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INDIA/PAKISTAN: Reduced Himalayan Snowfall Could Spark Water War

Athar Parvaiz

SRINAGAR, Jan 18 2010 (IPS) - The declining snow cover and receding glaciers in the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir could trigger renewed hostilities between India and Pakistan, neighbouring states in the South Asian region that are at odds on a host of issues, experts warn.

The two countries share the Indus River, one of the longest rivers in the world. The river rises in southwestern Tibet and flows northwest through the Himalayas. It crosses into the disputed Kashmir region, meandering to the Indian and Pakistani administered areas of the territory.

Pakistan and India have long been embroiled in a territorial dispute over Kashmir, but have so far managed to uphold a World Bank-mediated Indus Water Treaty (IWT) that provides mechanisms for resolving disputes over water sharing. Any drastic reduction in the availability of water in the region has the potential of causing a war between the hostile south Asian neighbors, experts said.

Kashmir is located in the northwest region of the Indian subcontinent. It covers the Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir and the Pakistani- administered northern areas and “Azad” Kashmir province. Aksai Chin and Trans-Karakoram Tract are occupied by China.

Based on scientific findings released last December, the snow cover in Jammu and Kashmir is declining while temperature is rising. The findings were the results of a study conducted by senior scientist H. S. Negi and his colleagues, and were published in the ‘Journal of Earth System Sciences’, a bimonthly science publication in India.

The findings were based on 20 years worth of climatic condition data, covering the periods 1988-89 to 2007-08, and were undertaken during the winter periods between November and April of 2004–05, 2005–06 and 2006– 07, using multi-temporal sensor data.

“Snow cover monitoring was carried out to evaluate the region-wise accumulation and ablation pattern of snow cover in the Pir Panjal and Shamshawari ranges of Kashmir valley,” said Negi. “The study shows reduction in the areal extent of seasonal snow cover and rising trend of maximum temperature in three winters for the entire Kashmir valley.”

Negi and his team found that the total snowfall in the winter of 2004-05 was 1,082 centimetres across the valley, which declined to 968 centimetres during the period 2005-06 and reduced further to 961 centimetres between 2006 and 2007.

“February, the second month of maximum snowfall, showed rapid fluctuation, with 585 centimetres in 2004-05 compared to 207 centimetres in 2005-06 and 221 centimetres in 2006-07,” said the scientists, adding that the temperatures remained more than zero degree Celsius during winters, except for January-February 2004-05 and January 2006 against a normal sub-zero temperature.

Unlike the Eastern Himalayan rivers such as the Brahmaputra, which are mainly rain-fed, most of the water that goes to the Indus river comes from snowmelt, which includes glacial melt. Global warming-induced changes in climate patterns have adversely affected, among others, snowmelt runoff patterns.

“The Indus water system is the lifeline for Pakistan, as 75 to 80 percent of water flows to Pakistan as melt from the Himalayan glaciers. This glacier melt forms the backbone of irrigation network in Pakistan, with 90 percent of agricultural land being fed by the vastly spread irrigation network in Pakistan, one of the largest in the world,” said Dr Irshad Muhammad Khan, executive director of Global Change Impacts Studies Centre in Pakistan. Any disruption of water flow would cause a grave impact on agriculture produce in Pakistan, he said.

“Until now, the Indus Water Treaty has worked well, but the impact of climate change would test the sanctity of this treaty,” Dr Parvez Amir, a senior economist, told IPS.

Under the treaty signed in 1960, the two countries also share five tributaries of the Indus river, namely, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej. The agreement grants Pakistan exclusive rights over waters from the Indus and its westward-flowing tributaries, the Jhelum and Chenab, while the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej rivers were allocated for India’s use.

“I think it is not only the matter of Indus water treaty between India and Pakistan but also the water-sharing treaties elsewhere in the world such as those in the Middle East that also face a severe threat in the form of climate change,” said Dr Amir.

According to Prof. Mohammad Sultan, who teaches Geography at Kashmir University, temperature in the region has shown disturbing trends over the last few decades. “From 1950 to 1975, the temperature had shown a cooling trend (0.2 below normal). But after 1975 there has been a warming trend (0.4 degree above normal), and it is continuing,” he said.

He said precipitation in the lower parts of Kashmir has declined by 1.2 centimetres in lower altitudes and 8 cm in higher altitudes beginning in 1975. “This disturbance is bound to impact the accessibility to water in the future,” he said.

Transboundary water sharing between India and Pakistan will become an “extremely difficult proposition as surface water would become a scarce commodity with the depletion of water reserves up in the mountains,” said Prof Sultan.

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