By Sudeshna Sarkar
KATHMANDU, Nov 20, 2011 (IPS) – Chungda Sherpa, a former herder from eastern Nepal, has a warning tale ahead of the United Nations climate change conference in Durban.
At World Wildlife Fund-Japan’s ‘Climate Witness’ programme in Osaka and Tokyo this month, to apprise communities around the world how climate change is threatening lives and livelihoods, the 48-year-old described how the glacier on Mt Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world, is shrinking rapidly.
“When I was young … I was told it was one of the largest non-polar glaciers in the world,” he said. “But it has retreated now and I can see glacial lakes forming, which could grow larger over time and become GLOFs (glacial lake outburst floods), posing a threat to our lives and property.”
With global average temperature increasing by approximately 0.75 degrees Celsius in the last century, its most visible and direct effect can be seen on mountains, says Pradeep Mool, remote sensory expert at the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
“The health of glaciers indicates the state of the climate,” says Mool. “In 1957, when Swiss geologist Dr Toni Hagen took the photograph of the Gangapurna glacier on the northern slope of Mt Annapurna, it lay over the Manang valley. But recent photos show the glacier is now just a hanging strip. We have witnessed the change in our lifetime.”
The shrinking and retreating of the Himalayan glaciers – which provide life-giving water to over a billion people – became visible after early 1970. Three decades later, the phenomenon accelerated, resulting in the formation of moraine-dammed glacial lakes which are swelling ominously.
There are over 20,000 glacial lakes in the Hindu Kush-Himalayas and a GLOF risk assessment report by ICIMOD in 2010 compiled a list of 179 potentially dangerous ones in China, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. In addition, experts have identified another 25 in Bhutan.
So far, China has recorded the highest number of GLOFs (29), followed by Nepal (22), Pakistan (9) and Bhutan (4).
“There is a dearth of data,” says Mool. “For instance, people talk of cold floods in India and Myanmar (Burma), which could have been GLOFs; even some satellite images indicate that. But there is no recorded literature.”
The geography as well as geopolitics of the region comes in the way of extensive surveys and information sharing.
The high altitude of glacial lakes and glaciers – 4,800 m above sea level and higher – makes them virtually inaccessible. Also, many of them are near international boundaries or in disputed territory, like the Siachen glacier near India’s boundary with Pakistan, and Arunachal Pradesh state in India, part of which is claimed by China.
The disputes make them sensitive areas, often out of bounds for scientific surveys.
Political instability and ensuing violence, like in Afghanistan and Pakistan, also obstruct research. But despite the difficulties, ICIMOD has now for the first time conducted additional survey of GLOFs in Afghanistan and Burma.
The new inventory of nearly 1,700 lakes in the two countries, done mostly by satellite imaging, will be tabled in Durban during 17th conference of the parties (COP 17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban.
Though most of the governments in the region realise the need to combat climate change and have individually formulated national action plans as well as laws on disaster management, there is still little collective effort.
For instance, on Nov. 19, Bhutan hosted a ‘Climate Summit for a Living Himalayas’ to address climate change impacts on bio-diversity, food and energy security and the natural freshwater systems of the Himalayas.
However, only India, Nepal and Bangladesh participated, besides the host country, raising eyebrows at the non-participation of China and Pakistan.
“The meeting was intended only for countries from the eastern Himalayas,” says Krishna Gyawali, secretary at Nepal’s environment ministry. “We have to start somewhere and then gradually expand.”
However, it is felt that India’s uneasy relationship with China and Pakistan could have kept them out.
“Some of Asia’s major rivers like the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Mekong flow through more than one country,” says Mool. “Water-induced disasters spill over borders.
“Ten of the GLOF devastations experienced by Nepal originated in Tibet. The effect is long-lived. Besides the immense cost of rebuilding infrastructure in mountainous regions, there is the possibility of increasing landslide and avalanche. So, regional cooperation is a must.”
What is promising is that some of these countries are working with multilateral donor agencies to lessen GLOF risks, create an early warning system in case of floods, and devise optional livelihood means for displaced people.
According to Martin Krause, team leader at UNDP Asia-Pacific regional centre’s environment and energy division, the agency is engaged in projects in Bhutan and Pakistan with a new one to start in Nepal next year.
In Bhutan, it is focusing on the Buddhist kingdom’s two most vulnerable areas, the Punakha-Wangdi and Chamkhar valleys, home to 10 percent of the country’s population and important infrastructure.
The projects are co-financed by the UNFCC, Least Developed Countries Fund and the Austrian government. UNDP hopes that a component of the project – reducing the water level of Lake Thorthormi, ranked among Bhutan’s most dangerous glacial lakes – will provide valuable experience to other countries like China, Pakistan, India and Chile
In Pakistan, UNDP is working with the government to create an institution to address GLOF risks and other issues affecting communities and livelihoods in northern Pakistan and help them respond.
Ironically, though Nepal remained closed to the outside world till the 1950s and was affected by a 10-year communist insurgency from 1996, it remains the most open to surveys, research and disaster mitigation projects.
Next year, UNDP will start a many-layered disaster risk management programme in Nepal that, among other things, will seek to reduce human and material losses from GLOFs in two mountain districts: Dolakha and Solukhumbu.
Nepal, home to eight of the world’s 14 highest mountains, including Mt Everest, has been using the iconic peak to draw global attention to the risks faced by its mountain community.
“In 2009, the then government of Nepal called a cabinet meeting at Kala Patthar (a 5,242 m high plateau at the foot of Mt Everest),” says Ghana S. Gurung, conservation programme director at World Wildlife Fund Nepal.
“Later, at COP 15 in Copenhagen he gave rocks from Mt Everest to U.S. President Barack Obama and the then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to emphasise how the peak’s snow cover was receding. It succeeded in drawing global attention to the peril faced by the world’s highest mountain due to climate change.”