While the ice in both the North and the South poles are rapidly melting, a warming climate is also putting the world’s Third Pole in jeopardy, where the glaciers are retreating at an accelerating rate. The Himalayan region, housing the third largest mass of frozen freshwater on Earth, has seen its lofty glaciers shrinking or even disappearing. Their melting rate has doubled since 2005, and more than 500 small glaciers have vanished.
Apart from global warming, pollution and dust have further contributed to the deteriorating situation. The Himalayan region is home to almost 50,000 mountain glaciers on the planet -- one quarter of the world’s total -- and cradle of 10 major rivers in Asia. It powers life for some 1.3 billion people in China, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
But the glacier retreat is threatening everyday life, from irrigation to power generation to drinking water. Moreover, avalanches, earthquakes and floods have taken place more frequently than ever.
The Himalayas poses a special challenge in global climate governance. “Climate change will not only affect the eco-environment but also health, food security and cause natural disasters and even a water crisis,” said Nicholas Rosellini, the UN resident coordinator in China at a recent symposium in Beijing co-hosted by the UN Development Program, the Himalayan Consensus Institute, and the Center for China and Globalization(CCG).
Nirupama Rao, former Indian ambassador to the U.S., China, and Sri Lanka, speaks at a symposium on climate change in the Himalayan region in Beijing, December 5, 2018. /VCG Photo
Climate change in the Himalayas has evolved to be a humanitarian issue that requires the coordinated effort of all stakeholders. As the largest two countries by area and population in Asia, China and India are key players in the campaign to save the “water towers of Asia.” As Nirupama Rao, former Indian ambassador to the U.S., China, and Sri Lanka, said, the Himalayan region is not just a mountain range but a token for Sino-Indian cooperation.
But whether the two nations can effectively cooperate in conserving the environment at the top of the world has long been doubted by regional observers given their decades-long border disputes and a consequent trust deficit. Frictions have not only throttled climate governance, they’ve also been intensified by deteriorating environmental resources, such as water shortages.
“Conflicts in the region are exacerbated by climate change and environmental stress due to management of natural resources allocation, affecting the livelihood of communities,” noted Sujeev Shakya, secretary-general of the Himalayan Consensus Institute.
Ponds of meltwater, frozen in cold winter temperatures, can be seen on the surface of the Khumbu Glacier, near the base of Mount Qomolangma, February 12, 2015. /VCG Photo
Moreover, this cocktail of conflicts and climate change impoverishes people in the region. To remedy this, Shakya added that building the capabilities of upstream and downstream communities in a systematic way for inclusive and sustainable development is essential. An early warning system against natural disasters would also help shield local residents from displacement and poverty.
China has lifted over 700 million people out of poverty over the past forty years since its reform and opening up, which is an unparalleled achievement. This also means that the country has dealt with poverty in many forms, and can share the breadth of its experiences with India and other countries in the region to improve the livelihood of Himalayan communities.
In the meantime, China and India can jointly protect water resources for these communities, said Wang Liyan, a senior official for climate change projects in the Embassy of Switzerland in China who has been working in groundwater management in this region for the past four years.
“China and India are the top two countries where groundwater is over-pumped because of agricultural production. But now work has come to the second phase where China can share its experiences with India,” she said at the symposium, which was part of the Silk and Spice Road Dialogue – an outcome of the Himalayan Consensus Summit 2018.
A solar cooker for baking bread at Annapurna Base Camp on the Himalayas /VCG Photo
The year of 2013 saw a peak in the amount of water melting from the glaciers in the Himalayas because of climate change, and the next peak may come in 20 years. This interval provides an opportunity for China and India to work together in exploring efficient water conservation models.
Separately, green bonds, which were created to fund projects with positive environmental benefits, are helping communities transition away from fossil fuels – a key contributor to climate change – for some of the remotest regions in the Himalayas.
Wang Hongbin, president of the Greater China region of Euromoney, noted that China holds the largest amount of green bonds, so it can cooperate with India in this regard.
Hopefully, with concerted efforts between China and India, the estimation that glaciers in the famed Himalayas could have their volume drop by 70-99 percent by 2100 will not come true.