Himalayan water is precious; China must approach consensually

London, UK:  
“China refuses to participate in multilateral forums surrounding transport boundary water use; instead, it negotiates through bilateral economic diplomacy, such as through the BRI, where it holds the whip hand,” said TDF Chair Barry Gardiner.

The clashing of natural and geopolitical issues, the politicisation of water, and China’s obligation to develop a more consensual approach to water in the Himalayas were among points discussed by participants at a June 22 seminar hosted by London-based not-for-profit The Democracy Forum (TDF), titled ‘Impending Himalayan water crisis: causes and effects’.

In his opening comments, Gardiner spoke of how the webinar brought together complex natural phenomena such as climate change and its effects on fresh water, and the most complex geopolitical problems, such as the tense relationship between those that depend on Hindu Kush Himalaya (including Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, India and Nepal).
These mountain ranges are known as the Third Pole, since they contain the largest amount of snow and ice anywhere in the world outside of the North and South Poles, and Gardiner highlighted how a huge number of glaciers feed the region’s many river systems, as well as its people.
He stresses both water demand and supply: more use through increasing urbanisation, rising industrial production, intensive dam-building, etc, compounded, on the supply side, by the threat of climate change.
Since climate rises faster at high altitudes, even meeting the Paris goal of keeping to 1.5 degrees as a global average could still see a 2.1 degree rise in the HKH, a scenario that would see drastic glacier melt, which would have a significant impact on food and energy production, and on wildlife.
One-third of people living in HKH and depending on its resources already live below the poverty line, said Gardiner, and half face malnutrition – so the threat to agricultural production becomes a political issue.
The transboundary nature of the region’s water resources, added Gardiner, creates the potential for serious political and security impacts, and riparian countries need to seek opportunities for cooperation.
Because China controls the Tibetan Plateau, it controls the head-waters of transboundary rivers that stretch across all four regions of Himalayan Asia. Yet its own needs are huge, with limited water supply and gargantuan demand. China’s upstream position gives it outsize power, and this hydrological asymmetry is matched by geopolitical asymmetry.
India’s existential fear is that China will someday divert the Brahmaputra River northward, while China also views India’s intentions through a security lens, seeing India as a threat. Gardiner wondered if the Indus Water Treaty is either comprehensive or malleable enough to deal with novel challenges such as climate-driven changes in Indus water levels.
Dr Paromita Ghosh, a scientist at the G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment, approached the discussion on the Himalayan water crisis, its causes and effects from an ecological and socio-economic perspective.
She addressed issues such as deforestation, climate change, melting and retreating glaciers, change in land use, landscape alterations by building roads, dams and hydropower projects and loss of religious and cultural values regarding water, all of which have led to the Himalayan water crisis.
Scarcity of water is leading to loss of livelihoods in agriculture, tourism and other water-related occupations, argued Dr Ghosh, and also leads to food insecurity, while lack of clean water results in water-borne diseases and other health threats.
Water deficit causes human conflicts too, not only across nations and states but at local and regional level, and is one of the major factors of outward migration from the hills. There is a need to create curricula in simple language, and local leaders are required who have knowledge of hydrological cycling in their region and are able to motivate people towards participatory conservation and management of Himalayan water.
Social science, economics and ecology must be blended with hydrology and hydro-geology, concluded Dr Ghosh, to prevent the impending Himalayan water crisis.
Dr Anil Kulkarni, Distinguished Scientist at the Divecha Center for Climate Change, Indian Institute of Science, examined the fate of the Himalayan cryosphere under a warm climate and how this will affect water security in the subcontinent.
He addressed issues of temperature change, decrease in rain and snowfall, the vulnerability of drying mountain streams, the problem of glaciers rapidly losing mass – especially in the Karakoram region, where there is little water coming from monsoons – and how investment is needed to help communities, particularly agricultural, affected by glacier melt.
Dr Kulkarni also highlighted the great inequity of the Indus Water Treaty, which provides over 70 per cent of glacial water to Pakistan, and less than 30 per cent to India. With a differential loss in mass balance – the eastern river mass loss is higher than the western – this can influence water sharing.
