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An overview of glaciers, glacier retreat, and subsequent impacts in Nepal, India and China

This paper exposes the rate of retreat of Himalayan glaciers accelerating as global warming increases. The report states that glaciers in the region are now receding at an average rate of 10-15 metres per year. There are several problems associated with retreating glaciers that need to be understood in order to proceed to the next stage of quantifying research and mitigating disaster. In this context it would be imperative to understand the nature of problems that confront Nepal, India and China.

Glaciers receeding will result in severe water shortages. For a landlocked country like Nepal, which relies on hydropower generation as a vital source of national income, the prospect of an eventual decrease in the discharge of rivers spells doom. For an energy-constrained economy like India, the prospect of diminishing river flows in the future and the possibility that energy potential from hydropower may not be achieved has serious economic implications. The implications for industry extend beyond the “energy” argument: chemical, steel, paper and mining industries in the region that rely directly on river/stream water supply would be seriously affected. Reduced irrigation for agriculture would have ramifications not only on crop production but eventually on basic human indices like available food supplies for people and malnutrition.

This paper includes detailed case studies of the geography, climate and hydrology of Nepal, India, and China, examining closely the effect of climate change on the glaciers in each country. The authors conclude that deglaciation is a widespread problem with serious consequences for water resources around the world. As runoff variation is directly related to glacier condition, continued deglaciation is certain to have impact on runoff in the future.

Problems of water stress are already prevalent in the region, due to the increasing demands of domestic, agriculture, industry and the growing population. Rapid urbanisation, population explosion and haphazard development are the main cause for the increasing pressure on our vulnerable fresh water resources. Thus, any reduction in the availability of freshwater could have serious consequences in matter of food security, people’s livelihoods, industrial growth and environmental sustainability the world over. From all three case studies one can gather the enormity of the predictions of retreating glaciers and associated impacts for the many millions of people whose very survival depends directly or indirectly on fresh water from these sources. While it is not yet clear which stage of deglaciation we are currently in, it is only wise to prepare for the worst. It is imperative to make vulnerability assessments of different development sectors and devise adaptation plans.