New race to explore the Himalayas

Comprehensive data on climate change's effects on Himalayan glaciers is woefully lacking. Introducing The Third Pole project on chinadialogue, Navin Singh Khadka reports.

The Hindu-Kush-Himalayan (HKH) region in South Asia has remained a nagging gap in the global climate change knowledge bank.

In the absence of field studies and adequate data, the impact of global warming in the area stretching from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar (Burma) in the east is largely unknown.

In effect, there has been virtually no climate change adaptation plan for the zone, which is ecologically hypersensitive, yet a vital natural service provider.

Millions of people in the region, most of them poor ones who would be hardest hit by climate change, rely on these natural systems including river waters and forests.

But if what experts and government officials from the region and international organisations have recently agreed on is translated into action, the crippling information gap could become a matter of the past.

They have come up with a plan to first gather key information on the impacts of climate change in the region, and then chalk out responses.

"At present the lack of basic environmental data for the Himalayan region is so serious that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s apex body on climate change, says that the region is a white spot for data," say officials with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

ICIMOD is a Kathmandu-based international organisation that together with UNESCO recently organised a meeting for the initiative.

"The meeting discussed ways of systematically gathering and sharing the information needed, developing a reliable picture of the present situation, and formulating approaches to respond," they say.

The regional initiative is in line with UNESCO’s strategy for coordinated research on global change in mountain biosphere reserves around the world.

Seven landscapes have been identified in the HKH region for the studies, and they are transboundary areas between eight countries – with Burma the farthest east, and Kyrgyzstan at the western end.

"It will be a comprehensive study of all ecological aspects," says Eklabya Sharma, environmental programme manager with ICIMOD.

"Before, such studies have happened here and there, but this time we are adopting a transect approach, which means it will cover latitudinal (from north to south) and altitudinal (high altitude) locations.

"The idea is to encourage everyone from big global programmes to individual researchers to focus their efforts in these sites, under a coordinated arrangement that helps make all the information available for everyone."

Although scientists will have cryosphere issues, Ramsar sites, biodiversity hotspots and endemic species on their radars, they will be zooming in on high altitudes that are already bearing the brunt of climate change in the region.

"This is where we have found the temperature rising between 0.1° Celsius to 0.4°C in a year, and that means species are shifting to higher altitudes at the rate of 80 to 200 metres in 10 years," says Sharma.

"This is quite alarming."

That is one of the reasons why, immediately after the meeting, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and ICIMOD launched a study in the trans-Himalayan Kailash sacred landscape area, criss-crossing Nepal and Chinese-controlled Tibet.

The two organisations together issued a warning in 2002 that 20 glacial lakes in Nepal and 24 in Bhutan were rapidly filling up, due to global warming-induced fast glacier melting, and that they could burst anytime.

The report was based on satellite images, but there have been no follow-up studies, even though glaciologists have called for urgent further investigation.

There are 3,300 glaciers in the Nepalese Himalayas and 2,300 of them contain glacial lakes that are quietly growing because of rising temperatures. But a sufficiently close eye is not being kept on them, campaigners say.

Fast-melting Himalayan glaciers often find a place in climate change reports, papers and discussions.

But how fast are they melting? And with what consequences for Himalayan ecology and the enormous human population depending on it?

These are questions awaiting long overdue field studies.

"We need to get the data to fill in the gap the IPCC report has," says Gregory Greenwood, of the Mountain Research Initiative, who also participated in the meeting aimed at launching coordinated studies in the HKH region.

"Records of directly measured glacier mass balances are few and stretch back only to the mid-20th century," reads one of the latest IPCC reports.

"Because of the very intensive fieldwork required, these records are biased towards logistically and morphologically “easy” glaciers.

"An effective strategy for advancing the understanding of adverse impacts of climate change in Asia will require strengthening the academic and research institutions”.

"It will be necessary to conduct innovative research on the response of human and natural systems to multiple stresses at various levels and scales," the report says.

That goal could perhaps be met to some extent if the latest bid for launching detailed field studies in the HKH region works.

But those who have been in the climate business for years now say it is largely a money matter.

"The need for such studies is a compelling story, but true success will be getting the funding," says Greenwood.

"Organisations that have been advocating such studies will have to keep beating the drum."

Then there are the ultra-sensitive geopolitical issues that have seen countries in the region not sharing information on aspects such as water resources.

But on a positive note, key regional players have of late hinted that they may cooperate in the fight against climate change.

In a recently released white paper on climate change, China has committed itself to international cooperation.

"In recent years, China’s president and premier have both stated China’s position on international cooperation on climate change at multilateral and bilateral exchanges, energetically promoting global action to cope with climate change," read the document.

Another major player in the region, India, has stressed a regional approach in the climate change action plan it launched earlier this year.

"That has been quite encouraging for us as most of the studies will have to be transboundary, and that will mean cooperation on the part of the countries in the region," says Sharma.

If the cooperation is there and of course, the money, the HKH region will perhaps no more remain a hole in the climate change information repository.

Navin Singh Khadka is a journalist with the BBC Nepali service. He has a sustained interest in environment, with a focus on climate change vis-a-vis Himalayan ecology.

Homepage photo by Richdrogpa