Is the Himalayan water crisis ‘natural’ or the result of bad science, mal-development and mismanagement? wondered Dipak Gyawali, an Academician at Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), and a former Minister of Water Resources of Nepal.
He looked at the drivers of the problem, the biggest of which is verticality, as people can’t carry water from great heights and the cost of pumping it is prohibitive. He also considered six different types and qualities of Himalayan water, saying that for each of these ‘problems’, there is not even an agreed definition of what they are or who created them, let alone solutions.
Gyawali also addressed the concerns of very different social organising styles that regard water differently: for example, as private goods to be taken care of by the market and those with money; public goods, which need regulating by municipalities, government departments etc; or common pool goods.
Himalayan waters are going to find salvation, said Gyawali, only when different organising styles (of bureaucratic hierarchism, market individualism and activist egalitarianism) all find a place at the democratic policy table, and have their voices not only heard but also responded to. But, he concluded, we are very far from that stage.
The focus for Dr Aditi Mukherji, Principal Researcher, International Water Management Institute (New Delhi), was on some of the latest findings from the IPCC and the Hindu Kush Himalayan Assessment on the impact of climate change in the region.
Climate change is man-made, not natural, she insisted, and human influence has warmed the climate at a rate unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years. We are thus living in a climate-changed world – it is not a future phenomenon.
Hot extremes are increasing in almost all regions, as is heavy precipitation, and this has an impact across the world. So, what do global changes mean for the Himalayas? she asked. HKH will warm more compared to the global mean and warm more rapidly at higher elevation. Even 1.5 degrees is too hot for the Himalayas, as at that temperature, glaciers will lose 36% volume by 2100.
Regarding what these changes mean for the region’s water resources, Dr Mukherji spoke of climate justice issue – those that have contributed least to global warming, with the lowest carbon footprints, are worst and disproportionately affected.
So while we need infrastructure, we need to rely less on hydropower and more on solar. The IPPC reports say this must be decade of mitigation, adaptation and adopt just transitions. Dr Mukherji concluded with the warning: ‘Every bit of warming matters, every year matters and every choice matters.’
For Dhondup Wangmo, a Research Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute’s Research Fellow, Environment and Development Desk, the key issue was the Third Pole, and why climate change there matters.
Encompassing 46,000 glaciers that play a crucial role in sustaining the Asian atmospheric circulation, the Tibetan Plateau is vital. This circulation has been kept intact by the natural melting of snow and ice and moderate precipitation and temperature of the climate which generate the rivers flowing out from the Tibetan Plateau.
The rivers flowing from the Tibetan Plateau also maintained the water and economic security of the lower riparian countries. The disruption and decline of glaciers, snow and ice on the Tibetan Plateau will affect the water security of all involved counties. Hence, climate change on the Tibetan Plateau is a global concern, not only Tibet.
Wangmo agreed with some previous speakers that climate change was caused by anthropogenic activities, and she spoke of the impact of the Chinese invasion of Tibet, such as excessive development and mining.
On the question of how to save the Third Pole, Wangmo said importance should be given to ecological processes vital for sustaining the mountain system. With China being the supreme power of rivers flowing downstream, all involved countries should be integrated with China in combating the water crisis, and China should be pressurised into negotiating with them.
In the name of ‘development’, China’s continuous dam-building has ignored human rights, social and environmental impacts, and Wangmo stressed that hydropower projects should be built only with the consensus of local people, while the wider issue should be addressed at a global level.
Offering an overview and broader perspective on water security and global water risk was Charles Iceland, Global Director, Water (Acting) at the World Resources Institute. He addressed the matter of chronic risk – using too much water relative to what we have naturally from rainfall – and episodic risk, such as flooding.
Iceland also discussed problems of forced migration or displacement caused by water shortages, conflict over water scarcity, and spoke of how droughts and floods can contribute to food price spikes, food insecurity and subsequent unrest.

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