South Asia needs joint action plan to combat climate crisis

National security is no more confined to military threats as environmental changes pose equal challenges to existence.

 As the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, began in Glasgow, Scotland, there seem no efforts by South Asian nations to present a joint action plan to reverse the climate crisis in the region.

Inhabiting 2 billion people, the region faces droughts, floods, heatwaves, cyclones, and ailments caused due to air pollution and many other disasters almost every year, taking the lives of hundreds of people.

Ahead of the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference at the Copenhagen, Jairam Ramesh, India’s then-environment and forests minister, had proposed to coordinate positions during his meeting with Farukh Iqbal Khan, Pakistan’s chief negotiator. But this bonhomie did not go too far.

Keeping in view the water scarcity and climate crisis looming large in the region, there is a need for both countries to forge a cooperative mechanism to protect the environment and save their water sources.

Almost all Indus line glaciers, Pakistan’s water houses, are melting and receding at an alarming rate, more rapidly than other Himalayan glaciers. The nose of the Kolahoi Glacier in Kashmir, one of the largest glaciers in the Himalayas, was recorded to have receded almost 22 meters (72 feet) in around two decades when mapped last time in 2007. Several smaller adjacent glaciers were found having disappeared completely.

Nearly 15,000 Himalayan glaciers form a unique reservoir that supports perennial rivers such as the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Mekong, which are the main sources of fresh water for billions of people in the South and Southeast Asian region.

A paper presented in 2005 by M.N. Kaul, the former principal investigator on glaciology in the Department of Science and Technology of the Indian government, estimated that out of 15,000 glaciers, 6,500 are located in India and 3,136 in the mountain belt of Jammu and Kashmir.

Pakistan’s main Indus River, which starts in Tibet and runs through Ladakh on the Indian side, depends on these glaciers. The Indus River branches out near Kargil in the Ladakh region and enters the Kashmir Valley to merge with River Jhelum. Another branch, however, continues its onward journey and enters Pakistan.

It is fed by numerous tributaries, mainly River Jhelum and River Chinab, as it swells out and flows down towards the Arabian Sea. A UN report noted that more than three-quarters of Pakistanis live in the Indus basin and its water irrigates 80% of the nation’s cropland.

– Crowding of ecologically fragile areas

Another threat posed to glaciers is from the crowding of ecologically fragile areas. Many countries have regulated tourist inflows into their mountainous regions to save the ecology.

India’s national environment policy also calls for measures “to regulate tourist inflows into mountain regions to ensure that these remain within the carrying capacity of the mountain ecology.”

While New Delhi has taken tough measures restricting tourist and pilgrim traffic to save the Gangetic glaciers, there is an impression that it tends to sidestep the Kashmir glaciers. In 1996, a parliamentary panel led by Nitish Sengupta had urged the government to regulate the Amarnath-bound Hindu pilgrims to preserve the fragile ecology and environment of the region.

Ironically, the north Indian state of Uttarakhand applied Sengupta’s recommendations in 2008 by restricting the number of pilgrims and tourists visiting Gomukh, the source of the holy Ganges River, to 150 a day. The Gomukh is as important a holy shrine for Hindus as Amarnath is in the southern mountains of Kashmir.

Glaciologists have also warned of environmental degradation, ecological imbalance, and adverse impact on the Nehnar glacier, situated at an altitude of 4,200 m (13,780 ft) around Baltal near Sonamarg, located on the way to Amarnath cave.

A few years ago, a UN-sponsored study, Mountains of Concrete: Dam Building in the Himalayas, predicted dramatic drops in the inflows into the Indus basin in the next 100 years. The study by Sripad Dharmadhikari of the Manthan Adhyayan Kendra for International Rivers had warned about extreme changes in river flows due to global warming.

“As glaciers melt, water in the rivers will rise and dams would be subjected to much higher flows, raising concerns about dam safety, increased flooding, and submergence. And with the subsequent depletion of glaciers, there would be much lower annual flows, affecting the performance of dams, built with huge investments,” the study concluded.

The current trends in glacial melt suggest that the Indus and other rivers may become seasonal rivers shortly as a consequence of climate change with important ramifications for the economies in the region.

– Vanishing glaciers

A decade ago, a team of The Energy Research Institute of India led by Iqbal Hassnain, in their study of Kolahoi Glacier in the Pahalgam area of South Kashmir, had reported its accelerated melting.

They also reported a 21% overall reduction in the glacier surface area of the Chenab, a sub-basin of the Indus. According to the report, while some glaciers feeding the river system have vanished, the surviving ones are fast shrinking.

