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SOUTH ASIA: Glacial Data Crucial to Combating Climate Change

COPENHAGEN, Dec 17 2009 (IPS) - People living in the Himalayan region are increasingly confronted by rising temperatures and glaciers melting at an unprecedented rate, threatening their very survival. This much the world already knows.

Yet, experts say, there is still no accurate and reliable data on the Himalayan glaciers and many aspects of its ecosystem, which should facilitate determining mitigation measures addressing current and future impacts of climate change on the Himalayas.

Nepal Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal acknowledged this when, speaking briefly at a side event organised during the United Nations climate change summit on Wednesday, he made a passionate case for the Himalayan countries to jointly determine the effects of climate change on what is sometimes termed “the third pole.”

The U.N. climate talks, which opened on Dec. 7 in this Danish capital, will conclude Friday, Dec. 18.

The Himalayan region straddles six countries, namely, China, Nepal, India, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Pakistan. Considered a climate change hotspot, it divides India from the Tibetan Plateau. Its river basins supply water to some 1.3 billion people. Thus the potential disappearance of the glaciers threatens the survival of the people.

Erik Solheim, Norway’s environment minister, cited three reasons for studying the Himalayas. One was its pristine beauty; second, climate change impacted more people in the region than anywhere else in the world; and finally, the region was also rife with political tension and conflicts.

Glaciers in the 33,000-kilometre-long Himalayas cover an area of 100,000 square km and store a staggering 12,000 cubic km of water. Rapid glacial melting has been attributed to rising temperatures.

“The average temperature in Nepal’s highlands has gone up. There are 20 new lakes formed as a result of glaciers melting, which can break up any time, causing catastrophe. No country in the region is immune to climate change.”

Although Nepal contributes only 0.025 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to its Prime Minister, it is a frontline nation for climate impact. Nepal now chairs the group of 49 Least Developed Countries in the climate negotiations.

Early this month his government held a cabinet meeting 5,541 metres above sea level at the base camp of Mount Everest, the highest mountain peak in the Himalayan range and located at the Nepal-China border.

“We want to protect Mount Everest from global warming,” he said on the sidelines of the summit. “We announced a ten-point programme, which includes clean energy, increasing forest cover in the region to 40 percent and raising the amount of land in sanctuaries from 20 percent to 25 percent. We want to save our common heritage.”

Dr Arshad Muhammd Khan, executive director of the Global Change Impact Studies Centre in Islamabad, said Pakistan is the most vulnerable in the region. It has the largest irrigation network in the world. The Indus, one of the Himalayan rivers, is the South Asian state’s lifeline: it depends on Himalayan glaciers for 80 percent of its inflows.

“The glaciers are melting faster than elsewhere; several may disappear by 2035 (as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts),” Dr Khan observed. “There are fears of glacial lake outbursts. Coastal areas near Karachi are witnessing the ingress of salinity.”

Asked whether political problems intervened to prevent Pakistan and India from sharing data and working together to monitor change in the Himalayas, Dr Khan told IPS, “We can sort it out.”

His colleague, Dr Qamar-Uz-Zaman Chaudhry, director-general of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, was more sanguine. “We are very close,” he said. “We exchange real-time data on tropical meteorology, like cyclones. On mountains, we need to cooperate on data.”

He added: “There is a bilateral agreement on hydro-meteorological data under the Indus Water Treaty.” This treaty, brokered by the World Bank in 1960, has not been abrogated despite several wars and ongoing hostility between the two countries.

The event was convened by Dr Andreas Schild, director general of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu. “The Himalayas are a hot spot for climate change,” he asserted. “They are the source of ten major river basins, and 1.3 billion in the region depend on them,” said Dr Andreas Schild.

ICIMOD has already conducted a vulnerability assessment of some areas in the Brahmaputra river valley in the Himalayan range.

Dr Pal Prestrud, director general of the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, drew a parallel between research on the Himalayas and that on the Arctic between 2000 and 2004. This could “provide insights into the Himalayas, which are in many ways, the same,” he said.

Information on the Himalayas was scattered and it was necessary for scientific associations to “bring it all together, synthesise and focus it,” said Prestrud.

Expressing optimism, Norway’s Solheim said, “There will be an increase in catastrophes, but these can also have the positive effect of bringing people together, as it did after the Asian tsunami in Aceh in Indonesia five years ago. It has been completely rebuilt.”

Nepal’s Prime Minister has offered to set up a network of mountain countries from all over the word, which, he said, would form a strong lobby. Prof Syed Iqbal Hasnain, a top Indian glaciologist now working with The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, told IPS that the Arctic Council, which former U.S. vice-president and 2007 Nobel Peace laureate Al Gore had referred to in Copenhagen, could provide a platform for Himalayan researchers too.

“Otherwise, these countries are fighting each other,” Prof Hasnain observed. There were similarities between the two regions when it came to climate change. “The Arctic also has traces of black carbon.”

(*This story appears in the IPS TerraViva online daily published for the U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen.)

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