Why the Melting of the Hindu Kush and Himalayan Glaciers Matters

Recent Features

Features | Environment | Central Asia | East Asia | South Asia | Southeast Asia

Why the Melting of the Hindu Kush and Himalayan Glaciers Matters

The entire region is headed for an immense climate crisis by 2100, scientists warn.

Why the Melting of the Hindu Kush and Himalayan Glaciers Matters

In this Monday, Feb. 22, 2016 file photo, international trekkers pass through a glacier at the Mount Everest base camp, Nepal.

Credit: AP Photo/Tashi Sherpa, file

In the last century, human migration in South Asia, the world’s most populous and most densely populated region, was largely caused by geopolitics, wars, socioeconomic constraints and environmental disasters. By the end of this century, however, climate change will have become the single biggest driver behind an unprecedented scale of migration and displacement across the Indian subcontinent, potentially with destabilizing effects. Already vulnerable to natural disasters, South Asia could be left grappling with millions of “climate refugees,” regional conflicts, and militarized contests over precious resources like food and water.

This grim forewarning is grounded in the latest report assessing the health of the Hindu Kush and Himalayan (HKH) glaciers amid rising global temperatures. The landmark research predicts the mountain chain stretching from Pakistan to Myanmar will lose two-thirds of its ice fields by 2100 if global greenhouse gas emissions are not drastically curbed. Even with collective international effort to restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the glaciers will still have shrunk by 36 percent by the end of this century. The study, authored by 210 scientists from 22 countries over five years, warns that the loss of ice at this scale will have serious consequences for up to 2 billion people living across the region, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh.

These eight countries are deeply intertwined by the 3,500-kilometer Hindu Kush and Himalayan mountain range and a complex web of ecosystems, weather patterns, rainfall, biodiversity and crucial natural resources. Often referred to as the third pole, the HKH glaciers have the largest ice cover outside the North and South poles, and are a critical source of water for 240 million people living in the mountain belt and its foothills. More importantly, these glaciers feed into 10 major river basins including the Mekong, Yangtze, Indus and Ganges, that support food, water and energy needs of another 1.9 billion people across South Asia.

Retreating HKH ice fields, the scientists warn, will radically alter the delicate balance between the region’s natural environment, human habitats, and food and energy security. With China and India among the worst global polluters, the region’s per capita fossil fuel CO2 emissions already account for the one-sixth of the global average. There are now serious worries that unmitigated pollution from dirty fossil fuels like coal — currently the most common energy source in the region –will accelerate the thaw in the HKH glaciers in the next few decades.

Global warming is increasingly disrupting weather patterns and precipitation across the planet. In the HKH region, however, this will initially result in greater river flows by 2050-60 due to rapidly melting glaciers. Increase in water volumes will mean a higher risk of frequent floods, landslides, bursting of dams, soil erosion and crop failure. Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) in particular pose a serious threat to mountainous communities in Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, China and India. As water levels begin to decline subsequently, that pattern is predicted to reverse, bringing on harsh droughts, especially for downstream populations. Reduced inflows will also result in water stress and lower energy output from hydropower dams, with serious consequences for overall food and energy production in the region.

Coastal economies, on the other hand, are predicted to face a greater existential threat amid shrinking HKH icefields. The impact of rising sea level through salinity intrusion, fresh water contamination and repeated inundation is already evident in island nations and countries with large coastlines around the world. 

But how this gradual and irreversible thaw in HKH glaciers will manifest in socioeconomic disruption and categorical human displacement should be a cause for grave concern for the governments in the region. Due to its geography, high levels of poverty and dense population centers, South Asia is recognized as one of three developing regions most vulnerable to the impact of global warming. In a report in March 2018, the World Bank said unmitigated climate change is likely to displace over 140 millions people in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America by 2050 creating “a looming human crisis and threatening the development process.” By 2100, however, the number of climate refugees (a term yet to be legally defined) displaced as a consequence of environmental degradation in the HKH countries alone could be catastrophically high.

Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh consistently rank among the 10 worst affected countries on the Global Climate Risk Index due to recurrent natural disasters like cyclones, flash floods, landslides, droughts and sea-water intrusion. Displacement and internal migration in these countries have been strongly linked to environmental degradation. Poor resource management, inadequate government planning and unstable political climate in Myanmar and Pakistan have also exacerbated the impact of climate change on their most vulnerable communities. Heat stress and drought are already negatively impacting wheat yields in Pakistan’s agrarian economy where more than 50 percent of the rural population are landless laborers. Climate-induced migration in the country in the foreseeable future is expected to grow manifold, according to a recent research. The above mentioned study predicts environmental degradation and loss of rural livelihoods would accelerate urban migration to 50 percent by 2030-35 and to 70 percent by 2100.

Yet to fully recover from political instability and humanitarian crises, Myanmar ranks only second out of 187 countries on the Climate Risk Index due to its exposure to extreme weather events like tropical storms. In 2008, Cyclone Nargis killed 140,000 and displaced 800,000 people in the country. In 2015, massive floods and related landslides affected 9 million people, aggravating Myanmar’s never-ending fight against climate change while pushing its developmental goals further away. Coastal erosion, frequent inundation and large-scale displacement in the future are likely to worsen conflict and political environment in the country, making unmitigated climate distress the greatest threat to Myanmar’s peace and stability in the decades ahead.