In the Sindh valley between Ladakh and Kashmir Valley, for instance, the Najwan Akal glacier has disappeared, and the surviving trio — Thajwas, Zojila, and Naranag — have considerably shrunk. The one feeding the Amarnath cave, a Hindu pilgrimage site was found having reduced by over 100 m (328 ft).

The Afarwat glacier near Gulmarg, in North Kashmir, has ceased to exist, though once it happened to be 400 m (1,312 ft) long. A report by the Action Aid stated that this is happening everywhere, from north to south in Kashmir. Almost all the major glaciers in south Kashmir — Hangipora, Naaginad Galgudi, and Wandernad — are shrinking.

Barring certain water bodies that are spring-fed, most of the streams of the Indus water system are glacier-fed. Since early melting triggers massive discharge in rivers, the water bodies lack the adequate quantity once agricultural activity begins.

– Snow line receding

Barely 20 years ago, the snow line to the Kashmir Valley’s east was just above areas like Pahalgam and Sonmarg — 3,200 m (10,499 ft).

“Currently the line has receded to Shiashnag area which is at an altitude of 5,000 m (16,404 ft) only. The same is true of the Pirpanjal mountain range in the west where the snow line was above Kongwatan and Zaznar (at an altitude of) 3,000-3,500 m (9,842-13,123 ft),” said the Action Aid report.

Most of the glaciers of the Great Himalayan range, from Harmuk to Drungdrung, including Thajiwas, Kolahoi, Machoie, Kangrez, and Shafat, have significantly receded around 4,000-5,000 m (13,123-16,404 ft) over the last 50 years.

According to testimonies of villagers in the Choolan area, located in the Shamasbari mountain range in north Kashmir, the nearby glacier, Katha, has reduced from 200 feet to 80 feet over the last 40 years. Similarly, people living around Tangmarg and Gulmarg in North Kashmir say the Budrukot glacier in the area has reduced from 16 feet to only five feet in height over the years.

The Khujwan glacier in the mountains of the Kichama area has reduced from 40 feet to only 20 feet. The Afarwat glacier around the Nambalnar Hajibal area, which used to be 300 feet 40 years ago, has completely disappeared.

Some five decades ago, the Chenab basin used to have about 8,000 square kilometers (3,088 square miles) under glaciers, permanent and ephemeral snow cover which would contribute huge quantities of water during summer to this river through numerous perennial tributaries as compared to the present 4,100 sq km (1,583 sq mi) under snow cover.

Also, Kashmir’s dense forest area has also shrunk considerably, from 37% of its total area to merely 11%.

Quoting Mohammad Sultan Bhat, who heads Kashmir University’s Geography Department, The Third Pole — a website dedicated the Himalayan ecology — said the area under dense forests around the tourist resort of Pahalgam in southern Kashmir has fallen by 191 sq km (74 sq mi) from 1961 to 2010 with an average annual loss of 3.9 sq km (1.5 sq mi), largely due to illegal construction over a forested area.

According to Kashmir Observer — an English daily published from Srinagar — the area of Wullar Lake, the largest water reservoir in the region, has also reduced from 157 sq. km (60 sq mi) to 86 sq km (33 sq mi) in three decades. The lake that feeds the Jhelum River and thereby plains of the Pakistani province of Punjab is located 50 km (31 mi) from the main Srinagar city.

– Environment degradation is a security threat

Terrorism and military conflict may be the biggest threat to innocent lives, but the environmental catastrophe will affect generations and cost more lives than any other threat.

Surprisingly, these issues have not received much attention in the diplomatic circles of India and Pakistan. It is time that both neighbors, must evolve a mechanism beyond the Indus Water Treaty to save the sources of water, environment, and ecology. There is a greater need to set up a cooperative mechanism to govern and protect resources across the Line of Control.

Another way out could be to expand the mandate of the eight-member South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation to prioritize greater cooperation on environmental issues. There is also a need to set up monitoring committees for resource management and to foster environmental cooperation and expand knowledge and data sharing mechanisms.

Security is no more confined to national security threats or international relations. Environmental changes are also being listed as security threats.

Diplomatic historian Richard Ullman defined threat as “anything which can degrade the quality of life of the inhabitants of a state, or which narrows the choices available to people and organizations within the state.”

It is time for both India and Pakistan to redefine their strategies and attend to this issue, which has far-reaching consequences for their people. Half a billion people in the Himalaya-Hindukush region and a quarter billion downstream who rely on glacial meltwaters could be seriously affected by what is happening to the glaciers.


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