Current Emissions Threatens 2 Billion People in The Hindu Kush Himalayas

Himalayas jpg

The glaciers and snow of the over 3,000 named peaks in the Himalayas are an important water resource that climate change threatens to destroy. Photo: Koshy Koshy/Flickr

Scientists have warned in a report that Himalayan glaciers could lose up to 75% of their ice by the turn of the century, which will affect about 2 billion people depending on the system.

Ice loss in the region, which includes Everest and K2, accelerated by 65% during the 2010s compared to the decade prior, according to the report recently published by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMD), an intergovernmental institution with eight member-countries based in the HKH region, in Kathmandu. This could lead to devastating floods followed by severe drought affecting the 240 million people who live in surrounding areas.

The Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) extends 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan.

The new assessment report released reveals the changes to the glaciers, snow and permafrost of the HKH region driven by global warming are “unprecedented and largely irreversible.”

The study report — Water, Ice, Society, and Ecosystems in the Hindu Kush Himalaya — maps the links between the cryosphere, water, biodiversity, and society in the region, charting the impacts of rapid changes in glaciers and snow on people and nature.

Ice and snow in the HKH are an important source of water for 12 rivers that flow through 16 countries in Asia, providing freshwater and other vital ecosystem services to 240 million people in the mountains and a further 1.65 billion people downstream, according to the report. Vulnerable mountain communities are already experiencing major adverse impacts—including disasters causing loss and damage to lives, property, heritage, and infrastructure, leading to displacement and psychological impacts.

According to the report, if global temperatures rise to 1.5C or 2C ahead of pre-industrial levels, glacial loss in the region will be around 30-50%. At 3C of warming – which is generally considered to be the path that current climate policies will achieve – eastern Himalayan glaciers in Nepal and Bhutan will lose 75% of their ice.

Global temperatures for the years between 2023 and 2027 are predicted to be between 1.1 and 1.8 degrees Celsius warmer than the 1850-1900 averages, the World Meteorological Organization says.

According to the report, snow cover is projected to fall by up to a quarter under high emissions scenarios — drastically reducing freshwater for major rivers such as the Amu Darya in Afghanistan and several Central Asian countries, where it contributes up to 74% of river flow, including the Indus (40% river flow) in India and Pakistan, and the Helmand (77% river flow) in Iran and Afghanistan. Permafrost is also decreasing in the region, which will lead to more landslides and problems for infrastructure at high elevation.

The study warns that communities and governments need urgent support and finance to prepare for the accelerated impacts on societies and nature that cryosphere changes will cause as temperatures rise, with current funding flows to the region “woefully insufficient” to the scale of the challenges the region will face. Scientists predict devastating consequences for water and food security, energy sources, ecosystems, and the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people across Asia, many of which will be beyond the limits of adaptation.

Izabella Koziell, deputy director general of the ICIMD, said in a press release, “With two billion people in Asia reliant on the water that glaciers and snow [the HKH] holds, the consequences of losing this cryosphere are too vast to contemplate. We need leaders to act now to prevent catastrophe. As this study shows, alongside urgent mitigation action, we need adaptation funds and programs and ecosystem restoration to be rapidly scaled up, and the mobilization of finance for losses and damages.”

The study found that availability of water in the HKH is expected to peak by 2050, driven by accelerated glacial melt. Then it is projected to decline, with local variability in meltwater from glaciers and snow resulting in huge uncertainty for mountain communities and large lowland populations.

Floods and landslides are also projected to increase over the coming decades, with slow-onset hazards, such as sedimentation and erosion and fast-onset hazards such as glacial lake outburst floods. Two-hundred glacier lakes across the HKH are deemed dangerous, and the region could see a significant spike in the risk of glacial lake outburst floods by the end of the century. Coupled with increased population growth and economic activity in the region, the exposure to these hazards poses the risk of increased loss and damage, including population displacement.

The report found that the effects of the changing cryosphere on fragile mountain habitats are particularly acute, with cascading impacts reported in most ecosystems and affecting most inhabitant species. Species decline and extinction have already been reported, along with the movement of species to higher elevations, ecosystem degradation, decrease in habitat suitability, and invasion of alien species.

“With 67% of the HKH’s ecoregions and 39% of the four global biodiversity hotspots located in the HKH remaining outside protected areas,” the region’s ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to climate impacts, according to the report.

“There is still time to save this critical region, but only if fast and deep emissions cuts start now,” said Koziell. She indicated that every small fraction of a degree of warming impacts the glaciers in the region, with harsh consequences for the hundreds of millions of people that depend on them.

Philippus Wester, lead editor of the report and a fellow at the ICIMD, emphasized the need for immediate action in an interview with GlacierHub, saying, “We now know with very high confidence that at 2 degrees Celsius, global warming the region will lose 50% of its glacier volume by 2100, while at 1.5 degrees this will only be 30%. This large difference shows that every increment of warming matters.” He deemed the report a “clarion call” to urgent climate action, in order to protect the environment, health, livelihood, and well-being of the 240 million people in the region.

Philippus Wester said: “We are losing the glaciers, and we are losing them in 100 years’ time.”

Miriam Jackson, an intervention manager for cryosphere risk at the ICIMD, offered a succinct summary of the new report to GlacierHub: “Things are changing fast in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. Just from one decade to the next, we have seen a dramatic increase in glacier melt. Our data and knowledge of this region are also increasing fast. The question is, can people in these mountain regions adapt just as fast?”

Some world governments have begun to take action to mitigate future climate-change-induced water scarcity. In May, Beijing revealed plans for a revised water network designed to reduce risk from floods and droughts, while Pakistan has designed warning systems to alert for glacial lake outburst floods.

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