Bangladesh, on the other hand, is not only one of the poorest countries in the world, it also has the largest climate migrant population anywhere on the planet. Sitting astride the world’s largest delta system, the riverine country is barely above the sea level and frequently suffers salinity intrusion, fresh water contamination, crop failures and repeated inundation, destroying rural livelihoods. On average this causes the displacement of over 700,000 rural Bangladeshis every year. By 2050, scientists have warned, rising sea levels can swallow almost 20 percent of the country’s landmass leaving up to 20 million climate refugees in its wake.

In China, extreme weather events like heatwaves and droughts are already being recognized as major drivers behind growing urban migration. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, natural disasters displaced nearly 6 million people in China during 2012.

The deteriorating environmental conditions, water stress and land erosion are increasingly affecting rural livelihoods, forcing people to seek economic opportunities in coastal cities such as Shanghai. Unfortunately, that particular major urban center is already creaking under pressure from incessant exposure to typhoons and flooding, further compounding the continuous cycles of internal displacement and worsening human conditions particularly for the new arrivals from the countryside. In the country’s northwest, climate-distressed provinces like Ningxia are at the heart of the world’s largest environmental migration project. Under the program over 1.14 million people from the drought-hit province have been relocated and resettled over the years, underlining the magnitude of challenge China faces in rehabilitating a growing number of what it calls “ecological migrants” in the future amid changing global climate.

What makes India, the third largest polluter after China and the United States and an ambitious economic giant, extremely vulnerable to climate-induced stress is its large proportion of poor population whose livelihoods depend on agriculture and natural resources. Increasingly harsh weather patterns, declining rainfall and water stress in many parts of the country have become commonplace, with profound impact on poverty, rural livelihoods and migration to cities in search of economic opportunities. According to the World Bank, by 2020 the pressure on India’s water, air, soil and forests is expected to become the highest in the world. A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year warned that consequences of climate change for India would be devastating due to its huge population, extreme poverty and inequality. Rising sea levels, warns the report, will not only drive large-scale migration from its coastal communities to its already over-crowded urban centers but also from neighboring countries like Bangladesh, exposing it to destabilization, food and water insecurity and conflict over precious natural resources.

For Afghanistan, known as a country mired in insurgency and long-running bloody conflict, climate change is an equally formidable adversary. Warmer temperatures and increasingly erratic rainfall over the years is pushing the country’s already vulnerable subsistence farming community to the edge. Destruction of crops due to failing rains and premature meltdown of mountain ice has become a grim routine in central highland provinces like Bamiyan, further aggravating cycles of debt, poverty and insecurity among communities dependent on agricultural livelihoods. More than 80 percent of conflicts in the country, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), have been linked to resources such land and water. Despite receiving billions of dollars in foreign aid toward strengthening infrastructure and agriculture in the country, Afghanistan remains woefully vulnerable to and ill-prepared to combat the effects of climate change. This situation is predicted to worsen. A joint study by UNEP, the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) and World Food Program has warned that temperatures in Afghanistan are expected to increase more than the global average, and will trigger long spells of drought in many parts of the country in the decades ahead.

The future of Bhutan and Nepal, two mountainous countries landlocked between India and China, is directly linked with the health of the Himalayan glaciers. The two mostly rural countries are heavily dependent on the glaciers for their water, food and energy security. Signs of climate distress in both countries are tangibly visible as a result of warming glaciers, raising concerns over the future of livelihoods, conservation, and subsistence of their mountainous communities. Recent years have brought erratic monsoons, longer hot spells, forest fires and droughts in the region. As HKH glaciers melt, the higher river flows could spell disaster for the fragile communities already beset by poverty, insufficient economic opportunities and inequality. While Bhutan is the only carbon-negative country in the world, by virtue of 70 percent of its land covered with thick woodlands acting as a large carbon sink, it’s still not immune to the effects of warming HKH glaciers. The country’s economic output and growth crucially depends on agriculture, hydropower and forestry, sectors that are highly climate-sensitive. As mean temperatures rise, the increasing water levels in glacial lakes dangerously exposes Nepal and Bhutan to GLFOs, threatening human and economic devastation, and displacement.

Factors behind climate-induced migration are often complex and poorly understood. But in recent years a growing volume of scientific studies and anthropological researches have established a strong link between climate change and migration and conflict. A UN Security Council debate earlier this year recognized the global phenomenon as a “threat multiplier.” Despite increasing awareness about global warming and environmental action movements gaining momentum around the world, the Hindu Kush Himalayan region continues to receive less attention than other hotspots like low-lying islands and the Arctic region. But scientists have warned that the HKH’s geological fragility combined with stressors like globalization, rapid industrialization, infrastructure development and, most importantly, rising global temperatures makes its large population extremely vulnerable to climate-induced stress. A destabilized HKH region with millions of climate refugees would have serious consequences for the whole world, they warn.

Nishtha Chugh is an award-winning development and security journalist based in the U.K. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Al Jazeera, BBC World Service, Channel 4 News, Open Democracy, Africa News and The Independent.