The Hindu-Kush Himalaya area may host future water crises
as glaciers melt, population rapidly increases, and competition over scarce water resources intensifies, says a recent report
from the Humanitarian Futures Programme
at King’s College.Himalayan glaciers
– often called the “third pole” because they house the greatest volume of frozen water outside the polar regions – provide the headwaters for 10 major river systems in Asia. Despite clear evidence that the HKH glaciers are receding, recent controversy over the 2007 IPCC report
has sidetracked the discussion from the degree of glacial melt and its impacts on the surrounding environment.
Glacial melt sends more water into the rivers in the rainy season, and less water in the dry season. This variability will increase both floods and droughts, which in turn can damage agriculture and create food shortages. Melting glaciers can also create “glacial lakes” that are prone to sudden bursting, causing disastrous flooding downstream (ppt).
According to The Waters of the Third Pole: Sources of Threat, Sources of Survival, climate change is already having significant impacts in the Himalayan region, intensifying natural disasters and the variability of the summer monsoon rains, and increasing the number of displaced people and government attempts to secure water supplies from its neighbors.
Rivers of People: Environmental Migrants
One of the major consequences, the report argues, could be “growing numbers of environmental migrants,” which the authors define as “people moving away from drying or degraded farmland or fisheries, and the millions displaced by ever-larger dams and river-diversion projects”—and including the Chinese government’s forced “‘re-location of people from ecologically fragile regions.”
Today, about 30 million (15 percent) of the world’s migrants are from the Himalayan region, the report says, warning that “in the next decade, should river flows reduce significantly, migration out of irrigated areas could be massive.” But the authors acknowledge that reliable estimates are rare – a problem pointed out in The New Security Beat.
However, it is clear that the region’s population is growing and urbanizing rapidly: By 2025, one-half of all Asians will live in cities, whereas one generation ago, the figure was one in 10. This incredible shift, says the report, places “some of the greatest pressures on water through increased demand and pollution.”
Water War or Water Peace?
The Waters of the Third Pole warns that growing scarcity could “raise the risk of conflict in a region already fraught with cross-border tensions.” While interstate tensions over water have been minimal to date, they could potentially increase in areas where significant percentages of river flow originate outside of a country’s borders – in 2005 Bangladesh relied on trans-boundary water supplies for 91 percent of its river flow, Pakistan for 76 percent, and India for 34 percent. Intra-state conflict is also expected to increase. The report notes, “In China alone, it has been reported that domestic uprisings have continued to increase in protest about water management or water-quality issues.”
However, the water-conflict link remains shaky within the scholarly community. As Dabelko recently told Diane Rehm about the region, “There are prospects for tensions, but quite frankly, water is difficult to [obtain] through war. It’s hard to pick it up and take it home.”
The report points out some areas in which water may actually pose an opportunity for regional cooperation rather than conflict, such as developing knowledge-sharing networks like the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development. The presence of such networks may help establish channels of communication and aid in diffusing other cross-border tensions. But the authors caution that “environmental cooperation generally lags far behind economic cooperation in the HKH region.”
The report concludes that policymakers must move the region higher on the humanitarian agenda; construct a framework for action that includes non-intrusive international support; and more thoroughly address knowledge and communication gaps.
Photo Credit: “Annapurna ways, Nepal,” courtesy of flickr user rakustow.