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Himalayan Glaciers Controversy

A huge controversy has been generated in recent days over the much quoted lines in the IPCC's 2007 report: "Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate" (Working Group 2, page 493). We do need to question how a statement of such magnitude, without peer review, made its way into the IPCC report. That it was discovered, externally, more than two years later raises concerns about both the mindset and the weakness of the processes of the IPCC in checking and correcting information they collate, information that is so vital in the global debate. However, to question the credibility of the science of the global warming, supported as it is by a wealth of empirical evidence, or to question IPCC's work, as is happening in some quarters, is gross exaggeration and sometimes driven by dubious and malafide intentions.

More importantly, the ongoing debate ignores four key issues:

one, that glacial melting, happening extensively in many regions and altitudes of the Himalayas, is already impacting people's lives in the Indian Himalayan states;

two, science ignores people's own perceptions of their reality and their context;

three, the critics have not properly placed the issue in the overall context and fragility of glaciers globally; and

four, that the situation is going to unavoidably worsen, hence deepening an unfolding crisis of access to water.

Since the Earth's average warming gets amplified into much higher levels of warming in the mid-level Himalayas and at higher altitudes, the impacts there are already huge and varied. At a public hearing on 'Impacts of Climate Change on the Himalayan Region', organized by Oxfam India in late 2009, people from different Himalayan communities presented testimonies of extensive melting, receding and disappearance of small glaciers in parts of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand based on their lived experience over the years. One professional guide who has traversed high altitudes for many years talked of the disappearance of numerous small glaciers over the last 20 years in J&K. Small glaciers, said another speaker, have disappeared from the Sarva Valley. Sigri and Chhotadhara glacier, both in Himachal, are receding rapidly. The Dhani Nara glacier, also in Himachal Pradesh, does not exist any more. Numerous presenters talked of lessening and irregular snowfall in recent years. This has obvious impacts on glacial mass and melting in the medium term. Women spoke of how water sources have dried up, already causing distress in their daily lives, impacting drinking water access and water supply for agriculture.

People's observations of their lived reality over time and of the impacts of global warming on their lives need to be given greater space and credence than is being done at the moment by formal science. This is particularly relevant in the area of glacial melting in the Himalayas given that many authorities, including the minister for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh, have acknowledged that Himalayan glaciers have been little studied. Why has the Himalayan glaciers issue received such inadequate attention until now? Of the thousands of glaciers in the Indian Himalayas, reliable baseline data exists for relatively few. In the absence of baseline data, it would be crucial to tap the lived experience of people who have lived in the vicinity of glaciers for decades. 

Focusing on the erroneous date 2035 alone glosses over the already precarious state of glaciers worldwide, including in many parts of the Himalayas. A study by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in 2005 of 442 glaciers stated that 90% of them were receding. The much respected glaciologist Lonnie Thompson has said recently that of the 800 Himalayan glaciers being monitored, 95% are receding (Guardian, 20 January 2010). That tropical glaciers are receding worldwide are indicative of the fate of subtropical Himalayan glaciers. Ren, Jiawen, et al state: "Many glaciers on the South slope of the central Himalaya have been in retreat, and recently their retreat rate has accelerated … due to reduced precipitation and warmer temperatures" (Annals of Glaciology, vol. 43, no. 1, Sept 2006). Anil Kulkarni, et al's oft-quoted study of 466 glaciers in the Baspa, Parbati and Chenab basins indicates greater fragmentation of glaciers, and reduction in glacial area by 21% since the mid-20thcentury (Current Science, vol. 92, no. 1, 10 Jan 2007). A study of mass balance of glaciers, of "all published Himalayan-Karakoram measurements" shows that overall "they are more negative after 1995". Though increase in mass loss rate "need not be true of every part of the region … the mass loss rate is consistent with the global average (Jeffrey Kargel, et al, 'Satellite-era Glacier Changes in High Asia', AGU conference, December 2009). Dobhal and Mehta's study of the Dokriani glacier in the Bhagirathi basin says that "The present snout … is continuously retreating, like other glaciers of the Himalaya" (Himalayan Geology, n.d.).

Glaciers have also been thinning at high altitudes. Lonnie Thompson, in an interview to Nature said: "Back in 2006, we drilled three cores in the southwestern Himalayas. At 6,050 metres, where these glaciers reach their highest elevation, we found that … the glaciers are being decapitated. Not only are they retreating up the mountain slopes, but they are thinning from the top down" (Nature Reports Climate Change, 9 July 2009). 

This precarious state of glaciers is going to unavoidably worsen because of further global warming in the pipeline, since there is a 25-30 year lag between emissions and warming. As it is, the drying of water sources is being exacerbated by indiscriminate damming of rivers and creation of run-of-the-river projects in the Himalayan states, in the face of considerable resistance from people across these states. All of this is going to worsen the water crisis unfolding for the poor, particularly poor women, in the Himalayas. Any debate on the Himalayan glaciers needs to keep them at its centre.

Rather than view glaciers collectively, it would be more appropriate to view them in a disaggregated way, since impacts on specific glaciers affect specific communities and people dependent on them. Not only is there a compelling need to carry out a comprehensive study of Himalayan glaciers in cooperation with other nations who are part of this rich ecosystem, the process also needs to have the people as a vital and engaged constituent. And the resultant information needs to be in the public domain.

Melting glaciers and the more irregular rainfall patterns in recent years makes the creation of appropriate small and large water harvesting structures absolutely urgent. In which both the government and local organizations have a crucial role to play. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) can be usefully deployed towards this end, but this requires greater political will by local elites and the administration at different levels than they have displayed thus far. There is clearly an urgent need to anticipate and prepare for acute water stress in the Himalayan region and beyond.

DELHI PLATFORM / 29 January 2010