Rapidly melting glaciers in Asia’s Hindu Kush Himalayan region, home to the world’s tallest mountains, are threatening the lives and livelihoods of as many as two billion people downstream, according to a new study.
Glaciers thawed 65% faster in the 2011-2020 period compared to the previous decade and could lose 80% of their current volume by the end of this century on current emissions trajectories, the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, or ICIMOD, found in his latest study. This could, over time, drastically reduce the freshwater supply of 12 rivers that flow through 16 countries in the region, he said.
These mountain ranges, which stretch more than 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) long from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east, are also seeing shrinking permafrost that can trigger more landslides. , according to the study. ICIMOD, based in Nepal, has eight member countries in Asia, including China and India.
“There is still time to save this critical region, but only if rapid and deep reductions in emissions begin now,” said Izabella Koziell, deputy director general of ICIMOD, adding that glaciers are very sensitive to temperature increases, even light. “Melting snow, melting glaciers and thawing permafrost will mean disasters are expected to occur more frequently and will be deadlier and more costly.”
The planet is already 1.2°C warmer than in pre-industrial times, melting ice in the Arctic and Antarctica at a record rate. As heat waves invade more and more countries, from the United Kingdom to China, as wildfires burn Canadian forests and as a very violent cyclone hits the coasts of India and Pakistan, there is growing recognition that climate emergencies are no longer just freak weather events and require careful policy. stock. While severe flooding and landslides have left 2,000 tourists stranded in Sikkim in recent days, nearly 100 people are believed to have died in eastern India due to above normal temperatures. Local authorities disputed that the deaths were heat-related.
Besides the risk of flash floods and landslides, the region is at high risk of glacial lake flooding with 200 glacial lakes across the Hindu Kush Himalayas “deemed unsafe”, according to the report. The cascading effects threaten to disrupt agriculture, food security, availability of fresh water and energy sources. It can also endanger certain plant and animal species in biodiversity hotspots to the point of extinction.
“As the ice recedes, the land where the ice was located becomes unstable and begins to move – the additional meltwater then has the potential to wash it away easily, leading to destructive mass fluxes,” said ICIMOD researcher Jakob Steiner.
The evolution of the cryosphere is also expected to put the infrastructure of these mountainous regions at risk or economically unviable. “Once the peak of glacier melt is reached and the meltwater recedes, future hydropower plants could find themselves oversized, lacking the necessary water they were originally designed to harness,” Steiner said. .
The report also speaks of the urgent need to scale up the adaptation of affected local communities to climate change.
“It is high time for governments, donors and agencies to step in: to phase out fossil fuels and honor their commitments to limit warming, to help communities adapt to these already locked-in temperature rises, and to compensate them. for assets and ways of life that have already been lost,” said Saleemul Huq, a climate change expert who also sits on the COP28 advisory committee.
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