Glaciers on the Roof of the World at Risk

BANGKOK, Thailand, September 6, 2005 (ENS) - The mountains of Asia, including the towering Himalayas, are facing accelerating threats from a rapid rise in roads, settlements, overgrazing and deforestation, experts are warning in a new report.

New calculations by experts with the Chinese Academy of Sciences indicate that China’s highland glaciers are shrinking by an amount equivalent to all the water in the giant Yellow River each year.

There is concern that the region’s water supplies, fed by glaciers and the monsoons and vital for around half the world’s population, may be harmed alongside the area’s abundant and rich wildlife.

"Mountain areas are especially important and particularly vulnerable," said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). "These are the water towers of the world and often home to unique wildlife species upon which local people depend for food, medicines and other important materials. They have often been saved from uncontrolled development by their remoteness. But modern engineering methods mean this is no longer the case," he said.

The report is being released in advance of the 2005 World Summit in New York taking place in mid-September. There, heads of state will assess the status of implementation of the Millennium Development Goals, including the target of reducing by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.

The new report points to a critical gap in the security of the water to billions of people in Asia and the crucial role of sound environmental management for sustainable development.

It claims that unchecked and piecemeal development are likely to increase rates of forest loss triggering increased levels of erosion, pollution and other potentially harmful effects. Conversion of pristine areas into farm and grazing land is aggravating the situation.

The findings come from a new report entitled "The Fall of Water" launched Monday by IUCN-World Conservation Union and UNEP.

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At 22,966 feet, Nepal's Machhapuchhare is considered a sacred mountain. Although people have climbed it, expeditions are very rare, and they are not allowed to summit. (Photo Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto)
Information presented in the report was compiled and supported by researchers from organizations including UNEP, IUCN, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

The study is based on a new way of assessing the direct and cumulative impacts of infrastructure development called Global Methodology for Mapping Human Impacts on the Biosphere or GLOBIO.

The method was developed by UNEP’s GRID Arendal Centre in southern Norway, the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre in United Kingdom and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

Satellite images reveal that deforestation and unsustainable land use practices may explain why the Asian rivers now have the largest sediment loads in the world and why dissolved nutrients in the water are increasing more than in any other region.

This is one of the primary causes for the increasing human drought and flood related disasters in the region, including the latest floods and resultant high number of casualties in China and India, the scientists said.

By combining a range of local studies with satellite images from 1960 up to today, the scientists have been able to reveal for the first time the scale of land-use changes in the region.

Toepfer said, "The Millennium Development Goals covering poverty eradication and the better supply of sufficient, safe, drinking water up to reversing the spread of disease cannot be met without economic growth. But this needs to be carried out in a way that conserves the life support systems and the ecosystem services they provide. Otherwise it cannot be sustainable for current or future generations."

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India's Pindari Glacier lies at 12,532 feet in the Indian Himalayas (Photo courtesy Travel Himalayas)
IUCN Director General Achim Steiner said, "The fragile mountain ecosystems across the world are facing unprecedented threats. Some of these threats such as climate change are irreversible. But it is in our power to put development of these regions on a sustainable path through integrated management which blends economic, social and environmental interests."

The researchers said some countries, including China and Nepal, are now acting to develop parks and protected areas aimed at conserving the Asian region’s water supplies and wildlife.

But the scientists warn that far more effort is needed to extend protection across the region in lowland and mountain areas if the impacts are to be minimized.

Christian Nellemann of UNEP’s GRID centre in Norway said, "The water from this region impacts over half of the world’s population, but less than three percent of the watersheds are protected. Many have become deforested and overgrazed."

"Impoverished people often have to settle in the most exposed flood-risk areas, and when the forest is gone further upstream, the floods will hit them severely. This pattern will be repeated annually and will worsen with more extreme climate events unless care is taken to protect larger shares of the watersheds," Nellemann said. "In fact we can support development by doing so, as the floods have great economic and health consequences."

"Local indigenous people often see their vital resources exploited, while they benefit little from the development. Further down river, impoverished people are also those that are the most severely exposed to the risk of floods and seasonal drought, as they often have to settle in flood-risk areas," he added. "We have to speed up conservation efforts in these watersheds to ensure safe water resources."

The report points out that many Asian rivers have already been affected by deforestation and increased use of water for irrigation, which has been fueled by existing infrastructure developments.

