Asian Water Shortages Forecast as Himalayan Glaciers Melt

GLAND, Switzerland, March 15, 2005 (ENS) - As the climate warms, Himalayan glaciers are melting more rapidly with each passing year, and that means first floods and then droughts for people in China, India and Nepal, WWF, the global conservation organization, warned Monday.

The group issued a new report documenting the rate of retreat of Himalayan glaciers. It shows that the world's highest glaciers are receding at an average rate of 10 to 15 meters (33 to 49 feet) per year, a rate that is accelerating as global warming increases. Eventually this will mean water shortages for hundreds of millions of people whose water supplies will dry up as the glaciers melt and flow down the rivers to the sea.

The report is timed to attract the attention of a ministerial roundtable of the 20 largest energy-using economies in the world, that opens in London today. The Energy and Environment Ministerial Roundtable will tackle the impact that the growing energy needs of developing countries like India and China will have on the environment and climate change.

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On the Everest glacier in Nepal (Photo courtesy Matthew Bachman)
It will be followed by a G8 meeting of development and environment ministers focusing on climate change and on Africa.

WWF has sent a letter to environment, development and energy ministers participating in either of the meetings, stressing the need to recognize climate change as an issue that seriously threatens security and development prospects.

“Ministers should realize now that the world faces an economic and development catastrophe if the rate of global warming isn't reduced," said Jennifer Morgan, director of WWF’s Global Climate Change Programme.

WWF is urging all governments to recognize that global average temperature must rise no more than two degrees Celsius (3.6°F) in comparison to pre-industrial levels to avoid the most severe consequences of global warming.

“The rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers will first increase the volume of water in rivers, causing widespread flooding,” said Morgan. “But in a few decades this situation will change and the water level in rivers will decline," she said, "meaning massive economic and environmental problems for people in western China, Nepal and northern India.”

Himalayan glaciers feed into seven of Asia’s greatest rivers - the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze and Huange He - ensuring a year-round water supply to hundreds of millions of people in the Indian subcontinent and China.

As glacier water flows dwindle, the energy potential of hydroelectric power will decrease, causing problems for industry, while reduced irrigation means lower crop production.

Nepal has an annual average temperature rise of 0.06 degrees Celsius per year. The report shows that three of Nepal’s snow fed rivers have shown declining trends in water levels.

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Lakes left behind by melting glaciers in Bhutan (Photo courtesy NASA)
In China, the report shows that Qinhai Plateau’s wetlands also have seen declining lake water levels, lake shrinkage, the absence of water flow in rivers and streams, and the degradation of swamp wetlands.

In India, the Gangotri glacier, which supports one of India’s largest river basins, is receding at an average rate of 23 meters per year.

In the letter to ministers, WWF asked them to agree upon a series of ambitious initiatives to change the way their countries produce and use energy.

"They need to work together on reducing CO2 emissions, increasing the use of renewable energy and implementing energy efficiency measures," Morgan said.

WWF is asking for "a power sector governance initiative" where all countries commit to practicing the principles of transparency, accountability and public participation in energy sector decision making.

Representatives from industrialized nations and a host of developing countries including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, China, India, Mexico, South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia, South Korea, Nigeria and Iran have been invited to attend the Energy and Environment Ministerial Roundtable hosted by the United Kingdom.

On March 17 and 18 in Derbyshire, Hilary Benn of the UK Department for International Development and Margaret Beckett, Secretary of the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs will co-host a meeting of G8 Environment and Development Ministers. This will be the first time such a joint meeting has been held by the G8.

The meeting will focus on the impact of climate change on Africa, and as well as on measures to help developing countries combat the growing problem of illegal logging.