climate change, the Himalayas, Asia and Australia

Yangtze River

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Irrawaddy Salween River River Mekong River




Irrigated areas Urban extent


500–1000m 1000–2000m 2000–4000m 4000–6000m 6000–8000m
Map courtesy CARE

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Executive Summary
The glaciers and ice fields of the Himalayan mountains and the Tibetan Plateau (the Greater Himalayas) store the third-greatest volume of fresh water in the world, after the Arctic and Antarctic polar regions. The present level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is likely over time to cause the loss of most or all of this ice sheet. The potential loss of this water resource constitutes one of the greatest threats to humanity from global warming.
The eight-largest river systems in Asia have their headwaters in the Greater Himalayas. Glaciers increase in volume during winter and shrink in summer, ensuring a regular seasonal pattern of melt-water flow into these rivers, especially during spring. During summer and autumn they provide a vital backup water supply if the monsoon fails. This makes the Greater Himalayan ice fields a critical resource for more than a billion people. The Greater Himalayas are warming at two-to-four times the global average rate. If global warming continues along the current path, the Himalayan glaciers will melt at an accelerating rate until they eventually disappear. Many will be gone before mid-century and it is possible they will be entirely lost by 2100. The consequences are well-established, including short-term increases in run-off into the major river systems, followed by long-term decreases, with catastrophic impacts. The Greater Himalayas’s melting ice-sheets are already creating dangerous glacial lakes, where melt-water gathers behind a dam of unstable debris left by the retreating glacial ice. Catastrophic failure of these dam walls can release large volumes of water quickly, destroying villages, agriculture and infrastructure downstream. The Himalayas straddle some of the world’s poorest regions, with the plains below them densely populated. Average income per-capita across the region is around $US1000 per year, around one-thirtieth of that in Australia. These nations and communities have limited capacity to cope with the severe impacts of floods, followed by reduced water supplies. Other effects of climate change in the region include the melting of vast areas of permafrost (frozen ground), increased risk of An issue for all of us
I first travelled in Nepal and the Himalayas over 20 years ago and was most recently there earlier this year. Developing my business has meant getting to know many of the countries and places discussed in this report. It is devastating to think that the people and environment of these regions are so threatened by climate change and the big melt in the Himalayas. But as this report shows, this is not just an issue for the people of the Himalayas, but everyone on the planet including Australia. This report should be a wake-up call for us all, especially policy makers, that global warming will have dramatic impacts of an almost unimaginable scale. It is a clear reminder that urgent and profound action is needed from government, business and the community. The Intrepid Foundation is committed to supporting such action and changing how people think about the climate problem. We hope this report and the parallel Big Melt Climate Justice Tour will deepen community understanding of the impacts of global warming in Asia and what is needed from our leaders in the months and years ahead. It may also prompt people to take action for themselves. Geoff Manchester The Intrepid Foundation

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avalanches and landslides as areas thaw and are subject to a changing balance between snow and rainfall, and profound impacts on both individual species and the region’s diverse ecosystems. Global warming and the big melt in the Himalayas will undermine water and food security across much of Asia, and contribute to large-scale human displacement. Climate change will have enormous impacts on many Asian countries, yet those same nations are amongst the least responsible for it. Global warming impacts on the Greater Himalayas reinforce the call of developing countries for climate justice. Australia’s domestic and international climate policies do not correspond to the magnitude and scale of the global warming crisis, as reflected in the Himalayan mountains and the looming water crisis in Asia. Australia’s aspirational target of 450 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent (ppm C02e) in the global atmosphere, if adopted, would simply mean that the Himalayan melt will continue in its deathly spiral, with all the consequent implications for water security in Asia. Only a target of well below 350 ppm C02e as advocated by less-developing countries has any hope of arresting the glacial big melt.

High Stakes: Climate Change, the Himalayas, Asia and Australia August 2009 Compiled by David Spratt and Damien Lawson for Friends of the Earth Australia 312 Smith Street Collingwood 3066 VIC Australia 03 9419 8700 www.thebigmelt.org www.foe.org.au This report and associated Big Melt Climate Justice Tour was made possible by the support of the Intrepid Foundation and the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania.

Recommendation 1:
Australia should support a global atmospheric target of well below 350 C02e as advocated by the Alliance of Small Island States and supported by less-developed countries in the Copenhagen negotiations.

Recommendation 2:
Australia should adopt a domestic greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of at least a 50 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020.

Recommendation 3:
Australia should direct new and additional funding to address short-term adaptation needs in the Himalayan region, including action to avert the threat of glacial lake outburst floods.

Recommendation 4:
Australia should act on election commitments in relation to climate refugees and establish a new immigration stream to assist people displaced by climate change.

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The third pole
The Himalayan mountain range and the Tibetan Plateau contain the third-greatest volume of stored fresh water in the world — in the form of glaciers and ice — after the Arctic and Antarctic polar regions. That is why the area is known as “the third pole”. The eight largest river systems in Asia, the life-blood of more than a billion people, have their headwaters in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, and the potential loss of this water resource constitutes one of the greatest threats to humanity from global warming.

The Himalayan mountain range, forming an arc 2400 kilometres long and 150–400 kilometres wide, separates the Indian subcontinent to the south from the Tibet Plateau to the north, and stretches from Afghanistan to China. It was created 50 million years ago when the northward drifting Indian continent smashed into Asia, forming the world’s highest mountain range, with over 100 peaks greater than 7200 metres, and Everest and K2 rising above 8000 metres. The Hindu Kush is the western extension or sub-range of the Himalayas in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with an average height of 4500 metres. The vast, elevated Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau lies to the north and east of the Himalayas and covers an area of 2.5 million square kilometres over Tibet and China. Together these areas are known as the Greater Himalayas, which is the subject of this report.

