Even the most ambitious Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century would lead to a 2.1 spike in temperatures and the melting of one-third of glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region, said a new study.
Hindu Kush Himalaya region is a critical water source to some 250 million mountain dwellers and the 1.65 billion others living in lower-riparian countries including Bangladesh.
If global climate efforts fail, current emissions would lead to five degrees in warming and a loss of two-thirds of the region’s glaciers by 2100, according to a press release of the Kathmandu-based think-tank International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) received here today.
“This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of,” said Philippus Wester of ICIMOD, who led the study.
“Global warming is on track to transform the frigid, glacier-covered mountain peaks of the HKH cutting across eight countries to bare rocks in a little less than a century. Impacts on people in the region, already one of the world’s most fragile and hazard-prone mountain regions, will range from worsened air pollution to an increase in extreme weather events,” he said.
But, Wester said, it is 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.
Styled after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment is the first and most authoritative study of its kind to provide an assessment of one of the world’s most significant, yet often overlooked, mountain regions.
The HKH region covers 3,500 kilometres across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. Nestled in its record-breaking peaks, glaciers feed 10 of the world’s most important river systems, including the Ganges, Indus, Yellow, Mekong and Irrawaddy, and directly or indirectly supply billions of people with food, energy, clean air and incomes.
Additionally, the region contains four of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.
Though the mountainous region was formed around 70 million years ago, its glaciers are extremely sensitive to the changing climate. Since the 1970s, when global warming first set in, these ice masses have steadily thinned and retreated, and snow-covered areas and the amount of snow have decreased. These changes have ripple effects felt throughout the region.
The study says when glaciers melt, they flow into lakes and rivers. Changes to the timing and magnitude of this melting leads to an increase in the number and size of glacier lakes that can suddenly flood. This can lead to a surge of glacier runoff into major rivers, which could lead to flooding and the destruction of crops.
As a result of the HKH ice melt, more water is expected to surge through the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, forcing a change to the agriculture in the valleys around them.
Greenhouse gases are exacerbated by air pollutants originating from the Indo-Gangetic Plains-one of the world’s most polluted regions. These pollutants deposit black carbon and dust on the glaciers, hastening their melting and changing monsoon circulation, and rainfall distribution over Asia.
The study says as the Nepal earthquake in 2015 laid bare, mountain cities and settlements are vulnerable to disasters-from landslides and erosion to debris flows and floods. As the number and intensity of these disasters increase, more than one billion people are at risk.
These changes hit the region’s poor hardest. About one-third of the 250 million HKH mountain people live on less than US$ 1.90 a day; more than 30 percent of the region’s population doesn’t have enough to eat, and around 50 percent face some form of malnutrition, with women and children suffering the most.
The realities of mountain life, such as inaccessibility, fragility and remoteness, make it difficult for people to earn a living in the region; nonetheless, the report points out that mountain people have the potential to earn incomes by better utilising the region’s resources, such as hydropower potential, according to the study.
Despite the cultural and political diversity of the countries studied, they are united in the unique challenges facing mountain regions, which will only get worse with climate change and glacial melt, the study argues.
“The massive size and global significance of the Hindu Kush Himalaya region is indisputable, yet this is the first report to lay down in definitive detail the region’s critical importance to the well-being of billions and its alarming vulnerability, especially in the face of climate change,” said David Molden, director general of ICIMOD.