europe are also calling for more attention to climate change. Europe’s largest glacier, Iceland’s Vatnajokull -- 8,000 square kilometers long and 900 meters thick -- is shrinking by an average of 3 feet per year, and may disappear all together by the end of the century. Major Austrian and Swiss ski resorts, including Kitzbühl, Zell-am-See, St Moritz and Klosters are now seriously compromised because of insufficient snow and a shorter skiing season. In Venice, Italy, climate change has prompted a joint effort by cultural organizations and tourist lobbies to control recurrent flood damage to the foundations of the cities’ numerous palaces.

Such strong alliances appear unlikely in the Himalayan region, where most local and regional governments actively promote tourism to boost the economy, though a few are concerned about managing the environmental problems, such as increased wood-burning (and hence pollution), associated with rising tourist numbers. The economically depressed Himalayan communities are minor contributors to global warming and have no recourse to influence the developed countries responsible. Ultimately, the geographical grandeur that the tourists travel to experience will be threatened.

Community action

Increasing awareness may reduce the effects of global warming over time. However, for the people living in the foothills of the Himalayas, the meltdown of glacier lakes represents a problem that demands immediate attention. Some Himalayan villages have already installed primitive warning systems, such as a system of horns, designed to alert local residents in the case of flooding. Others have engaged in the construction of drainage works to prevent lake outbursts. A number of communities have started reforestation projects aimed at balancing the needs for fuel-wood on one hand and maintaining healthy forests on the other.

These efforts by local authorities have been supported by a number of projects initiated by the United Nations to provide advice on recognizing potential dangers and immediate threats. Modern information tools such as Remote Sensing, topographic maps, aerial photographs and satellite images could play a crucial role in identifying potential risk areas and monitoring the behavior of hazardous lakes. The United Nations agencies also promote the work of South Asian communities throughout the world, channeling material and financial aid from foreign donors.

Regional cooperation is vital

The Himalayas range over six South Asian countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan) as well as extending into China and Myanmar. The section lying in Indian territory covers fully or partly eleven states of India on the northern frontier. Therefore, enhanced cooperation with the United Nations is important but insufficient. The South Asian countries concerned must also establish a coordination that is lacking among them as well as with neighbouring regions in order to handle the crisis more effectively. It must start with closer collaboration between scientific and academic institutions who are studying the impact of changing climate on the behavior of glacial lakes in the Himalayan range. A system for the collective monitoring of glaciated regions and for maintaining a reliable alert system embracing all countries affected does not currently exist and must be created. For instance, earlier this year, when it was learned that a glacial lake in Tibet could burst and flood villages in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, Chinese scientists had to use diplomatic channels to warn India about the danger. To avert potential tragedy, the response mechanism needs to be much more immediate and efficient across national borders. These efforts should be followed by long term intra- and inter-governmental planning involving diverse agencies responsible for conservation, construction, energy, foreign affairs, water, and tourism. They must be directed toward environmentally sound economic growth policies such as renewable energy technologies. Despite the enormity of the task ahead, the reality of Himalayan deglaciation points to the necessity of direct action in order for the South Asian countries to avert catastrophe in the years to come.

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Further Reading:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):
United Nations Environment Programme:
International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD):
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change:
Kyoto Protocol:
Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research:
Mountain Partnership:
Climate Hot Map:


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