Despite the importance of the rivers in the region, only the Tarim has high levels of protection with around 21 percent of its river basin in protected areas or covered by agreements.

Cyclists explore the Tarim River Basin. Its 2,179 kilometers (1,354 miles) make the Tarim River in southern Xinjiang province China's longest interior river.
(Photo courtesy ) The Tarim River also has the greatest relative water consumption for irrigation. Large areas of pristine wildlife habitats have been laid bare because the river has run dry as a result of demand for water for irrigation to support growing settlements.

The rest of the area's rivers, including the Huang He or Yellow River; the Indus; the Amu Darya; the Ganges and Salween, have on average just 2.5 percent of their basins protected.

While many of these rivers are critical to hundreds of millions of people, seasonal scarcity of water is an increasing problem as are floods as a result of land-use changes such as deforestation and intensive agriculture.

The report argues that climate change as a result of the burning of oil, coal and other fossil fuels is likely to aggravate problems with water supplies.

Previous studies, carried out by UNEP, ICIMOD and others, have pin-pointed some 50 lakes that have formed in Nepal and Bhutan in recent years as a result of melting glaciers.

Experts are concerned that these lakes, held back by soil and stones, could burst their banks sending torrential floods down valleys, threatening villages and homes.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences, some of whose members contributed to the "Fall of Water" report, says seven percent of the country’s glaciers are vanishing annually and that, by 2050, as many as 64 percent of China’s glaciers will have disappeared.

An estimated 300 million Chinese live in the country’s arid west and depend on water from glaciers for their survival.

The report calculates that currently close to half of the Asia’s mountain region is affected by infrastructure development and that, by 2030, this could rise to over 70 percent if trends continue unchecked.

It claims that the biggest impacts will be on river catchments and wildlife along the Karakoram highway, Pakistan, the Indian and southern side of the Himalayas and in southeastern Tibet and the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of southwestern China.

Overgrazing along road corridors in dry regions of Pakistan and China results in erosion and landslides as well as dust storms, the report finds.

All countries in the region are likely to see a decline in the abundance of wildlife over the next three decades on current trends of infrastructure development, the researchers said.

Lowland areas may see a decline of up to 80 percent in their historic abundance of wildlife, with perhaps as much as a 50 percent decline compared to today for some areas, depending on the measures taken to steer development in more environment friendly ways.

Mountain and upland areas could witness a 20 percent to 40 percent decline in wildlife abundance with the report expressing particular concern for the remaining fragile populations of species like the snow leopard, the Black necked crane and Przewalski’s gazelle.

The Whooper swan has been greatly threatened by overgrazing in wetlands by domestic animals. The mountains are characterized by very scattered smaller productive patches, that become the primary targets for settlements and development, but at great costs to wildlife and with increased risk of organized poaching.

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Many homes have been destroyed by floodwaters along China's Huai River. (Photo by Thorir Gudmundsson courtesy IFRC)
Some countries and their wildlife will be more affected than others. Kazakhstan and Bhutan currently have wildlife on 20 percent of their land affected by infrastructure. This could rise to 30 percent by 2030 and 40 percent by 2060.

Surendra Shrestha, Director of UNEP’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, said, "Most serious is the situation in parts of Pakistan, Northern India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and South-East Asia, where human population pressures together with unchecked piecemeal development to facilitate activities such as logging can have great impacts on biodiversity and the ability of watersheds to handle monsoon floods."

In these countries, up to 80 percent of the productive land area may become severely impacted by development in 2030. While this figure is only 42 percent for China by 2030, this represents a similar impact, because Western China is dominated by uninhabited deserts.

Ben ten Brink, of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, says that the new model integrates many different pressures such as climate change, development, land use and pollution, so as to better help identify policy gaps for politicians and managers.

"The scenario results help us visualize the possible outcomes of different policies. Progress has been shown to be possible, but we need much stronger investment in protecting the water sheds and biodiversity if we are to break the tide and the growing risk to so many people of unchecked piecemeal development," ten Brink added.

Most importantly, he said, "We can now begin to assist policymakers and the industry in evaluating cost-benefits of alternative investments in environmental protection. This is a giant leap forward in scientific based management," ten Brink said.

"The Fall of Water: Emerging threats to the water resources and biodiversity at the roof of the world to Asia’s lowland from changes associated with large-scale settlement and piecemeal development" is available at: www.globio.info and www.grida.no and www.unep.org together with graphics and maps