Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed did something uncommon on the 17th of October, 2009. He held his cabinet meeting underwater. He along with ministers went to scuba diving to caution the world that his nation could sink unless the risks of global warming are taken seriously across the divide. Hardly two months later, on 4th December 2009, Nepalese ministers held the cabinet meeting at Kala Patthar situated at an altitude of 5,242 meters near Mt. Everest region to raise awareness of the effects of climate change. The ministers signed a declaration on climate change during the meeting; PM Madhav Kumar Nepal opined that the Himalayas were "a global treasure" that needed to be protected. Both of these efforts from South Asia were taken place ahead of the Copenhagen Climate Summit which started on 7th December 2009.
Raising Awareness It’s not known whether these efforts/political stunts from these small South Asian countries got their message across the world or not, but they certainly caught the attention of many environmental scientists. Now, did that worry ordinary citizens like you and me? Obviously, it definitely did as we live in the Himalayas. But did we lose any sleep over these alarming messages? Definitely not. We weren’t ready to let a political stunt interfere with our beauty sleep. About ten years later, in February 2019, The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), office-based in Kathmandu, Nepal published a voluminous 627-page report titled Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Climate Change, Sustainability, and People which basically concludes that one-third of the ice on the Hindu Kush Himalaya Mountains could melt by the end of the century. And that’s only if we can limit global warming to 1.5o centigrade over the preindustrial level, the best-case scenario that we can have. Even the Paris Climate Summit’s ambitious target aimed to limit global warming to 2o centigrade.
'Third Pole' The Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region also called the “Third Pole” is the world’s third-largest repository of ice after the North and South Pole. There’s a lot of ice in the region. And, the glaciers are melting and we, the citizens of Nepal, have seen them melting live. They are vulnerable. But “they can’t be that vulnerable”- in the level that they risk our lives. But what if they are? What if our glaciers melt more quickly than is projected? What if, as result the glacial lakes-now these are the lakes that are set up when the glaciers melt-what if those lakes rupture under the weight of extra water? And, what if those floods cascade into other glacier lakes creating even greater outbursts? That would create unimaginable flash floods in the region. That would wreak havoc around the region and that would have the potential to literally destroy our country, our land, our livelihood, and our way of life. The report of ICIMOD caught the attention of environmental scientists in ways that political stunts couldn’t. Highly competent and dedicated scientists and experts have studied our glaciers for decades, and their report concludes these points. First, The Hindu Kush Himalayas Mountains have been melting for some time now. Take an instance of Mt. Everest, once it had a massive glacier, but now it has already lost too much of its ice. Second, the glaciers are melting much more quickly- so quickly in fact, that at just 1.5o centigrade of global warming, one-third of the glaciers would melt.
Glacier Melting Half of the glaciers would disappear at 2o centigrade of global warming. And, if the current trends of global warming were to continue, a full two-thirds of our glaciers would disappear. Third, global warming means that our mountains receive more rain and less snow, and unlike snowfall, rain melts ice, which just hurts the health of our glaciers. Fourth, pollution in the region has increased the amount of black carbon that’s deposited on our glaciers. The drawback of black carbon is it absorbs heat and just increases the speed of glacier melting. To recapitulate, our glaciers are melting rapidly, and global warming is making them melt much more quickly. But what does this mean? It means that the 240 million people who reside in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region- in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Bhutan- will be severely affected. Glaciers melting coupled with more rain and less snow will cause huge variations in the way water behaves. There will be more extremes: more intense rain, more flash floods, more landslides, and more glaciers lake outbursts floods. All this will cause unbelievable destruction in the HKH region that already has some of the poorest people on earth. The coverage of the impact of glacier melting is wide; it’s not just the people of the immediate region. People existing downstream will also be hit hard. More than ten major rivers originate in the Hindu Kush Himalayan Mountains. These rivers offer critical water for agriculture and drinking water to more than 1.6 billion people (one in five humans) living downstream.
Water Towers of Asia Therefore, the Hindu Kush Himalayan Mountains are also called “the water towers of Asia”. But when glaciers melt and the monsoon turns severe, those rivers will obviously flood. So, droughts will be very common, when water is desperately required. In short, Asia’s water towers will be broken, and that will be catastrophic to one-fifth of humanity. Now, the central question arises- should the rest of the world care? We don’t take precautions until we are personally affected. We know that climate change is real and coming fast. Yet most of us act as if all the things were going normal. So, this is the time we, everyone in the globe, must care. If we don’t care for those who are affected by the melting of glaciers in the HKH region, we should at least care for ourselves. The whole Hindu Kush Himalayan Mountains region is considered to be “the pulse of the planet”. If the region falls sickening, the entire planet will ultimately suffer. And, at present with our glaciers melting rapidly, the region is not just sick- it is crying out for help with the concerned faculties. And, how and what will be the effects that the rest of the world has to go through? One obvious scenario is the probable destabilization instigated by tens of millions of climate refugees who will be forced to move from one place to the next because they have no or little water, or because their lives have been destroyed by the melting of glaciers. In another scenario, the potential of conflict over water amidst its severe scarcity and the political destabilization in the region among three nuclear powers: China, India, and Pakistan cannot be underestimated. The situation in the HKH region is critical enough to warrant the creation of a new intergovernmental organization. The proposal of “The Third Pole Council”, a high-level intergovernmental agency tasked with the singular responsibility of protecting the world’s third-largest repository of ice, maybe the best way to tackle the issue of glacier melting. This council would comprise of all eight countries located in the region as equal member countries, and could also include representative organizations and other countries who have beneficial interests in the region as non-voting members. But the crucial issue to note is to get all the stakeholders to work together to monitor the health of the glaciers; to work together to shape and implement policies and strategies to care for our glaciers, and, by extension, to protect the lives of billions of people whose lives depend on our glaciers.
Stepping Up Efforts We have to work together because thinking globally, acting locally has not worked in several situations. Many countries have made immense sacrifices to act locally, unfortunately, have gone in vain. So, we must think globally and act regionally. Our entire region must come together, to work together, to fight against climate change together, and to make our voices heard together. And, India and China, the two most powerful giants in the region, must step up their game and take ownership of the fight to protect our glaciers. For that, these two countries must reduce their own greenhouse gases, control their pollution, and lead the global fight against climate change with a renewed sense of urgency. Time is running out. We must act together, now. Otherwise, next time Nepal's cabinet will be bound to meet on Mount Everest and the Maldives will exist only in the pages of history.
(Khanal is a Faculty of Economics, Morgan International College and an enthusiast in Environmental Economics.)