Climate and ecology
Mountain systems feature high biodiversity. The climate and the fauna and flora of the Himalayas vary widely with altitude, rainfall and soils, ranging from tropical at the southern base of the mountains to temperate and mixed forests at lower elevations. Above the tree-line are alpine shrub and meadows — the summer habitat of the endangered Snow Leopard — which yield to tundra in the higher ranges and to permanent ice at the high altitudes.

There are many canaries emerging in the climate change coal mine. The glaciers are perhaps among those making the most noise.
UNEP head Achim Steiner

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Global Warming
• Human greenhouse gas emissions are rising at an increasing rate. These emissions so far have increased the global average temperature by 0.8 degree Celsius (C) over pre-industrial levels. • This warming is generally higher over land areas than oceans. There is more warming to come for the current level of greenhouse gases due to lags in the system (known as “thermal inertia”). This means that a lot of the extra heat is now being used to warm the oceans, which have a very large thermal mass. • Research published in 2008 (Ramanathan and Feng)* shows that the current level of greenhouses gases would eventually produce a temperature increase most likely in the range of 2–2.4C. • A panel of climate experts in 2007 (Lenton, Held et al.) concluded that an increase of around 2C would be enough to push the Arctic summer sea-ice, the Greenland ice sheet (eventual sealevel rise of 6-7 metres) and the Himalayan–Tibetan glaciers past their tipping points. * Sources may be found on pages 24-25. A total of 488 protected species cover 39 per cent of the area of the Hindu Kush–Himalayan ranges. The Himalayan range acts as a barrier to prevent dry Arctic winds blowing south and keep much of South Asia warmer than corresponding regions in other continents. It also forms a barrier to monsoons from the Bay of Bengal, bringing heavy rainfall to the southern foothills of the range in India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Arid conditions predominate on the Tibetan Plateau’s north-west region. than 46,000 glaciers have been catalogued in western China. An additional 30 to 40 per cent of the area has seasonal snow cover. These glaciers seasonally release meltwater in the headwaters of the eight-largest river systems of Asia, whose basins are home to over 1.3 billion people. The western rivers of the Himalayas combine to form the Indus, which flows through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. To the east, most rivers drain to form the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers which meet in Bangladesh and drain into the Bay of Bengal at the world’s largest river delta. Glacial melt into tributaries of the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra contribute up to 45 per cent of total river flow and more than 600 million people depend on water from these three rivers to support agricultural and local economies. Further east, the Irrawaddy River flows south through Burma to the Andaman Sea. Arising on the Tibetan plateau are the Salween and Mekong rivers which flow south through Burma and Indochina and the Yangtze and the Huang He (Yellow) Rivers which flow east through China and drain into the East China Sea.

Glaciers and rivers headwaters
Seventy per cent of the world’s fresh water is frozen in glaciers. Glacier melt buffers ecosystems against climate variability and often provides the only source of water for humans during dry seasons. The higher reaches of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau are ice and snow-bound year-round. Himalayan glaciers cover three million hectares or 17 per cent of the mountain area. The Himalayan range includes about 15,000 glaciers, the longest at 70 kilometres the Siachen Glacier on the India–Pakistan border. These glaciers hold 12,000 cubic kilometres of fresh water. More

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China and India are the biggest grain producers in the world. Expanding water use was the key factor in tripling the world’s grain harvest between 1950 and 2000, but the consequence is that Asia has been accumulating a dangerous water-deficit.

Over pumping: In some of Asia’s

Water security in Asia
Asia is already the world’s driest inhabited continent per capita. Surface and near-surface water per capita in China today is roughly a quarter of the global average. And in China’s north-west, home to 380 million people, it is less than six per cent of the global average. And water is getting scarcer. Half a billion people in the region lack safe drinking water and 1.8 billion are without access to basic sanitation. Of the available sources of renewable water in Asia, 79 per cent is used by agriculture. Glaciers generally undergo winter accumulation and summer loss of volume, giving a seasonal pattern to meltwater flow. The Greater Himalayan ice fields are a critical resource for one-sixth of the world’s population because they provide run-off for major rivers in the dry (spring) season and when the monsoon fails in summer/autumn. For example, the Himalayan range provides above 40 per cent of average flow in the Ganges Basin and about 70 per cent in the dry season. But climate change, growing population and more water-intensive agriculture are putting water supplies under extreme stress. Experts say more than 400 million people in China are already living with the problem of desertification.

breadbaskets, including the Punjab in India and the North China plain, pumping underground aquifers faster than they can be replaced is depleting the underground water resources, a water-deficit that is causing water tables to fall by 2–3 metres a year. In India, water tables are falling and wells are going dry in almost every state. If the present rate of extraction is maintained, the aquifers beneath the North China plain will be completely gone in 30–40 years. currently have little outflow to the sea during the dry season and are in danger of becoming seasonal rivers due to climate change and increased water demand. lake, Poyang, lies in the south-eastern province of Jiangxi. It is the winter home of 98 per cent of the world’s Siberian crane population. The famous lake fluctuates between a winter dry period and summer flood season, and its hydrology depends on the Yangtze River. In 2007, it provided a disturbing example of synergy between climate warming and groundwater depletion. Its surface area shrank from over 3000 square kilometres (summer) to 50 square kilometres (winter). This was 10 times worse than the previous year’s figures. The official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, reported that 100,000 people were suffering drinking-water shortages around Poyang. One village could use only four of its 56 wells. By 2030, China will have exploited all its available water supplies to the limit. With thanks to John Stanley

