The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recently released a special report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC). This report assessed the latest scientific knowledge about the physical science basis and impacts of climate change on ocean, coastal, polar and mountain ecosystems, and the human communities that depend on them. It also evaluated their vulnerabilities and adaptation capacity and determined that the ocean and cryosphere play a critical role in sustaining life. In particular, it shows that the ocean has taken up more than 90% of the heat generated by greenhouse gas emissions and is reducing warming on land. Ocean warming, together with ocean acidification (from carbon dioxide uptake), loss of oxygen, and changes in nutrient supplies is affecting the distribution and abundance of marine life in coastal areas, including in the open ocean and at the seafloor. Glaciers and ice sheets all around the world are losing mass at an increasing rate. Warmer ocean water causes several parts of the Antarctic ice sheet to lose mass. At the same time, Greenland is losing mass due to increased surface melting. Melting ice sheets and glaciers now contribute more to the global mean sea level rise than the expansion of warming ocean waters. This shows that climate change is rapidly changing these two systems which has larger implications for humanity if remains unchecked. With this context in mind, in this piece, I will highlight the key takeaways for Hindu-Kush Himalayan Region.
Changing Cryosphere: What is in for Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) Region?
The term Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region – which covers the high mountain chains of Central, South and Inner Asia that includes the Tien Shan, Kun Lun, Pamir, Hindu Kush, Karakoram, Himalayas, and Hengduan and the high-altitude Tibetan Plateau — has one of the world’s largest renewable supplies of freshwater. The Himalayan region has the largest reserve of water in the form of ice and snow outside the Polar Regions; this is why it is called the ‘third pole’. Based on the latest available government data sources and projections, in 2017, the population of the mountain and hills of the Hindu Kush Himalaya was about 240 million people. The total population in the ten major river basins with their headwaters in the HKH was about 1.9 billion, including the 240 million in the mountain and hills of the HKH. These big river systems, which originate in the HKH region, support irrigation in agricultural areas and provide drinking water to millions of rural and urban populations. These systems are major economic engines of the region, especially due to their large freshwater reserve, which makes it a natural resource support for the billions of people living downstream. Therefore, what happens to Himalayan glaciers has an impact on the two billion people living in Asia. It is clear that climate change is impacting the region with increased intensity, and further impacts will have severe ramifications for the economy, livelihood and ecosystem.
Below, I provide 6 important points which is reemphasised by SROCC and come from earlier findings coming from the recent researches in the region.
- Water gaps are increasing: A study by HI-AWARE shows that in the 21st century alone, water consumption in downstream areas of the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra (IGB) basins is projected to increase by 24%, 42% and 107%, respectively. Water use for industrial and domestic purposes is projected to increase three to seven-fold. The increase in water availability will be stronger in the upstream parts which will increase the dependency of downstream water users on upstream water resources. For example, the current blue water gap, based on unsustainable groundwater withdrawals, is 83 km3/year in the Indus and 35 km3/ year in the Ganges, and will increase by 7% and 11% towards the end of the century. There are three areas in which this process of changing climate will impact the people downstream: the water gap will increase due to socio-economic development and population rise. Secondly, while the demand will reduce, flood events will increase, and finally, heat waves will continue to rise. All these will impact those already living below poverty line the most. #2 and #3 are detailed below:
- Flood events will increase: Floods will become more frequent and severe in the mountainous and downstream areas of the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra river basins, because of an increase in extreme precipitation events. Depending on the severity of climate change, flood events are expected to more than double towards the end of the century.
- Rising temperatures: HKH regions are extremely susceptible to temperature increase. Under a 1.5 °C global warming scenario, the areas are projected to warm up by more than 2 °C on average by the end of this century. At higher altitudes this warming will be even more marked, due to the elevation dependent warming. A 2 °C global warming scenario could lead to a warming of around 2.7 °C in glaciated river basins. Currently, more likely climate change scenarios — which are specific for these river basins — suggest regional temperature increases between 3.5 and 6 °C by 2100. Most of the projections also indicate overall wetter conditions in the future and increases in extreme precipitation events. This will lead to significant losses in glacier volume, from 36 to 64%, depending on the warming scenario, and impact timing of water flows and water availability. Therefore, the rate of risk is extremely high in the present emission scenario. Heat waves are expected to increase in intensity and duration in South Asia. Already, the heat thresholds in cities have exceeded previous limits. Individual solutions for keeping houses and neighbourhoods cool will not be enough: concerted efforts are needed at the urban landscape, community and individual levels to address the challenge of increasing urban heat in South Asia.
- People living far from oceans and glaciers are also impacted: It is sometimes forgotten that even people living far from the ocean or cryosphere depend on these systems. Snow and glacier melt from high mountains helps to sustain the rivers that deliver water resources to downstream populations. Due to global warming and its implications in the water resources in the HKH region, three sectors will be directly affected: water for domestic use, agriculture and hydroelectricity.
- Climate uncertainties will rise: Due to variability in rainfall patterns and glacier melt, there is a large-scale uncertainty in the system. For example, floods and droughts will be more frequent, and will have implications on people who are largely dependent on agriculture and water for domestic use including drinking. Recent information shows that the flood events have increased during last decade and if this scenario continues, it will have huge impacts on economy. For example, hydropower systems have to be tuned to these changes and future projects have to build climate resilient infrastructure.
- Women and poor people: One of the most striking impacts of climate change is on of women, as they are at the forefront of the economy, particularly in mountain areas. This is because men from the mountain regions are often migrants; this leaves women to manage household work and other tasks related to agriculture, natural resource management, community, and other public sphere related work—such as in markets or public institutions —that were traditionally men’s work. Land tenure and employment policies undervalue rural women’s critical roles in food security, sustainable agriculture, and natural resource management, despite women taking on the major role in these sectors. In most cases, women throughout the region do not have corresponding decision-making rights or control over resources despite shouldering both productive and reproductive workloads and responsibilities.
A combined strategy of adaptation with mitigation is key. It is unlikely that the process of climate change will be reversed, so it is best to focus on adaption. Serious policy changes and careful planning can create a climate-resilient infrastructure. The current lack of coordinated planning is currently, a major obstacle: for instance, the HKH region is trans-boundary in nature, with many watersheds are spread across different countries. Management of shared water at a trans-boundary level has its own challenges, especially when countries that fall in the watershed do not share relationships of trust. This process leads to inadequate water management at almost every level in the HKH region. At the national level, water management is marked by short-term approach, with seemingly little attention to long-term consequences. At the regional level, there is a huge scope for countries to come together — at least on river basin levels — to generate scientific knowledge in a coordinated fashion, and exercise joint policies for conservation of trans-boundary aquifer systems. This approach could benefit from system-based thinking which is lacking in the present approach. At the local level, building the community’s capacity to adapt and making infrastructure resilient is the key.
 Cryosphere is the frozen parts of our planet that includes ice and snow on land, continental ice sheets found in Greenland and Antarctica as well as ice caps, glaciers, snow and permafrost.