Beware of water crisis ahead

| | in Oped
Beware of water crisis ahead

India must decide on its future course of action to save the Himalayan ecology which is under severe threat due to the vagaries of climate change. If left unchecked, this can impact the volume of our waterways

Sometime in the not-so-distant future, our upcoming generations will wonder why their ancestors, which is us, did not do anything as the environment crumbled around them. Present-day ecological challenges in the form of climate change and global warming have changed. Weather patterns, ambient temperatures, and according to the latest study published in Nature Climate Change, the worsening environmental conditions will, by the end of the century, accelerate the melting of glaciers, resulting in less water downstream in the time to come than they do today, especially in summer.

The Indus, Brahmaputra and Ganges basins, fed by high mountain Asian glaciers, are among the major basins projected to experience the largest reduction in glacial run-offs and availability of water downstream in Central Asia.

Indus, Brahmaputra and Ganges basins are among the “hot spots” projected by the study, where retreating glaciers will cause unimaginable and severe water shortages in the future. Considering the fact that these three basins support around 700 million people in Asia, this is a serious threat. The water resources in these basins are utilised for drinking, irrigation, navigation, industry and hydropower. Therefore, these basins provide the critical livelihood support.

Many climate modeling studies conducted in the past have always pointed towards the ever-rising temperatures in all three basins, and the current study also confirms the likely increase in temperatures with greater warming in winter in the Indus Basin. All these studies deserve attention of policy planners for a water-secure future in the region.

The study projects a concerning rise in annual glacier run-off till until around 2050, followed by steadily declining glacier run-off thereafter.

This phenomenon, in fact, is expected to have a global footprint with some rivers in the Andes, and — to a lesser extent — in the Alps facing the same problem. The situation could become precarious in future due to the increasing frequency of heat waves, warns the study.  

The Nature Climate Change report was based on computing global glacier run-off changes for 56 large-scale glaciated drainage basins till 2100 and analysing the glacial impact on stream flow. Changes in monthly and annual glacier run-off for all 56 glaciated basins, excluding Greenland and Antarctica, were investigated.

The scientists used the Global Glacier Evolution Model (GloGEM) for computing glacier mass changes and associated run-off from each glacier in all the basins. This model accounts for all the relevant glaciological processes, which include mass accumulation and loss, and changes in the glacier extent and surface elevation.

India is staring at an immediate challenge in the form of depleting glaciers in the Himalayas, which stores large amounts of water in the form of glacial ice. These glaciers have an intricate relationship with climate change. New studies point at an uncomfortable reality that low-altitude glaciers are more sensitive to climate change and have lost a significant amount of water in the past three decades.

An understanding of fresh water stored in the Himalayas is crucial for water resource management in the region, but it has been difficult to estimate the amounts of water stored in these glaciers. Researchers are now using new techniques to estimate mass of glaciers and a new model to estimate the volume loss over a long period. It combines satellite data of snowlines, a temperature-index melt model and the accumulation-area ratio method to estimate annual mass balance of glaciers in the basin as a whole.

India must realise that spiralling temperatures are playing havoc with Himalayan ecology and the same, if left unchecked, has the potential to eventually impact the critical volume of our rivers. These rivers are the lifelines of India and depletion of glaciers must be viewed with seriousness.

Indiscriminate pollution levels, combined with feeble containment measures are now proving to be a death knell for the environment. Now, even the pristine Himalayan glaciers are being spared. Already, urban areas are witnessing an influx of population from rural areas, if the water sources dry up for these rural population, as a result of depleting glaciers, the rural to urban migration will increase even more, causing unimaginable hardship for people and putting immense pressure on urban infrastructure and resources.

These are some of the many adverse impacts of melting glaciers. Glaciers are the foundations for our water resources, pollution and environmental damages are compromising the very basis of these precious resources and unless corrective action is taken, we might just be fighting for the last drop soon.

(The writer is an environmental journalist)

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