Irrigation: The Indus and Ganges Rivers

Case study: China’s largest freshwater

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Warming in the Himalayas
Global warming is observed in many places around the world to be greater (or “amplified”) at higher altitudes. In the European Alps, for example, temperature increases have been observed to be increasing at up to five time the global average rate. Warming amplification at elevation has a number of causes. Two are related to the observed physical phenomenon that the atmosphere has the capacity to carry more water vapour when it is warmer and less when it is cooler. Water vapour in the atmosphere contributes to the greenhouse effect, hence its effect (compared to the other greenhouse agents) is relatively lower in colder atmospheres such as at the poles and at high elevations. So when an incremental of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases is added to atmosphere and well-mixed, its effect is relatively greater in colder atmospheres because the water vapour contribution is less pronounced. As well, in the warmer, tropical regions heat from low elevations is transferred by water vapour in the atmosphere to higher elevations in the mountainous regions. So as the low-land tropical regions become warmer, some of this heat is transferred “up the mountain”. Also contributing to amplification is the “snow– ice albedo effect”. Light surfaces reflect more solar radiation than dark surfaces and are therefore cooler. If a light surface (such as snow or ice) is lost and replaced by a darker surface (vegetation, ocean or bare ground), more heat will be absorbed from the sun and this will increase the temperature. This is a “positive feedback”, in which increasing temperatures causes changes in the reflectivity of the ground, which produces yet more warming. This effect is happening in the Himalayas as glaciers retreat, the snow season is shortened and the snow line retreats to higher elevations. In mountainous regions, the observed temperature trend increases over the twentieth century are most rapid near the annual snow-line (called the 0°C isotherm) due to snow-ice albedo feedback.

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Nations and people
The Himalayas straddle some of the world’s poorest regions, with the plains below them densely populated. The “third pole” reaches across Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and China, embracing some of the world’s most remote places and communities, disputed territories and lands which are largely poor, underdeveloped and agricultural. Average income per capita across the region is around $US1000 per year, about one-thirtieth of that in Australia. Most people are dependent on agriculture and the rural economy.

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Temperature increases
Warming across the greater Himalayas is twoto-four times the global average. While data is scarce for some parts of the region, studies have found: • the average temperature in the Himalayan ranges have been rising at the rate of 0.06C a year over the last three decades, according to a long-term study by the Nepalese Department of Hydrology; • this increase is more than four times the global average; • Nepal’s average temperature (includes some lower-lying areas) has increased by 1.5C since 1975; • temperatures on the Tibetan Plateau have risen by an average 0.16C per decade in summer (and 0.32C in winter) over the last 40 years. This was up to three times the temperature increase in other Chinese regions, which was 0.05-0.08C per decade; • warming in Western China is now as high as by 0.2–0.3°C per decade. Li Yan, a Greenpeace campaigner, says Tibet’s altitude of above 4000 metres makes it a “barometer of the world’s climate” and very sensitive to any temperature change.

Tipping points
A report released by the Australian Government in July 2009, Climate Change 2009: Faster Change & More Serious Risks, finds that: “One of the most dangerous features of the climate system in terms of impacts on societies is the potential for abrupt and/or (essentially) irreversible changes when thresholds are crossed. Threshold/ abrupt change behaviour occurs when a small perturbation to a control variable can cause a rapid and unexpectedly large change in a system, altering its state or direction of development… A recent analysis of ‘tipping elements’ in the climate system has identified a set of large-scale components of the climate system that could undergo abrupt or irreversible change under anthropogenic forcing.” It continues: “One of the criteria for inclusion in the list is that the tipping element has significant consequences for human well-being should it be altered. In addition, the tipping element should be capable of being triggered this century and undergo a qualitative change this millennium… [An] example is the Indian monsoon system, on which more than one billion people depend for their food production and, ultimately, their water supplies. This system can undergo a transition very rapidly, in only one year, leading to drought and a significant reduction in the number of humans that can be supported. Such an abrupt change would trigger a human catastrophe of disturbing proportions.”

Impacts of higher temperatures
Temperatures on average decline 1C for every 160 metres of elevation, so in mountainous areas rising temperatures and shifting precipitation have profound impacts. Many aspects of the ice and snow-covered areas of the Himalayas are affected by global warming, including vast areas of permafrost (frozen ground), areas subject to freeze–thaw or avalanches, regions affected by a changing balance between snow and rainfall, and changing evaporation and water run-off rates and river flow. These complex interactions will increase hazards such as avalanches, debris flows, landslides and flash floods. The varied ability

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Drier winters in Nepal
In early 2009, there were unusually big fires in many of Nepal’s national parks and conserved areas. In the previous six months, there had been little rainfall across most of the country; the longest dry spell in recent history according to meteorologists. Nirmal Rajbhandari, the head of the Department of Hydrology says: “This winter was exceptionally dry… We have seen winter becoming drier and drier in the last three or four years, but this year has set the record.” Anil Manandhar, head of WWF Nepal, asks whether we have to wait for a bigger disaster to admit that it is climate change: “The weather pattern has changed, and we know that there are certain impacts of climate change.” of mountain species to respond to a warming climate, glacial retreat, changing landscape and weather extremes threatens extinction for some and is a threat to biodiversity in general. Observers have noted that across the mountains of Tibet, herdsmen are struggling to feed their livestock on an increasingly deteriorating landscape. And in the region around headquarters of the Yellow River, vegetation loss of 3-10 per cent a year is being experienced. The impacts on people and communities will vary. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, based in Nepal, says that “…the poorer, more marginalised people of the high mountains are likely to suffer the earliest and the most. Given the evidence that many risks already threaten women disproportionately; and also the elderly, disabled, and indigenous groups, especially their poorer members; identifying changes in the cryosphere and alpine ecosystem most likely to affect them is of utmost importance. In addition, there are broader regional questions of which the more severe highland-to-lowland dangers relate to rapid melting events, floods caused by natural dam bursts, increased sedimentation, and droughts caused by reduced or changed flow patterns. Of course, mountain people have lived with and survived great hazards for thousands of years, but current rates of climate change are among the most rapid known and they are superimposed on severe and, equally, uncertain socio-economic pressures.” (Xu, Shrestha et al.)

