The ICIMOD’s first ever assessment of climate change impacts on the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region must ring alarm bells. Blanket approaches will not work. All host countries need to step up efforts and work in tandem
February 4, 2019, was a significant day for the Himalayas as on this very day, the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) released the much-awaited first ever assessment report on the impact of climate change on the Hindu Kush-Himalayan (HKH) region.
The region — spread over 3,500 square kilometres across eight countries, including India, Nepal and China — is also known as the Water Tower of Asia due to its reserve of frozen water. The region is considered to be the core area of the Himalayas, which by themselves, are not the only youngest mountain range but are also conceptually the Third Pole.
But thanks to rapid climate change, the Himalayas hog the headlines and mostly for all the wrong reasons. The ICMOD’s assessment report is an effort by the inter-governmental body, involving a massive scientific exercise, comprising over 300 researchers and spanning over four years.
The report said that the HKH region is warming faster than the global average. And it would continue to do so during this century. This assessment is very concerning as the HKH region is an incredibly important asset for Asia and the world. It is a key source of water, energy, carbon stocks as well as rich biodiversity. For example, the rivers starting from HKH are home to about two billion people with the potential to generate 500 gigawatts of hydropower.
The region is, however, under threat from climate change in addition to a host of other changes, including ecosystem degradation, outmigration and air pollution. Usually, mountains warm up faster than global averages. Even if we limit global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius, mountain temperatures would rise above two degree Celsius and if current trends continue, temperatures could go up by four to six degrees Celsius.
This holds dire consequences not only for our glaciers but also for food, energy, ecosystems and for the people, who rely on them in terms of ecosystem change, changing water flow patterns and increased hazards of disasters.
In a 1.5 degree Celsius world, about one-third of our glaciers will disappear by 2100 and under the current emission scenario, we will lose two-third of our glacier volumes. Many major cities in and near the HKH region have annual average PM2.5 concentrations of almost 10 times higher than the guidelines made by the World Health Organisation.
In addition to negative health impacts, this also adds to melting of our glaciers. Already, 70 to 80 per cent of the habitat in biodiversity hotspots has been lost over the last 500 years and one-fourth of the endemic species could be lost by 2100.
Even now, overall condition in the HKH region is not good as poverty incidence is one-third as compared to the national average that’s one-fourth.
Besides, over 30 per cent of the HKH population suffers from food insecurity and 50 per cent are faced with some form of malnutrition. Moreover, about 80 per cent of the rural population living in HKH countries lack access to clean energy for cooking. Added to this, there remains persistent gender and social imbalance in developmental activities.
Given these circumstances, it is crucial to bring global attention to the Himalayas. The ICMOD, with its 350 researchers, practitioners and policy-makers, has put minds together to bring out this scientific assessment so that the message is spread without any confusion.
The Himalayas are the last citadel of nature and climate change is breaching it. There is an urgent need for the HKH countries to step up efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions so that runaway temperatures can be controlled.
In order to get there, it is important that they rein in air and water pollution and promote sustainable energy. This will help contain biodiversity loss and assist some of the most poor and vulnerable people to adapt to the environment. Inter-governmental cooperation has to be the foundation for this effort and the ICMOD’s report can make for a good start.
Yet another method is to draw the countries into a meaningful dialogue so that the importance of health of the HKH region in particular and the Himalayan region in general is emphasised. This will help politicians, Government officials, media, business and other influential people work together, in tandem with the goals of preserving the environment.
Countries in the HKH region can take inspiration from the Arctic Council where countries have united to share information, to jointly develop solutions and to speak with a common voice to the global communities about the impacts of climate change and other concerns.
The world will not realise as it will not stand to lose if the HKH region is climatically compromised but HKH countries will surely feel the adverse impacts of climate change on the region, and India being part of the same, must take the lead and sensitse the countries of the impending environmental problems of the region and do the needful.
The uniqueness of the HKH region is its topography and ecology. They have to be preserved. Ditto for its traditional culture and communities. However, this can be possible only by keeping climate change at bay at any cost.
(The writer is an environmental journalist)