Kashmir’s abandoned glaciers

Shelving a vital project to monitor melting Himalayan ice will impede our ability to understand these changes and prepare for the consequences, argues Athar Parvaiz.

Funding cuts have brought a halt to one of the few on-the-ground projects monitoring receding ice in the western Himalayas. The move comes as scientists stress there is greater need than ever to boost our understanding of glacier changes, which will have a huge impact on the water systems of millions of people downstream.

Himalayan glaciers – which feed the major rivers of Asia – are the fastest shrinking in the word, but conditions among them vary considerably and rates of decline are unknown. What is known is that melting glaciers in the western Himalayas will reduce river flow in a region where competition over water resources is already a major flashpoint.

A reliable source at the New Delhi-based Energy and Research Institute (TERI) confirmed that the organisation has been forced to stop monitoring the receding Kolahoi glacier in Kashmir in the western Himalayas after project funding was axed. It has recently emerged that funding was cut by a US-based foundation back in 2010, in the wake of “Glaciergate”, the controversy surrounding inaccurate claims that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2030. But TERI made no public announcement that the project had stopped.

TERI started monitoring the glacier in 2008, against the backdrop of an acute lack of benchmark data on Himalayan glaciers. The organisation decided to monitor smaller Himalayan glaciers because other glaciers like Gangotiri (the source of the Ganges River) are too large to act as benchmark glaciers. And so it established “glacier monitoring observatories” at Kolahoi glacier in the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and at East Rathong glacier in the northeast state of Sikkim.

According to experts at TERI, until recently these two glaciers were being regularly monitored with state-of-art scientific instruments for various parameters, including energy, mass and hydrological balance.

Initially, former TERI scientist Syed Iqbal Hasnain monitored the glacier to collect benchmark data. But after he was caught up in the controversy over exaggerated predictions about melting Himalayan glaciers made in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report, Hasnain went to the United States, leaving another TERI scientist, Shresth Tayal, to monitor the glaciers. Sources outside TERI in Kashmir said that Tayal monitored the Kolahoi glacier remotely, through local tourist guide Ashraf Ganie, who took pictures and sent them to Tayal.

The news from sources at TERI, who want to remain anonymous, that they have given up data collection comes in spite of the consensus among glaciologists and climate scientists that, for reliable information to be gathered, Himalayan glaciers need to be monitored for at least two decades.

Scientists assert that all the glaciers across the region must be studied simultaneously on a long-term basis to determine climate change parameters regulating the melting patterns of Himalayan glaciers. This kind of collaboration, they say, would allow policymakers to devise more effective adaptation and mitigation strategies and help develop a regional observation system.

The Kolahoi glacier is a permanent source of water for Kashmir and feeds the Lidder river, an important tributary of Jhelum river. The Jhelum not only nourishes Kashmir’s paddy-fields, but also provides irrigation for Pakistan’s agriculturally-rich Punjab province, the most populous province in the country.

In recent years, friction over shared water resources has been rising between India and Pakistan. Both energy-starved countries are seeking to build hydropower projects in the Indus river basin, which is governed by a water-sharing treaty designed to resolve disputes. The Jhelum and its tributaries are vital parts of the Indus basin.

Fears that the next war in south Asia will be over water are continually expressed by political commentators and defense analysts. “Water, the most vital of all resources, has emerged as a key issue that would determine if Asia is headed toward cooperation or competition,” writes Professor Brahma Chellaney in his book Water: Asia’s New Battleground, published in October. “After all, the driest continent in the world is not Africa but Asia, where availability of freshwater is not even half the global annual average of 6,380 cubic metres per inhabitant.”

This lends an even higher premium to glaciers like Kolahoi, which feed the rivers shared by the south Asian rivals India and Pakistan. Many scientists warn that the Kolahoi glacier is retreating at an alarming rate and might vanish completely within a few years. They say increasing temperatures, reduced snowfall and human activity have greatly damaged the glacier.

Tassawur Ahmad Kant and two other researchers from Kashmir University, who are studying the changing glacial dynamics of the Kolahoi glacier, say that the area of the glacier decreased by 0.53 square kilometres in 13 years; from 11.22 square kilometres in 1992, to 10.69 square kilometres in 2005 (an average decline of 0.04 square kilometres every year).

“This change is ascertained by the meteorological characteristics of the study area,” these scientists assert. According to their calculations, the average maximum temperature showed an increase from 16.2 degrees Celsius in 1992, to 16.3 degrees Celsius in 2005; whereas the average minimum temperature for the same years was 3.69 and 4.24 degrees Celsius respectively. Precipitation, say Kant and colleagues, has also declined, falling from 1,371 millimetres in 1992 to 1,300 millimetres in 2005.

Observing the urgent need to check the impact of various human activities on accelerating glacier recession, the researchers also point out that the total population of Pahalgam – a tourist town in Kashmir near Kolahoi – has grown rapidly, hitting 177,361 in 2001, up from just 69,299 in 1961. Population density has also increased from 60 people per square kilometre in 1961 to 153 people per square kilometre in 2001. “The number of tourists arriving towards the Pahalgam has increased sharply from 63,312 in 1975 to 442,330 in 2005. The same trend was found in the increase of pilgrim tourists,” said one researcher. Pahalgam is the starting point for a trek to the Holy Hindu cave of Amarnath.

According to the researchers, the alarming increase in average maximum temperatures in Liddar valley – the Kolahoi glacier is situated at the head of the valley and Pahalgam in the middle – is inducing rapid snow melt, while the increase in average minimum temperatures is preventing water on the glacier to freeze to the required extent. This will ultimately affect the glacier’s lifespan.

Given the lack of scientific data on the remote Himalayan glaciers, field research like the now stalled Kolahoi glacier project remains key to understanding the long-term changes that could threaten water security for millions of people in Asia. Securing funds for glacier research should be at the top of policymakers’ shopping list.

Athar Parvaiz is an environmental journalist based in Kashmir.

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