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Specified observed impacts include: season has decreased by 23 days at elevations of 4000–6000 metres across the Tibetan Plateau.

Snow season: The length of the snow-cover

Monsoon and rainfall: The climate models suggest that monsoons in general will intensify (because a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapour and seas will be warmer) but their patterns will shift. While there is no general trend in rainfall across the whole of the Greater Himalayas, researchers have observed a decrease in monsoon strength over the eastern and central Himalayas over last 80 years and there is now great concern that the Indian monsoon could fail. In 2009 the Indian monsoon was late and weak, following the lowest June rainfall in 80 years. Lower precipitation and reduced discharge to the sea of the Yellow River has been affected by El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events. Permafrost: Permafrost is frozen ground,
most permanently, but including a top or “active” layer which thaws during the spring/ summer and refreezes in autumn. In the past decade, 10 per cent of the permafrost on the Tibetan Plateau has degraded. Long-term temperature measurements indicate that the lower altitudinal limit of permafrost on the Tibetan Plateau has moved up between 50 and 80 metres in the south over the last 20 years. The thickness of the active layer has increased

by 0.15 to 0.5 metres and ground temperature at a depth of 6 metres has risen by about 0.1C to 0.3C between 1996 and 2001. In addition, permafrost degradation is one of the main causes responsible for a dropping groundwater table at the source areas of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, which in turn results in lowering lake water levels, drying swamps and shrinking grasslands.

Compared to about 30 years ago, the entire surface size of the Chukhung Glacier has decreased by about 30 percent. The amount of ice lost during the period is huge.
Yutaka Ageta, professor emeritus of glaciology at Nagoya University Glacier loss and increased run-off:

Glacial retreat on the Himalayas/Tibetan Plateau is well documented from satellite observations and aerial photography. Glaciers around the world are melting and thinning at an increasing rate, according to the World Glacier Monitoring Service. Himalayan glaciers have been retreating more rapidly than glaciers elsewhere:

Naimona’nyi glacier
Glacier retreat has been more marked at lower altitudes, where temperatures are warmer. But a 2008 study (Yao, Pu et al.) found that high on the south-western Tibetan Plateau, the Naimona’nyi glacier (elevation 6050 metres) is also in retreat at an accelerating rate. In that area, annual mean temperature had increased dramatically since 1999, while annual precipitation had decreased. This is the first time that glacier loss at the higher altitudes has been demonstrated, leading the researchers to conclude in their understated, scientific language, that “In a warming and arid climatic situation, mass deficits are an inevitability. More rapid glacial retreat would be expected if the climate warming and arid condition continue. This will seriously affect water resources and lead to serious social consequences. More attention should be paid to the behavior of the Himalayan glaciers.”

12 highstakes Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other 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.
Cruz, Anokhin et al., Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group 2 Report, 2007
• retreat across the region has intensified in the last 10 years, with greatest retreat around the edges. The valley glaciers and small glaciers are retreating fast. For example, the Imja glacier retreated at an average rate of 42 metres per year from 1962–2000, but 74 metres per year 2001–2006, when it became one of the fastest-retreating glaciers in the Himalayas; • glaciers in the Suru basin recorded a 38 per cent shrinkage between 1969 and 2004; • a study of 612 glaciers in China between 1950 and 1970 found that 53 per cent were retreating. After 1990, 95 per cent of these glaciers were measured to be retreating, indicating that retreat of these glaciers was becoming more widespread;

• some of the smaller glaciers have completely disappeared;

• climate warming is causing deglaciation to accelerate on the Tibetan Plateau and glaciers

The role of black carbon
Black carbon particles (which are created by the incomplete burning of carbon, especially vegetation, coal, diesel combustion and cooking with solid fuels, such as wood and cow dung) act in a similar manner to the greenhouse gases by trapping heat radiating away from the Earth’s surface, and by changing the reflective properties (“albedo”) of ice-sheets. A 2008 study (Ramanathan and Carmichael) found that their warming effect in the atmosphere is three to four times greater than prevailing estimates. South-east Asia is a global hotspot for black carbon: between 25 and 35 percent of black carbon in the global atmosphere comes from China and India, emitted from the burning of wood and cow dung in household cooking and through the use of coal to heat homes. A clearly identified, hazy cloud of black carbon and other pollutants (known as atmospheric brown clouds or ABCs) sometimes more than a mile thick hangs over much of South and East Asia, especially in the winter months. After global warming, black carbon on the ice surface is the second most important cause of glacier retreat in the Himalayas. Black carbon remains in the atmosphere for only a few weeks, and then precipitates to the ground. When it falls onto snow and ice, black carbon reduces surface reflectivity and promotes melting. ABCs are also considered responsible in part for the observed weakening of the Indian monsoon and the northern drought In China.

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in China’s high-altitude western areas have shrunk 7–18 percent over the past five years; • glaciers at the headwaters of the Yangtze, China’s longest river, now cover 1,051 square kilometres compared to 1,247 square kilometres in 1971, a loss of nearly a billion cubic metres of water;

• the glacial retreat on the Tibetan Plateau has caused an increase of more than 5.5 per cent in river runoff from the plateau, and caused rising lake levels in the areas with large coverage of glaciers. In some areas, such as the Tarim River basin, the increase in river runoff is greater.

