Nov 10, 2009

Himalayan Blunder: The perils of denying glacier melting

The last time I trekked to the Gangotri glacier was in 2007. I had to trek 37 kms (both ways) from Gangotri to reach Gomukh, the source of mighty Ganga. Everyone knows that Gomukh has retreated over the years.

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh loves to challenge the dominant opinion (except in the case of Genetically Modified crops). Whether it is the stand India should take at the forthcoming Copenhagen conference or the melting of the Himalayan glaciers, he enjoys throwing a stone in the still waters and then sits back and enjoys watching the ripples it creates.

Jairam Ramesh loves to create unnecessary debate that can put him at the centrestage. At a time when newspapers and TV channels are dominated by film stars and cricketers, Jairam Ramesh has to find ways to stay in news. And I must acknowledge he has done fairly well. The PR agencies have a lot to learn from him.

I was therefore not even amused when Jairam Ramesh released on Monday a paper entitled Himalayan Glaciers by V K Raina, a former deputy director general of the Geological Survey of India. While the paper says that there is no conclusive evidence to prove that Himalayan glaciers are melting due to climate change, Mr Jairam Ramesh was quick to add that it is meant to "stimulate discussions".

I wonder what is the reason now for stimulating another discussion, after the recent leak of his letter to the Prime Minister asking him to take a u-turn in India's position on climate change to ostensibly show proximity to the United States. Well, I wouldn't be surprised if we learn subsequently that the paper was formally released to build up a case for river-linking. After all, billions of dollars are at stake and the lobby is still at work.

Neverthless, the simple reason why there is no "conclusive evidence" to show that the Himalayan glaciers are melting is because India had repeatedly turned down requests from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), for an exhaustive study of the Himalayan glaciers

The Indian government, which treats glacier studies only for defence purposes, did not see any major threat from the melting of glaciers and the formation of the newly created lakes. Perhaps India is waiting for another disaster to strike before it acknowledges the threat. Jairam Ramesh should realise that deflecting attention from the urgent need to do something more meaningful for protecting the Himalayan glaciers will be disastrous for the country's environment and food security.

I draw your attention to a Himalayan disaster in waiting. This is based on a detailed report prepared by ICIMOD sometimes back.

It happened on Aug 4, 1985. Dig Tsho glacial lake, situated close to the Mt Everest region at a height of 4,365 metres above sea level, suddenly burst. Within the next four hours, estimates show that nearly 8 million cubic metres of water had drained from the lake. The torrent moved forward rather slowly down-valley as a huge ‘black’ mass of water full of debris. The surge waters from what is called as ‘Glacial Lake Outburst Floods’ (GLOF), completely destroyed whatever came its way.

Within the next few hours, the GLOF had completely destroyed civil structures of Namche (Thame) Small Hydel Project (estimated cost of US $ 1.5 million), swept 14 bridges, long stretches of roads, trails, cultivated land and took a heavy toll of human and animal life.

Dig Tsho glacial lake was not the only of its kind in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan mountain range that passes through Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bhutan. With the glaciers retreating in the face of accelerating global warming, the resulting melting of snow forms glacial lakes downstream. While the total number of glaciers in the region is still unknown, ICIMOD had for the first time documented 3,252 glaciers in Nepal spread over 5,324 square kilometres. More significantly, the number of glacial lakes has been computed at 2,323. Most of these, it is believed, have formed in the past 50 years or so.

ICIMOD had identified 20 glacial lakes to be potentially dangerous, including 17 that do not have any prior outburst history. These lakes are situated in very remote and higher reaches but the catastrophe that they cause can be devastating for the local communities and the country’s economy. Take the case of Tsho Rolpha glacial lake. Situated in the Rolwaling Valley in Dolakha district, the lake is only 110 kms by a crow’s flight from the Capital city of Kathmandu. With the lake volume rising every year, the area increasing from 0.23 sq kms in 1959 to 1.55 sq kms in in 1990, and the subsequent weakening of the damming moraines that hold the water, researchers term it as ‘potentially dangerous’.

Not only in the Himalayas, glaciers are receding at a fast pace the world over. East Africa’s Mount Kilmanjaro is expected not to have any snow cap by the year 2015, its snow cover having shrunk at an alarming 82 per cent between 1912 and 2000. The alpine glaciers have reduced by 40 per cent in area and more than 50 per cent in volume since 1850. Since 1963, the Peruvian glaciers have retreated at the rate of over 155 metres a year. The Himalayan glaciers, however, are considered to be extremely sensitive to climate change as these accumulate snow during monsoon and shed it in summers. Other high-altitude glaciers on the other hand accumulate snow during winters and cast it off in summers.

The UNEP estimates that the bursting of glacial lakes is likely to become a major problem globally, especially in countries South America, India and China. But unfortunately, both India and China have used glaciers only for defence purposes. Much of the snow bound areas in both the countries is under the control of the armed forces and forms the ‘inner line of control’. No scientific access or public activity is allowed in these politically and strategically sensitive areas of high altitude. International pressure therefore has to be on both the giants to allow for scientific explorations and suitable remedial solutions to be put in place before the ‘inner line of control’ goes out of control.

While the world continues to debate over the dangerous implications of climate change on the glaciers, Nepal government, in collaboration with the Netherlands-Nepal friendship Association, had made a series of attempts to implement an early warning system, and at the same time launch efforts to mitigate the dangers of an outburst. Among the strategies adopted is to reduce the water level in the lake by three metres by way of a GLOF risk reduction system. Knowing that it is still not safe, the lake waters is planned to be further lowered by another 17 metres under the second phase, the Tsho Rolpha GLOF Permanent Remediation Project. This in itself is a remarkable initiative and needs to be replicated in the other countries faced with the fast receding but little understood phenomenon of the vanishing snow caps.

Three of the 20 potentially dangerous lakes (Nagma, Tam Pokhari and Dig Tsho) have past outburst records. There are six other glacial lakes that ICIMOD thinks have had a past outburst history but do not appear to be dangerous at present. Researchers opine that of the several possible methods of reducing the risk and probability of GLOF bursts, and that includes regular monitoring and early warning systems, the most important is to reduce the volume of water in the lake so as to cut down the peak surge discharge.

Protection human, animal life and the infrastructure and property would largely depend on careful planning and co-ordination with the concerned agencies. More importantly, it is crucial to frame the disaster mitigation policies and activities. Nothing better illustrates the urgency with which a massive global programme to save the mountains from an impending apocalypse. The mountain areas are already reeling under abject poverty and the accompanying destruction of the fragile habitat. Ignoring the serious and real threat of climate change will surely be still more catastrophic. #


Awzzman said...

very infromative post! ,

what ever it may be, our PM still proudly says that "we`re not to blame for the climate change"! while India`s contribute 6% of world total carbon emmisons! How come they made a conclusion that there is no evidence to prove that Himalayan glaciers are melting due to climate change?, its time for our leaders to open their eyes!. Kudos to you.

Anonymous said...

Minister Jairam Ramesh's posture reminds me of a cartoon where a man had buried his head in sand in an ostrich like posture. It had a caption 'now there is plenty of scope for this activity because there will be desert everywhere'. Our minister is trying to bury his head in glaciers.

Nagesh Hegde

Ms R.C. ten Veen said...

Thanks for your sense... in the UK newspaper The Times a headline today is trying to scream "World misled over Himalayan glacier melt"