A Himalayan call to climate action

It’s not too late to prevent profound change and melting glaciers

Aditi Mukherji

Environment & energy, Government and governance, International relations, National security, Science and technology, Food & water, Arts, culture & society | Asia, South Asia, The World

18 February 2019

Despite the intense media focus on impending doom in the Himalayas, the need for global, regional, and local climate change efforts is more pressing than ever, Aditi Mukherji writes.

The newly released Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) Assessment was yet another scientific call for action on climate change – this time in the Himalayas, also known as the ‘Water Towers of Asia’ because it is from there that all ten major rivers of Asia originate.

These rivers provide water, food, and energy for around a third of humanity – approximately two billion people in Asia – and as such, the state of these rivers, glaciers, groundwater, and rain that feed these rivers is of immense importance, not only for the region, but for the entire world.

More on this: At a crossroads in the Himalayas

The part of the report that received the most media attention, and understandably so, was the scientific consensus on melting of glaciers: around a third of Himalayan glaciers are likely to melt by 2100, even if the increasingly unlikely climate target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees is met.

If not, and if business was to carry on as usual, almost 67 per cent of glaciers will melt by 2100 – bringing in a fundamental change in the Himalayan landscape, with profound and long-lasting impacts on humanity.

Some of these impacts that the report highlighted were: increased frequency of extreme events like floods, changes in river regimes with higher uncertainty in lean season flows, and drying up of local water sources including the fragile mountain springs. These, in turn, would impact overall water, energy, and food security in the region – a region which is already a hotspot of global poverty and distress.

What was less highlighted in media reports were the solutions and the way forward. While painting a bleak and a realistic picture of the current impacts of climate change on the Himalayas, the report also puts forward a clarion call for action on three fronts – global, regional or national, and local.

More on this: Photo essay: lives affected by the Himalayas

The report urges the global community to honour their Paris commitment and limit global warming within 1.5 degree of pre-industrial level. This will call for changing development trajectories in the global North, with a focus on mitigation, low carbon pathways, and even de-growth in many instances.

The loss and damage in the Himalayas are directly attributable to global warming, and as such, there will be increasing calls for just climate financing to ameliorate these impacts.

The entire HKH is also a diverse region, with countries like India and China at the forefront of carbon emissions, while countries like Bhutan are net carbon positive, and the rest of the countries are low emitters.

Therefore, much of the same argument holds for the region – in that the bigger emitters need to move towards a low carbon development pathway, while the smaller countries have to be compensated and provided assistance for both adaptation and mitigation.

The eight countries of the HKH also need to step up cooperation on all climate-related issues – be it data sharing, sharing of scientific and policy expertise, or sharing of transboundary resources like water and air.

More on this: Bhutan between a rock and a hard place

The countries of the HKH have a chequered history in regional cooperation, and this needs to change given the immensity of the challenges brought on by climate change.

Change can come from many levels – either pressure from citizens, or concerted action by national governments. Regional cooperation is no longer an abstract and altruistic call – it is the only way the region as a whole can adapt towards or mitigate climate change.

Most encouraging in this context are the local actions – they provide a beacon of hope in an otherwise gloomy global and regional geopolitical scenario. A number of small-scale actions – such as community-based interventions to revive drying mountain springs, community-based flood early warning systems, and cooperation among fishermen in India and Bangladesh to reverse a decline in fish population – are emerging as promising solutions to climate change at local levels.

Underpinning each of these solutions are a few core principles – that of participation, representation, equity, and justice – often upheld through democratic institutions like local self-governments where accountability towards the citizens is key. These actions and institutions can be replicated, which in turn will generate more demand for climate action.

All is not gloom and doom. We can still step up our game and ensure that we bequeath a Himalaya which is no less majestic than the Himalayas that our ancient sages described in epic tales of the past. We owe it to our children.

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