About 15,000 Himalayan glaciers form a unique reservoir which supports perennial rivers such as the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra which, in turn, are the lifeline of millions of people in South Asian countries (Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, India and Bangladesh). The Gangetic basin alone is home to 500 million people, about 10 per cent of the total human population in the region.
Cruz, Anokhin et al., Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group 2 Report, 2007

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The tsunami from the sky
The Himalaya’s melting glaciers are creating dangerous glacial lakes, including meltwater ponds behind a dam of unstable debris (known as a moraine) left by the retreating glacial ice tongue. The moraines can be as high as 100 metres high, holding a meltwater lake several kilometres long. A glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) occurs when the dammed water is released, including by seismic activity, avalanche or rupture of the moraine structure as more water and pressure accumulate. GLOFs have occurred in northern Europe, the mountain ranges down North and South America and across the Greater Himalayas. Catastrophic failure of the lake’s containment can release water in a timespan of minutes to days, with flows recorded as high as 15,000 cubic meters per second. This means that in the canyon of a small mountain stream a fastmoving torrent of water as high as 50 metres can be produced, and cause inundation that could spread 10 kilometres across a downstream floodplain. GLOFs are now recognised as a serious threat in India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Tibet and China; more than 30 outburst floods have

Outburst flood in Bhutan
On 20 April 2008, Henry Chu wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “In the Himalayas, a global warming calamity is building for Bhutan” due to glacial lake outburst floods: “In 1994, the Luggye lake [in Bhutan] burst and sent water hurtling down into Punakha. Now, a neighboring lake, the Thorthormi, poses an even greater peril. Fed by a separate glacier, the Thorthormi has bulked up to alarming size and is in danger of swamping a third body of water, the Raphstreng. In a nightmare scenario, the two lakes could merge, punch through the natural but unstable moraine dams holding them back, and go cascading into the valley, picking up debris as they thunder downhill. “A 2002 study estimated that such a rupture could send 14 billion gallons of water barreling toward Punakha, though not all of it would reach the valley. Still, that is more than double the amount released in the 1994 deluge and about the same volume that plunges over the top of Niagara Falls in five hours. To try to prevent such a catastrophic flood, the government is set to embark on a four-year, $7-million project to relieve some of the pressure on the Thorthormi. The effort is fraught with difficulty. The lake is reachable only after 10 days’ hiking and only through 16,000-foot-high mountain passes from all directions. “Hauling major equipment up there, let alone getting it to work in the thin, frigid air, is so tricky that digging the channels to siphon off water from the lake will have to be done mostly by hand. Weather conditions allow for work barely six months of the year. Not that there is much choice.”

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been recorded in the Himalayas in the past 50 years. Two-thirds of glaciers in the Nepalese Himalayas contain glacial lakes. A study carried out jointly by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, UN Environment Programme, and the AsiaPacific Network for Global Change Research between 1999 and 2003 (reported by Mool, Bajracharya et al.) documented about 15,000 glaciers and 9000 glacial lakes in Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan and selected basins of China and India. It named 44 glacial lakes in Bhutan and Nepal “that are filling so rapidly they could burst their banks in as little as five years’ time”, with report author Surendra Shrestha, warning: “These are the ones we know about. Who knows how many others elsewhere in the Himalayas and across the world are in a similar critical state?” In 1985, Lake Dig Tsho in the Everest region released ten million cubic metres of water in three hours in a 10-metre-high wall of water which swept away a power station, bridges, farmland, houses, livestock and people up to 90 kilometres downstream. Scientists estimate that the most dangerous lakes today are up to twenty times bigger. One of those is at the foot of Imja Tsho glacier in Nepal’s Sagarmatha National Park, which contains Mount Everest and is a popular trekking destination. Imja is the fastest-retreating glacier in the entire Himalayas and the lake, which did not exist 50 years ago, lies directly above the homes of 10,000 people and now holds about 30 million cubic metres of water. Researchers predict that it will burst within five years.

Security and conflict
As water becomes scarce, the likelihood of conflict over water resources grows as a climate-induced security concern. The 2008 Garnaut Review noted that: “China’s efforts to rectify its own emerging water and energy problems indirectly threaten the livelihoods of millions of people in downstream, riparian states. Chinese dams on the Mekong are already reducing flows to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. India is concerned about Chinese plans to channel the waters of the Brahmaputra to the over-used Yellow River. Should China go ahead with this ambitious plan, tensions with India and Bangladesh would almost certainly increase … Any disruption of flows in the Indus would be highly disruptive to Punjabi agriculture on both sides of the India–Pakistan border. It would raise difficult issues in India–Pakistan relations. Any consequent conflicts between China and India, or India and Pakistan, or between other water-deficient regional states, could have serious implications for Australia, disrupting trade and people flows and increasing strategic competition in Asia.”

Rising levels in existing lakes
Glacial retreat has also caused rising levels in existing lakes in the areas with large coverage of glaciers, such as the Nam Co Lake and Selin Co Lake areas, devastating grasslands and villages near the lakes. Some lakes in the Pho Chu basin in Bhutan have increased in size by as much a 800 per cent in last 40 years.

