Human influences on climate change have heralded a new epoch — anthropocene — that is a clear threat to the Himalayas. There’s a strong need to establish synergies between climate change mitigation, adaptation and sustainable development goals
The human influence on the planet and its environment, leading to global warming, are no more hidden. However, there can also be several natural factors that cause climate change and variations in global temperatures. In fact, increased volcanic eruptions and periods of few sunspots may lead to a drop-off in the temperature as it happened over the Northern Hemisphere for about a thousand years, known as Little Ice Age, which lasted roughly till the mid-18th Century. Climate variations are, therefore, generally induced by a mix of natural and human factors. Precisely because of this, climate scientists find it difficult to define the phrase “2°C above pre-industrial levels” as referred to in the sub-clause 1 (a) of Article 2 of the Paris Agreement, 2015, and fix a numerical baseline for the average global temperature.
The challenge is to separate and quantify human influences on climate change from that of nature. This will help convince and stimulate decision-makers throughout the world for taking up the much-needed climate change mitigation actions as stated in Article 2 of the Paris Agreement, 2015, “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels…to significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”
The geological era dominated by human influences on climate is considered as anthropocene. A recent special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) titled, ‘Global Warming of 1.5ºC’ attempts to trace the temporal extent of anthropocene. The report says that anthropocene has geological merit to be regarded as a formal epoch in the geological time scale and that it begins from the mid-20th century and continues. Scientists, artists and documentary makers are all trying to capture and map the trajectory of Anthropocene and associated global greenhouse gas emission pathways.
In the face of huge human influence on the earth system, pursuing the efforts to limit the temperature increase above 1.5ºC is an ambitious task. Unchecked, the temperature rise above 1.5ºC may have significant, long-lasting and irreversible impacts on human and natural systems. Among the many impacts and the cascading risks that changing climate and increase in global temperature will lead to, one is on the Himalayas (to be specific, Hindu Kush-Himalaya region) and the natural resources thereof.
The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) described the Hindu Kush-Himalaya (HKH) region the “Third Pole” as it “stores more snow and ice than anywhere else in the world outside the polar regions.” The HKH ecosystem is already showing signs of human influences. Changes in cryosphere are an important indicator of climate change. In February 2019, the ICIMOD came out with a landmark study titled, ‘The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment’, delineating the impacts of climate change and increasing global temperature on HKH and its resources. According to the report, glaciers have been shrinking since the mid-18th century, the exception being from 1920 to 1940. The ICIMOD warned of dire consequences if the global climate response fails to contain the rising temperature and said that “current emissions would lead to five degrees in warming and a loss of two-thirds of the region’s glaciers by 2100.”
Though commonly described as ‘Water Tower of Asia’, water crisis is looming large over countries in the HKH region. The unfolding water crisis is likely to get worse in the coming years, aided by human drivers such as climate change. The per capita water availability has drastically gone down, thus compromising on the developmental needs, especially of the poverty-stricken population.
Rapid rate of urbanisation (often unplanned), ever-growing population and fast-paced industrialisation in the HKH region stress upon the already depleting natural resources, including water. In the face of competitive sectoral demands for water, administering equitable distribution of water resources for different sectors and needs can be even more challenging for the existing water governance structures in the region.
Hydro-politics played out as a subset of regional geopolitics often ferments competition among countries which undercuts the prospects of cooperation. In the geopolitical tug of war, it is no denying that countries may be inclined to use water as a geo-strategic weapon. Establishment of effective transboundary water governance structures and constant dialogues to achieve trade-offs between upstream and downstream water uses may preclude such a scenario. It is important for nations to understand that cooperation on water issues leads to a win-win situation. Efforts must be on to promote regional dialogue and multi-stakeholders partnership on water issues for effective water resources management and conflict mitigation in the region.
About two billion people living in the basins of the 10 major rivers, which originate from HKH, benefit directly or indirectly from its resources, especially water. To ensure water security for the region, understanding localised variations will be the key. For example, in the hilly areas of the region, the main source of water is the springs. Thus, in this case, relevant geographical units for effective water resources management will be the springsheds and not the river basins. Augmenting water resources, rejuvenating water bodies and strengthening water governance institutions will be vital for the development of the region, human security and achieving sustainable development goals, especially Goal 6.
It is also important to develop institutional capacities at multi-level governance structures for adaptive and effective governance, build cross-scalar interfaces among the various knowledge-based systems and strengthen the resilience of the communities. As the IPCC special report on ‘Global Warming of 1.5ºC’ suggests, there is a strong need to establish synergies between climate change mitigation, adaptation and sustainable development goals.
(The writer is a freelance commentator)