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Himalayan meltdown: ‘Besides global warming, pollution also impacts glaciers’

ICIMOD director general talks to Down To Earth about the first-ever assessment of climate change impacts on Hindu Kush Himalayan region and how the world should act

Photo: Getty ImagesThe Himalayas never stop making news, particularly in the time of rapid climate change era. It is not only the youngest mountain range but also the Third Pole. Within this, there is a little understood core area known as 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.

David James Molden, director general of Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an intergovernmental body that works for the mountains and people of HKH, has had a reason to be both happy and sad about. On February 4, 2019, ICIMOD released the first-ever assessment of climate change impacts on HKH, a massive scientific exercise involving over 300 researchers over four years.

Bringing out this assessment made Molden happy because it could attract global attention to this less studied zone. But he was sad as the assessment painted a scary picture. “The HKH region is warming faster than the global average. And would continue to do so for this century,” says the assessment.

Down To Earth talked to him about the assessment and how it should worry the world. Excerpts:

Is the assessment alarming and which of its findings worry you?

Absolutely, it rings big alarm bells. The assessment establishes HKH region firstly as 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 2 billion people, with 500 GW of hydropower potential.

However, the region is under threat from climate change plus a host of other changes including ecosystem degradation, outmigration, and air pollution. Mountains warm up faster than global averages. Even if we could limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, mountain temperatures would rise above 2 degrees, and if current trends continue temperatures could go up by 4 to 6 degrees Celsius. This has dire consequences not only on glaciers, but on food, energy and 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-thirds of our glacier volumes.

Many major cities in and near the HKH have annual average PM2.5 concentrations almost 10 times higher than WHO guidelines. In addition to negative health impacts, this also adds to glacier melt.

Already 70 to 80 per cent of habitat in biodiversity hotspots has been lost over the last 500 years, and one-fourth of the endemic species could be lost by 2100.

Overall in the HKH region, poverty incidence is one-third compared to the national average that’s one-fourth. Over 30 per cent of HKH population suffers from food insecurity, and 50 per cent faces some form of malnutrition. About 80 per cent of rural populations living in HKH countries lack access to clean energy for cooking. There remains persistent gender and social inclusion in development.

Do you think the assessment would attract global attention towards the Himalayas? The way the assessment brings out the threats and opportunities, do you see countries bringing in urgent steps to save this common ecosystem?

Our intention is very much to bring global attention to the Himalayas. The 350 researchers, practitioners and policy makers have put their minds together to bring out this scientific assessment so that these messages go out without any confusion.

Globally, this adds to the many arguments to lower greenhouse gas emissions. However, the message is also important for countries who share are part of the HKH region. There is a lot of work to do to reduce air and water pollution, to promote sustainable energy, to halt biodiversity loss and to assist some of the most poor and vulnerable people to adapt. Countries have to work with one another to do this.

In the assessment, you have two pathways: business as usual and the one that we need to adopt. How would the assessment be bought in by political leadership of respective country? Have there been any efforts towards that?

It is important that the effort does not end with the report. Our intention is to have a series of science-policy for both in the individual countries and across the HKH region brining countries together. The idea is to enter into a discussion with politicians, government officials, media, business and other influential people. We are now working with countries to develop a call to action.

One hope is that countries do come together around mountain issues, especially environment and livelihoods. We also take inspiration from the Arctic Council where countries do unite 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.

Then there is a need to bring the results to the global community and in global events.

Since HKH region’s temperature is bound to increase even if global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, do you think the region needs an urgent and different approach given its uniqueness?

The HKH is indeed a unique region, and does need differing approaches, and this is one of the key conclusions of the assessment. First, because of its topography and ecology, the impacts are quite different than other places — there is a rapid gradient in terms of species, and we already see flowering and migration patterns changing. And, the region is especially prone to different kinds of disasters like glacial lake outburst floods, and landslides.

Second, the HKH is home to unique societies and traditional knowledge, people who have learned to adapt to harsh environments, and people who have secrets to our future survival. Blanket approaches will not work, and much attention is needed to understand and learn from this unique environment.

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