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Future impacts
Precise future global warming impacts and their timing are hard to predict, but enough is now known to identify many of the consequences of the Himalayan big melt. The big questions are how quickly will global temperatures increase; and what will the effect be on the Himalayas in general and the rate of glacier mass loss in particular? Understanding and modelling the processes by which polar ice sheets and mountain glaciers disintegrate has been a particular challenge for scientists. The processes are complex and some, such as what is happening at the base of ice sheets, are difficult to observe. Ice sheet disintegration can be a non-linear process whereby once a “tipping point” is reached, the rate of loss can gather pace very quickly. Continuing global warming is predicted to lead to major changes in the strength and timing of the Asian monsoon, inner-Asian high-pressure systems, and winter Westerlies, the main systems affecting the climate of the Himalayan region. If the Himalayas warm as predicted, glaciers will melt at an accelerating rate until they eventually disappear, many before mid-century and perhaps all by 2100. The consequences are well-established: an increase in GLOFs, short-term increased run-offs into the major river systems, followed by long-term decreases with catastrophic consequences. The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II Report (Cruz, Anokhin et al.) concluded that “increases in temperature are expected to result in more rapid recession of Himalayan glaciers and the continuation of permafrost thaw across northern Asia. If current warming rates are maintained, Himalayan glaciers could decay at very rapid rates. Accelerated glacier melt would result in increased flows in some river systems for the next two to three decades, resulting in increased flooding, rock avalanches from destabilised slopes, and disruption of water resources. This would be followed by a decrease in flows as the glaciers recede. Permafrost degradation can result in ground subsidence, alter drainage characteristics and infrastructure stability, and can result in increased emissions of methane.”

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Temperatures: Human greenhouse
gas emission are increasing at a rising rate (increasing from 0.9 per cent a year for 19901999 to 3.5 per cent annually since 2000), higher than the most pessimistic scenario developed by the IPCC. And temperatures will follow. Scientists warn that at the present emissions trajectory, global temperatures by 2100 may be four to six degrees above the pre-industrial level. Such increases would be amplified in the Himalayas. Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the Director of the Potsdam Institute, told an interviewer (Zieler, 2009) in March: “Five degrees is the average, because the continents heat up faster than the oceans. The continents would be warmer by 8–9C, and high-lying regions like the Tibetan Plateau would warm by 12C. All the glaciers would melt. But these glaciers feed rivers that sustain two billion people, and they would run dry in the summer. This is not rocket science. This is probably the biggest impact of global warming if left unmitigated.” But even the present level of greenhouse gases, which will likely produce more than 2C of warming, will be catastrophic for Asia’s vast, heavily-populated river deltas and coastal plains. In the same interview, Schellnuber noted that “there is the problem of sea level rise. One degree, in the long run, translates into 15-20 meters sea level rise in equilibrium. Two degrees, the target of the European Union, means sea level rise of 30-40 meters – over maybe a thousand years. Draw a line around your coast – probably not a lot would be left.” Temperatures in the Himalayas are expected to increase more rapidly that the global average; for example, scientists expect temperature rises over the Tibetan Plateau of another 2.2–2.6C by 2050. However many such predictions are now seen as perhaps being too conservative as human greenhouse gas emissions exceed the worst IPCC scenario and attempts to negotiate emissions reductions founder. Professor Syed Hasnain, then Chairman of the International Commission for Snow and Ice’s (ICSI) Working Group on Himalayan Glaciology, that most of the glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayan region “will vanish within 40 years as a result of global warming” (Pearce, 1999). The 2007 IPCC report (Cruz, Anokhin et al.) says that river flows by the late 2030s are likely to decrease dramatically as the glaciers shrink from their 1995 extent of 500,000 square kilometres to an expected 100,000 square kilometres by 2035: “Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other 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.”

If the temperature continues to rise as it is, there will be no snow and ice in the Himalayas in 50 years.
Surendra Shrestha, regional director at the United Nations Environment Programme for Asia and the Pacific
NASA climate science chief Dr James Hansen predicts that current atmospheric level of total greenhouse gases is sufficient to produce further warming “in the pipeline” of 2C, and concludes that “no additional forcing is required to raise global temperatures to at least the level of the Pliocene, 2–3 million years ago..” when sea levels were 25 metres higher than today, and the world was free of ice sheets and glaciers, except for Antarctica (Hansen, Sato et al.). This is consistent with the expert opinions (surveyed by Lenton, Held et al.) which, when measured against a likely increase of 2–2.4C for the current level of greenhouse gases (Ramanathan and Feng), leads to the conclusion that the present level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is likely over time to cause the loss of most or all of the Himalayan ice sheet.

Glacier loss: It was predicted in 1999 by

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Everest: World Heritage in danger
In 2004, concern about the impacts of climate change led Friends of the Earth International and Pro Public Nepal to initiate a campaign to place Mount Everest on a World Heritage danger list. The campaign was supported by Sir Edmund Hillary, who with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay was the first to summit Everest, and Sir David Attenborough. The World Heritage Convention would legally require all countries to ensure that the Everest (Sagarmatha) National Park is passed intact to future generations. Putting Everest National Park on the danger list would mean the UNESCO World Heritage Committee would have to assess glacial lakes and require action to stabilise those most at risk. Launching the campaign, Hillary said that “the warming of the environment of the Himalayas has increased noticeably over the last 50 years. This has caused several and severe floods from glacial lakes and much disruption

to the environment and local people.” Petitioning the committee, Prakash Sharma, Director of Pro Public (Friends of the Earth Nepal) argued that: “Mount Everest is a powerful symbol of the natural world, not just in Nepal. If this mountain is threatened by climate change, then we know the situation is deadly serious. If we fail to act, we are failing future generations and denying them the chance to enjoy the beauty of mother earth. I urge the committee to place Sagarmatha National Park on the danger list.” Intense lobbying from the United States, among others, prevented the committee from adopting a motion that sought to address increased levels of greenhouse gases as the cause of the problem. Instead the committee endorsed a weak `world heritage and climate change strategy’ which focuses on the impacts, but not the causes, of the problem. Yet a survey by UNESCO’s own World Heritage Centre of 83 countries revealed that “125 World Heritage Sites were... threatened… by climate change” around the world, including 19 glacier sites and seven coral reefs.

