Global warming in the Himalayas — the threat to Asia's water

August 16, 2009

Pemba Dorje Sherpa is the world record holder for the fastest climb of Mount Everest. He toured Australia from August 11 to 17 to raise awareness about the drastic impacts of climate change on the Himalayas.

Global warming in the region means millions of people in Asia will soon run out of water.

"My house is above 4000 metres high", Dorje told Green Left Weekly. "Because of climate change, the snow I could see around my home only a few years ago is gone. In recent years, there have been new records set for climbing Mount Everest. This because there is less snow, only rock."

His message to the Australian government is that it should end its role as an international climate vandal and agree to cut emissions fast. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's unconditional emission cut target of 5% below 1990 levels by 2020 is dangerously inadequate.

Global warming was having a tragic impact on the natural habitat in the Himalayas, Dorje said. "When I used to climb the mountain I could see so many animals. But these days it is very difficult to see any animals. Many animals are disappearing because of warmer weather and avalanches [as soils thaw]."

Australia, and the rest of the world, must cut 50% of emissions by 2020 if the worst effects of climate change are to be avoided, he said.

It's common knowledge that climate change is leading to melting ice caps, rising sea levels and changing weather patterns. Less understood is the humanitarian catastrophe looming, due to the big melt at the roof of the world.

Meltwater from the Himalayan glaciers feeds into the eight big rivers in Asia. More than 1.3 billion people rely on this water for drinking and food production. Climate change means the glaciers are melting rapidly. Current levels of warming mean the glaciers may be gone completely before the end of the century.

Dorje's tour was organised by Friends of the Earth (FoE) with the support of the Intrepid foundation. He was joined by Prakash Sharma, an environmental lawyer and the executive director of Pro-Public Nepal.

The tour coincided with the launch of a new FoE report: Highstakes — climate change, the Himalayas, Asia and Australia. David Spratt and Damian Lawson authored the report, which drew on the latest scientific research into the extent of the Himalayan melt.

The report said: "The Greater Himalayas are warming at two-to-four times the global average rate. If global warming continues along the current path, the Himalayan glaciers will melt at an accelerating rate until they eventually disappear."

Nepal's Department of Hydrology said average temperatures in the Himalayas had risen 0.06°C a year for the past 30 years. This is four times the world average.

This warming will have catastrophic consequences. "By the 2050s, more than a billion people in Central and South Asia could be suffering significant water shortages and crop yields could decrease by as much as 30%", the Highstakes report said.

The Indus and Ganges rivers, which flow through India and Pakistan, are in danger of becoming seasonal rivers. Glacial melt makes up 45% of total river flow. More than 600 million people will be unable to grow food if the glaciers go.

The big melt is making existing shortages even worse. Already, close to half a billion people in Asia lack access to safe drinking water.

The report pointed out that the glacial melt would not only lead to water shortages, it would also cause catastrophic flooding in highland regions.

Glacial lakes high in the mountains are growing fast as the melt worsens. Scientists predict many will soon burst their banks, releasing megalitres of water and wreaking havoc below.

The report said: "In 1985, Lake Dig Tsho in the Everest region released 10 million cubic metres of water in three hours in a 10-metre high wall of water which swept away a power station, bridges, farmland, houses, livestock and people up to 90 kilometres downstream. Scientists estimate that the most dangerous lakes today are up to 20 times bigger."

Dorje told GLW: "There are so many glacial lakes that have formed now because of the melting. If the glacial lakes burst then there is a flow of water and floods. There is no calculation about how many people living below will be affected."

Without rapid action to curb emissions, the average temperature of the planet could warm by a disastrous 5°C by the end of the century. However, in March, climate scientist Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber pointed out that the temperature increase would certainly be higher in the Greater Himalayas region.

"Five degrees is the average because the continents heat up faster than the oceans," he said. "The continents would be warmer by 8-9°C, and the high-lying regions like the Tibetan Plateau would warm by 12°C. All the glaciers would melt. But these glaciers feed rivers that sustain two billion people, and they would run dry in the summer.

"This is not rocket science. This is probably the biggest impact of global warming if left unmitigated."

The Highstakes report said Australia had a crucial responsibility to help avert a climate catastrophe. Yet the business-as-usual policies of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's government will lock in disaster.

Australia must abandon its stated goal of stabilising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at 450 parts per million, up from about 380ppm today. Instead, Australia should aim to reduce greenhouse gases well below 350ppm to help stop the big melt.

The report recommended Australia adopt an emissions reduction target of at least 50% on 1990 levels by 2020 and provide immediate financial assistance to Nepal and other Himalayan nations to stop the threat of glacial lake outburst floods.

It also called for the Australian government to change its immigration policy to recognise climate refugees as legitimate asylum seekers.

Dorje called on world governments to adopt strong emissions cut targets at the Copenhagen climate conference in December.

"They should have a common program to cut emissions from this conference", he said. "They should concentrate what global warming means for the mountains."

[FoE's Highstakes report can be downloaded from]

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