Himalayan glaciers at risk: Melting threatens water supply for billions

The plight of the Himalayan glaciers serves as a stark reminder of the climate crisis


In a recent report published by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), alarming findings indicate that the Himalayan glaciers, vital sources of water for nearly two billion people, are melting at an unprecedented rate. The study reveals that between 2011 and 2020, the glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region vanished 65 percent faster than in the previous decade, primarily due to the impacts of climate change.

The HKH glaciers, spanning 3,500 kilometers across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan, play a crucial role in sustaining the livelihoods of approximately 240 million people residing in the mountainous areas, as well as an additional 1.65 billion people in the downstream river valleys. They are instrumental in feeding ten of the world's most important river systems, including the Ganges, Indus, Yellow, Mekong, and Irrawaddy, providing essential water resources, energy, clean air, and income for billions of individuals.

The plight of the Himalayan glaciers serves as a stark reminder of the global climate crisis and its disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities. Urgent international cooperation and collective efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are crucial to preserving these critical water sources and securing the well-being of millions who depend on them.

If current greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, the report warns that the Himalayan glaciers could lose up to 80 percent of their current volume by the end of this century. Even under the most optimistic scenario of limiting global warming to the 1.5 to 2.0 degrees Celsius agreed upon in the Paris climate treaty, the glaciers are projected to lose between one-third and one-half of their volume by 2100.

The consequences of this unprecedented glacial melt are dire. Water flows in the region's twelve river basins, supporting over 1.6 billion people, are anticipated to peak around mid-century, potentially leading to a scarcity of water resources. Paradoxically, while the accelerated melting initially may result in increased water availability, it is likely to cause erratic and unpredictable water flows, resulting in devastating floods rather than a steady water supply.

In addition to the threat of water scarcity, the changing climate patterns pose risks to communities dependent on glacial water and snowmelt for agriculture. The timing of snowfall has become increasingly erratic, and the overall amount of snow has diminished, impacting crop irrigation. Livelihoods are being jeopardised, leading to migration away from mountain communities in search of alternative income opportunities.

Recognising the urgency of this situation, governments across the region are taking action to mitigate the impacts of glacial melt. China is focusing on strengthening water supply systems, while Pakistan is implementing early warning systems to mitigate the risks of glacial lake outburst floods.