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current trends of glacial melts suggest that the Ganga, Indus, Brahmaputra and other rivers that criss-cross the northern Indian plain could likely become seasonal rivers in the near future as a consequence of climate change and could likely affect the economies in the region” so that “the gross per capita water availability in India will decline from about 1820 cubic metres a year in 2001 to as low as about 1140 cubic metres a year in 2050… India will reach a state of water stress before 2025 when the availability falls below 1000 cubic metres per capita” (Cruz, Anokhin et al.). By the 2050s more than a billion people in Central and South Asia could be suffering significant water shortages and crop yields could decrease by as much as 30 per cent. The 2009 Worldwatch Institute State of the Future report says that by 2025 there could be three billion people around the world without adequate water, as the population rises. In a presentation to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in March 2009, Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber showed that with a 5-degree warming, the carrying capacity of the planet based on land-use patterns would be less than one billion people. China and India together produce more than

Water and food: According to the IPCC, “The

half the world’s wheat and rice—humanity’s food staples. China’s wheat harvest is nearly double that of the United States, which ranks third after India. Accoring to a International Rice Research Institute study, the yield of rice was observed to decrease by 10 per cent for every 1C increase in growing-season minimum temperature.

It appears that some areas of the most populated region on Earth are likely to ‘run out of water’ during the dry season if the current warming and glacial melting trends continue for several more decades.

Dr Tim Barnett, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Grain reserves around the world are dwindling, with climate change impacts on precipitation, increasing population and the diversion of crops to biofuels all contributing. World food prices doubled in the five years to 2007. World wheat prices, for example, doubled in 2007, and the UN’s global food index jumped by more than 40 per cent in a year. ‘

River by river
INDUS: The Indus Valley supports one of
the largest irrigation works in the worlds (16 million hectares) and forms the backbone of agriculture and food production in Pakistan; 60 per cent of Pakistan’s people depend on grain irrigated by the Indus River. The Indus delta is one of the driest in the Indian subcontinent, and the river is especially critical as rainfall is meagre in the lower Indus valley. If global temperatures rise by 3C, it is predicted water flows in upper Indus will increase 14-90 per cent due to increased melt rates, and then drop by 90 per cent by 2100 .

The 2009 Oxfam report, Suffering the Science: Climate Change, People and Poverty found that “Climate change’s most savage impact on humanity in the near future is likely to be in the increase in hunger … the countries with existing problems in feeding their people are those most at risk from climate change… Millions of farmers will have to give up traditional crops as they experience changes in the seasons that they and their ancestors have depended on. Climaterelated hunger [may become] the defining human tragedy of this century.”

Permafrost: Large-scale permafrost

source of surface water irrigation in India, and is a leading source of water for the 407 million people living in the Gangetic Basin. The Gangotri Glacier in the Himalayas alone supplies 70 per cent of the flow of the Ganges in the dry season. The loss of glacier meltwater would reduce July–September flows by twothirds, causing water shortages for 400 million people and 37 percent of India’s irrigated land.

GANGES: The Ganges River is the largest

CHINA: In China, 23 per cent of the

degradation will destabilise ground and induce avalanches, affect how heat and moisture flow between the ground and the atmosphere, and endanger alpine ecosystems which rely on permafrost to trap water in the topmost layers of soil. “A large-scale thaw of permafrost would result in the loss of its water content and trigger an ecological catastrophe,” says Ouyang Hua, deputy director of the Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research in Beijing.

population lives in the western regions, where glacial melt provides the principal dry season water source.Yao Tandong, a leading Chinese glaciologist, believes that two-thirds of the Tibetan Plateau glaciers could be gone by 2060, greatly reducing the dry-season flow of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. The Yellow River, which flows through the arid northern part of China and is heavily dependent on meltwater, could become seasonal. If this melting of glaciers continues, Yao says, “[it] will eventually lead to an ecological catastrophe.” The Yellow River basin is home to 147 million people whose fate is closely tied to the river because of low rainfall in the basin. The Yangtze is China’s leading source of surface irrigation water, helping to produce half or more of China’s 130-million-ton rice harvest. It also meets many of the other water needs of the watershed’s 368 million people.

especially sensitive to climate change since changes are more pronounced at higher altitudes and mountainous regions exhibit high biodiversity. Potential impacts from climate change include: • hydrological changes to impact functions and services of wetlands; • successional shift from wetlands to terrestrial ecosystems; • increased degradation of peat land, bog, swamp and marshland; • change in ecotone and microenvironmental endemism; • vertical species migration and extinction; • dominance of invasive and xeric species; • reduced productivity of alpine, and cryospheric ecosystems; • reduced agrobiodiversity and their production, decline of genetic diversity.

Ecosystems: Glacial environments are

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Implications for Australian policy
The need for climate justice
Climate change will have enormous impacts on many Asian countries, yet those same nations are amongst the least responsible for it. Global warming impacts on the Greater Himalayas and the region reinforce the call of developing countries for climate justice. Nepal’s per capita emissions at 1.5 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) are tiny. Australia, by comparison, is eighteen times higher and the fifth-highest in the world at 27 tonnes CO2e per person. Emissions produced when coal exported from Australia is burned more than double that figure. The story is the same for most of Asia. Pakistan’s per capita emissions are similar to Nepal, and India and Vietnam are also low at 1.7 tonnes C02e and 2.1 tonnes C02e respectively. However, this is only part of the story. Rising temperatures are a result of the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, mostly since the mid-twentieth century, not the particular level of emissions at any specific time. Industrialised countries are responsible for more than 70 per cent of the accumulated atmospheric greenhouse gases, and so the historical debt owing to the global South is even more profound. The industrial development of the rich countries has been built on this debt. Despite this responsibility and the enormous economic and technological capacity of developed countries, nations such as Australia have adopted a strategy of avoiding substantial mitigation (reduction) of their greenhouse pollution and the provision of significant financial assistance to the developing world. Instead, industrialised countries have sought to increase opportunities for offsetting developedworld pollution by expanding the scope of the international carbon market and a range of actions in developing countries – such as claims of reduced deforestation – to generate carbon credits. Negotiations leading up to the December 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen have reflected this strategy, with wealthy countries failing to put substantial short-term pollution cuts on the table, dragging their heals on financing and technology transfer, and seeking to force emission reduction targets on developing countries with little in return.

