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200 Million Depend on Melting Glaciers for Water

Fabíola Ortiz

PORTO DE GALINHAS, Brazil, Sep 27 2011 (IPS) - At least 200 million people in the world are in danger of being left without water, because they depend for their supply on glaciers that are melting, although paradoxically the process creates the illusion of plentiful water resources.

While the average global temperature has risen by 0.6 degrees Celsius in the last 100 years, the temperature of glaciers has increased by 1.5 degrees in just two decades.

Local communities, especially in the Himalayan and Andes mountain ranges, are the most affected.

If the temperature is below zero, “ice remains frozen, but if it rises even a little bit, it is enough to turn the ice to water,” Marco Rondón, a Colombian expert on natural resource management at the Canadian government’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), told IPS.

When the ice surface shrinks, the meltwater produced each year affects the way of life of people living close to the glaciers, Rondón told IPS at the 14th World Water Congress being held Sept. 25-29 in Porto de Galinhas in northern Brazil.

The accelerated rate of glacier melting was highlighted by one of the panels at the Congress, which was organised by the government of the state of Pernambuco and the International Water Resources Association (IWRA), a not-for-profit network that promotes debate on water administration and management.

In the Andean region, close to 10 million people depend directly on water from glaciers. In addition, many cities depend on the food produced in areas irrigated by glacier meltwater, such as Lima, the capital of Peru, a country with some 500 glaciers.

According to Rondón, about 30 percent of the Andean ice surface could melt in the next few decades.

“The availability of water is changing. For a short period of time, there will be more water. In Bolivia, for example, people are not necessarily unhappy about the warmer temperatures because they are able to grow more crops in the warmer climate. But it is not sustainable,” he said.

According to the expert, the “benefits” enjoyed by some communities will not last more than three decades, after which there will be serious water shortages.

Paula Pacheco, a researcher for Agua Sustentable, a Bolivian NGO, works with rural communities to guarantee access to water resources and develops pilot projects for adaptation to an imminent change: the melting of the Illimani glacer, 66 km from La Paz.

At an altitude of 6,350 metres above sea level and covering an area of 50 square km, this major Bolivian glacier has lost 21 percent of its area in just over four decades.

“The peak of Illimani is like a symbol of the Andean world vision, and the glacier regulates water supply for many communities in the vicinity of La Paz. We need a more comprehensive understanding of what is affecting the melting of the glacier,” Pacheco said.

In association with the Higher University of San Andrés, in La Paz, Agua Sustentable is helping to implement a participative strategy together with local communities, seeking practical solutions based on scientific studies.

For instance, “water is not being used efficiently for agriculture. We are introducing technologies for collecting rainwater that can store up to 20,000 litres of water,” Pacheco said.

Integrated action and strategies are needed to increase agricultural production and efficiency, as well as strengthening local and national political organisations.

One concern is that the families around the Illimani have got used to using three times the amount of water they used before, Rondón said.

“People are intensifying their farming activities and are using more water. They are becoming accustomed to using more water than before, and when it becomes scarce, the difference will be much more noticeable,” he said.

The Hindu Kush-Himalaya region contains 60,000 square km of glaciers and is the source of 10 major Asian river systems.

These rivers supply 1.3 billion people with water. All the scenarios predicted for climate change indicate there will be major changes in vegetation and wetlands, and that species will become extinct.

The process of glacier melting is very complex and there are still many gaps in knowledge, Ajaya Dixit, the executive director of the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition-Nepal, told IPS.

Only now are scientists beginning to comprehend the magnitude of the problem.

“The Himalaya (glaciers) are not going to vanish in the near future, but they will shrink, and we don’t know how much. We know very little, but change will occur and it will change the dynamics. It is very hard to predict what will happen in 10 years’ time,” he said.

Nepal, a country of 30 million people, has many glaciers at altitudes of between 5,000 and 6,000 metres. The country’s rivers are fed from snow and glaciers.

An estimated 35 percent of Nepal’s population depends on snow. The population living downstream use the rivers that are fed by melting snow for irrigation, water power, and water supply. Therefore the actual population depending on water from snow is greater than the number of people who live in mountainous areas.

“We should be worried because in the worst-case scenario, things will be very, very bad. In Nepal we produce very few greenhouse gases, but even if we produced none at all, the greenhouse gases from developed and developing countries are still going to cause a lot of effects and have an impact on snow and glaciers in the Himalayas,” Dixit said.

The focus, according to Dixit, must be on adaptation as a planned response, because of the great uncertainties about the actual behaviour of regional climate change. But adaptation measures must suit the social and economic dynamics of local communities.

“All countries will have to mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions to some extent, as well as adapt to the impacts of climate change, and cope with the hard reality of life. In Nepal there is very little we can do for mitigation because our emissions are low, so we depend on the actions of other countries,” Dixit said.

The challenge for Nepal is to focus on adaptation and build a capacity for resilience, but “we don’t have enough resources,” he said.

“Preserving the Himalayas is a responsibility of the international community because they are a human heritage,” he said. “We should learn from the strategies of other countries, such as in the Andes, that face both similar and different problems, and share ideas.”

In Rondón’s view, it is the root of the problem that must be tackled. “We are consuming more energy in the world, and we are using forms of energy that emit greenhouse gases as a by-product, and these are causing temperature to rise.”

Unless this problem is addressed, “it will be impossible to halt the melting of the glaciers,” he added.

“Governments and society have little alternative other than to accept that the impacts will be progressively stronger, and try to provide responses. If we cannot avoid them, then we must prepare ourselves so that the impacts will cause the least possible damage,” he said.

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