Water crisis looms as Himalayan glaciers melt
Imagine a world without drinking water. It’s a scary thought, but scientists say the 40 per cent of humanity living in South Asia and China could well be living with little drinking water within 50 years as global warming melts Himalayan glaciers, the region’s main water source.
The glaciers supply 8.6 million cubic metres every year to Asian rivers, including the Yangtze and Yellow rivers in China, the Ganga in India, the Indus in Pakistan, the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh and Burma’s Irrawaddy.
But as global warming increases, the glaciers have been rapidly retreating, with average temperatures in the Himalayas up 1 degree Celsius since the 1970s.
A World Wide Fund report published in March said a quarter of the world’s glaciers could disappear by 2050 and half by 2100.
‘If the current scenario continues, there will be very little water left in the Ganga and its tributaries,’ Prakash Rao, climate change and energy programme coordinator with the Fund in India said.
‘The situation here is more critical because here they depend on glaciers for drinking water while in other areas there are other sources of drinking water, not just glacial.’
Experts are alarmed.
About 67 per cent of the nearly 34,000 sq km of Himalayan glaciers are receding and in the long run as the ice diminishes, glacial runoffs in summer and river flows will also go down, leading to severe water shortages in the region.
The Gangotri glacier, the source of the Ganga, India’s holiest river, is retreating 23 metres a year. And the Khumbu Glacier in Nepal, where Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay began their ascent of Everest, has lost more than three miles since they climbed the mountain in 1953.
‘The cry in the mountains is that water has gone down and springs have dried up,’ Jagdish Bahadur.
‘Global climate change has had an effect, but water has also dried up because agriculture in the mountains has increased,’ he said.
In Nepal, there are more than 3,000 glaciers that work as reservoirs for fresh water and another 2,000 glacial lakes.
Experts estimate numerous rivers originating in Nepal’s mountains contribute about 70 per cent to the pre-monsoon flow of the Ganges that snakes through neighbouring India and Bangladesh.
‘The glaciers are shrinking due to global warming posing a risk to water availability not only in Nepal but also in parts of South Asia,’ said Arun Bhakta Shrestha, an expert on Himalayan glaciers at the government Hydrology and Meteorology Department.
Tulsi Maya, a farmer on the outskirts of Kathmandu, has never heard of global warming or its impact on the rivers in the Himalayan kingdom, but she does know that the flow of water has gone down.
‘It used to overflow its banks and spill into the fields,’ the 85-year-old farmer said standing in her emerald green rice field as she looked at the Bishnumati river, which has ceased to be a reliable source of drinking water and irrigation.
‘Maybe god is unkind and sends less water in the river. The flow of water is decreasing every year,’ she said standing by her grandson, Milan Dangol, who weeds the crop.
In the Indian Himalayas, there are already signs of water shortages in the summer: tourists in the rugged mountains of Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh have to carry buckets of water while trekkers say temperatures are much warmer than a decade ago.
During the summer, thousands of people in India’s villages trek for miles in search of water and even in cities water is a precious commodity, sometimes leading to street fights.
The per capita availability of water in India has fallen to 1,869 cubic metres from 4,000 cubic metres two decades ago, as farmers increasingly tap into ground water. Millions of tube wells have been dug in India and in many areas ground water levels have plunged because of excessive pumping.
By 2025, it could fall below 1,000 cubic metres, the cut-off line for ‘water scarcity’, says the United Nations children’s fund, Unicef.