Himalayan glacier melt will affect 1.3 billion people: scientists

As a result of global warming, glaciers that feed 10 major Asian rivers are melting at an astounding rate. Minorities in the mountains of Nepal are among the first to feel the impact as changing weather patterns and shifting growing seasons threaten food supplies. 

Wangal Tamang sits outside his stone house with his wife, Mendo, and some of his 10 children. The sun is shining on snowcapped peaks that stretch into the distance. Buddhist prayer flags flutter in the breeze. But the picture-perfect scene masks a disturbing reality: Wangal Tamang, a farmer and member of the Tamang minority, can no longer grow enough food to feed his family. Rising temperatures are playing havoc with weather patterns, changing traditional growing seasons.

A community leader, Lakpa Tamang, says those who live in the Himalayas have physically felt the effects of global warming over the past couple decades. For example, he says, twenty years ago the water was too cold to bathe in the morning, but that's not the case today.

Scientists at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) have been collecting data that supports that claim. Among other types of research, they have been measuring the retreat of melting glaciers. Most are retreating at an average of 10 to 60 metres per year; the Imja glacier has retreated 74 metres every year since 2000.

Glacial retreat causes an immediate risk for mountain communities. Melting snow forms lakes that sometimes burst their banks, causing massive floods that wipe out anything in their paths, including villages.

But rising temperatures, which are now felt so keenly at the roof of the world, will eventually affect a staggering number of people in Asia, scientists at ICIMOD warn. The glaciers feed rivers such as the Ganges, Mekong and the Yangze. More than a billion people in Asia depend on those and other rivers for irrigation and other vital uses. As the glaciers melt, it is predicted that those rivers will lose half their water flow over the next three decades.

"It is out of imagination that such a huge population is dependent with the fresh water sources which (are) derived from the glacier melt. So I cannot imagine the problem, I cannot imagine it," says Samjwal Bajracharya, a scientist at ICIMOD.

He says there are ways to help communities such as those in the Himalayas adapt. ICIMOD has produced recommendations including ways to conserve and manage water, conserve soil and produce energy from renewable sources.

But those solutions require massive investment, far beyond the meagre resources of Nepal, which is one of the world's poorest countries. At the global climate change conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, richer countries committed USD 30 billion to help developing nations adapt to climate change. Critics say that is nowhere near the amount needed to address the problems.

The conference also saw a scandal when it emerged that the United Nations' climate science body had falsely claimed that Himalayan glaciers could melt away entirely by 2035. The incident gave climate change skeptics an opportunity to challenge scientific evidence of global warming as a whole. The resulting debate obscured that fact that Himalayan glaciers are indeed melting. Scientists are measuring glacial retreat due to rising temperatures; and people in Nepal are facing the results.

Contacts: 

Nira Gurung, communications officer, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Kathmandu, Nepal
Email: ngurung@icimod.org
Phone: +977 1 5003310/11 Ext 115

Or contact Jared Ferrie, Asia Editor. See Contact page. 

Listen to the audio clips

AUDIO CLIP 1: Samjwal Bajracharya, a scientists at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, discusses the effects of glacial retreat in the Himalayas.

AUDIO CLIP 2: Farmer Wangal Tamang (voice 1, with translation) says he can no longer grow enough food to feed his family. Lakpa Tamang (voice 2) says the water has become warmer over the past 20 years. The clip ends with sound of women and children pounding and sifting wheat from a recent harvest.

Photos © Jared Ferrie, and *Samjwal Bajracharya, a scientist with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). If you use photos, please provide a photo credit.

Gallery

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Wangele Tamang, pictured here with his wife, Mendo, and their children, told MRG he was only able to grow enough food to feed his family for two months. He will have to find other work in order to buy food.
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*Due to global warming, the Himalayan glaciers are melting faster than any in the world. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) has documented glaciers retreating by as much as 74 metres per year. The melting ice forms lakes
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*Sometimes these lakes overflow, causing massive flooding and endangering indigenous communities. In 1985, Lake Dig Tsho overflowed and washed away much of Langmoche village. The damage is visible in this photo taken in April 2008.
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Community leader Lakpa Tamang
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Dramatically changing weather patterns caused by global warming are affecting agricultural production for ethnic minorities throughout Nepal, such as the Tharu in the Chitwan district
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Climate change is also endangering food security in Himalayan communities such as Dunche, in Nepal’s Rasuwa District. In this photo women of the Tamang ethnic minority pound and sift wheat.
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Melting Himalayan glaciers will eventually affect the lives of 1.3 billion people in Asia, according to ICIMOD. Ten of the continent’s largest rivers, including the Ganges, the Yangtze, and the Mekong (pictured here in Cambodia).
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Date: 31/08/2010

Countries:

Nepal

Categories:

Climate Change

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