One-third of Himalayan glaciers to vanish despite global climate action

Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio

ISLAMABAD [ February 13, 2019]: Nearly a third of the glaciers in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya (HKH) region are destined to vanish by the end of this century endangering lives and livelihoods of two billion people even though stern actions are taken globally to curb planet-warming carbon emissions under Paris climate accord, scientists warn in the latest landmark assessment report.

The study researchers say that even if the world succeeds to ‘rapidly’ limit global warming to 1.5C with radical measures, 36 percent of the glaciers in the region will completely melt by year 2100 and 50 percent if global temperatures soar by 2C. But the loss of glaciers could increase to two-thirds in case the rise of heat-trapping carbon emissions is left untamed in any way.

The region is home to some 54,000 glaciers spread over 60,000 km2 area.

The findings of the study ‘The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment’ published by SpringerLink and launched on February 4 in Kathmandu warn of far-reaching fallout of the disappearance of glaciers for the region’s socio-economic sectors and gains of sustainable development goals and targets 2030.

Link to study: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-3-319-92288-1

“This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of,” said Philippus Wester, climate scientist at the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, who led the report. “In the best of possible worlds, even though we get really ambitious [in tackling climate change], even then we will lose one-third of the glaciers and be in trouble. That for us was the shocking finding.”

The study assesses the latest state of impacts on HK glaciers, drivers of the change and their potential consequences on overall HKH environment, glaciers, river flows, shifting rainfall patterns and human well-being and the opportunities they offer. It provides policy-oriented solutions, and inform relevant decision-makers across sectors for adaptation and mitigation actions.

More than 350 researchers and policy experts from 22 countries and 185 organizations worked for the study conducted over five years. With 210 authors, 20 review editors and 125 external reviewers, it provides an unprecedented insight into the region’s distinct environment, people and wildlife.

The HKH region spans from Afghanistan to Myanmar and is the planet’s “third pole”, housing more ice than anywhere outside Arctic and Antarctica known north pole and south pole, respectively.

The glaciers in the third pole are a vital water store and lifeline for the 250 million people in mountain areas of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya (HKH) region, and around 1.65 billion people dependent for their lives and livelihoods on the 10 mighty rivers that flow down from the snow-covered peaks into India, Pakistan, Nepal, Maynmar, China and other nations.


The new assessment report highlights vulnerability of and consequences for many people residing upstream and downstream, with one-third living on below $1.90 per day, most of whom are inaccessible for help if climate disasters like floods jolts them.

“Consequences on people in the region, already one of the world’s most fragile and disaster-prone mountain regions, will range from worsened air pollution to an increase in extreme weather events. But it’s the projected reductions in pre-monsoon river flows and changes in the monsoon that will hit hardest, throwing urban water systems and food and energy production off kilter,” says ICIMOD’s Sharma.

 The study findings indicate that projected paced warming-induced glacial melts will spike dangerously the river flows between 2050 and 2060, exacerbating peril of high-altitude glacial lakes ripping of their banks and flooding communities. But after 2060s, river flows, particularly of and central Asian rivers, will substantially plunge.

“Those are the areas that will be affected adversely with the vanishing of glaciers, most of them in mountain areas,” Eklabya Sharma, one of the lead authors of the study and deputy director general of ICIMOD, said.

He elaborates that hydropower generation – that meets much of the region’s electricity – will significantly go down with the plunging flows after 2060s. Moreover, the declining flows will bring adverse effects for farming communities across the region, which hinge on foreseeable water supplies for outliving crops that meets food needs of them and over 1.5 billion people downstream.

Collaboration and cooperation among regional countries for collaborative  climate action is key for coping with environmental and socio-economic challenges identified in the land mark assessment, suggests Krishna AchutaRao,  glaciologist and associate professor at the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences of Delhi-based Indian Institute of Technology.

“Science about global warming impacts on HKH glaciers is now palpable for policy action. However for mitigating climate impacts of melting glaciers on lives and livelihoods, biodiversity and water and food security, the HKH countries must engage more meaningfully in devising national and regional frameworks and policy-based adaptation and mitigation action for fair cooperation in view of their intimate upstream downstream interconnectedness and dependence on water from the HKH glaciated areas, Krishna AchutaRao, lead author of IPCC 6th Assessment Report, told this scribe.

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