Australia’s policy will mean disaster for Asia and the world
Australia’s domestic and international climate policies do not reflect the magnitude or scale of the global warming crisis, as reflected in the Himalayan mountains and the looming water crisis in Asia. Australia’s aspirational global atmospheric target of 450 parts per million (ppm) C02e, if adopted, would simply mean that the Himalayan melt will continue in its deathly spiral, with all the consequent implications for water and food security in Asia. Only a target of well below 350 ppm C02e advocated by less-developing countries has a hope of arresting the glacial big melt.

Recommendation 1:

Australia should support a global atmospheric target of well below 350 C02e as advocated by the Alliance of Small Island States and supported by less-developed countries in the Copenhagen negotiations.
Australia’s domestic target reduction by 2020 of 5 per cent on 2000 levels and a conditional 25 per cent both undermines the global push for

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stronger action and reflects the deep injustice at the heart of Australia’s climate policy. To have a hope of retaining most of the Himalayan glaciers emissions must move to zero as quickly as possible, and well before 2050. Developed countries, including Australia, will need to make early and very large emission reductions over the next decade to begin the transformation that is required. Through the early adoption of widespread energy efficiency, investment in renewable energy, transforming transportation and protection of forests. Australia could be on the way to halving emissions by the end of the next decade (Vincent and Wakeham, 2009).

re-mediation of the glacial lake outburst flood threat.
The threat of large-scale human displacement resulting from the global warming in the Greater Himalayas is real and likely to be catastrophic. The collapse of food and water security in the river basins and areas reliant on Himalayan melt-water and the Indian monsoon, when combined with other climate impacts such as sea-level rise, is likely to be beyond the capacity of governments and international humanitarian agencies. There are likely to be significant number of international climate refugees in addition to the enormous numbers of internally-displaced people. So far, the Australian government has failed to act on its election commitments to push for a new international agreement on the rights of climate refugees. It has also failed to put in place a new immigration stream to assist people displaced by climate change.

Recommendation 2:

Australia adopt a domestic greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of 50 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020.
The impacts of glacial melt in the Greater Himalayans include the most immediate danger of glacial lake outburst floods, and the disruption of the biodiversity and agriculture of the region There are immediate and medium-term adaptation tasks which could address impacts, whilst recognising that they are not capable of dealing with the looming long-term disasters if emissions are not reduced very quickly and at large scale. Australia’s bilateral aid program with countries in the region is limited and small. Additional funding should be directed to short-term adaptation needs, such as addressing glacial lake outburst floods.

Recommendation 4:

Australia should act on election commitments in relation to climate refugees and establish a new immigration stream to assist people displaced by climate change.

Recommendation 3:

Australia should direct new and additional funding to addressing short-term adaptation needs in the Himalayan region, including

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and regional climate changes due to black carbon”, Nature GeoScience, 1: 221-227 Ramanathan, V. and Y. Feng (2008) “On avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system: Formidable challenges ahead”, Proceedings National Academy of Sciences 105: 14245-50 Ramanathan, V., M. V. Ramana, et al. (2007) “Warming trends in Asia amplified by brown cloud solar absorption”, Nature 448: 575 Schellnhuber, H. J. (2009) “The MAD Challenge: Towards a Great Land-Use Transformation?”, presentation to Climate Change Conference Copenhagen, 12 March 2009, climatecongress. ku.dk/.../schellnhuber-plenaryspeaker-12march2009. pdf, accessed 15 June 2009 Steffen, W. (2009) Climate Change 2009: Faster Change & More Serious Risks, Australian Government Department of Climate Change, Canberra. Vincent, J. and M. Wakeham (2009) Plan B : An agenda for immediate action, June 2009, http://www. greenpeace.org/raw/content/australia/resources/ reports/climate-change/planb-110609.pdf, accessed 21 July 2009 Walsh, B. (2009) “Water Fight”, Time, 16 April 2009 Xu, J, A. Shrestha et al. (2007) The melting Himalayas: Regional challenges and local impacts of climate change on miuntain ecosystems and livelihoods, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Kathmandu Yao, T., J. Pu, et al. (2007) “Recent glacial retreat and its impact on the hydrological processes of the Tibet Plateau, China, and surrounding regions”, Arct. Antarct. Alp. Res. 39: 642-650. Yao, T., J. Pu, et al. (2007), “Recent rapid retreat of the Naimona’nyi glacier in southwestern Tibetan Plateau”, Journal Glaciology Geocryology 29: 503508. Zhao, M. (2009), “Tibetan Plateau in peril”, Far Eastern Economic Review, 11 January 2009 Zieler, C. (2009) “Russian roulette odds … if we’re lucky”, first published in Danish in Universitetsavisen 3 / 2009 (University Post 3 / 2009) on 5 March 2009, translation by the interviewer, www. klima.ku.dk/nyheder/climatechangeimpactinterviewwithschellnhuber.pdf, accessed 19 June 2009


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