Climate Change Threatens Loss of Two-thirds Of Hindu Kush Himalaya Glaciers, 1.65 Billion People Live In Downstream Valleys

KATHMANDU, Nepal

A new report commissioned by the eight countries in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan, warns that current levels of greenhouse gas emissions would lead to five degrees of warming and cause a loss of two-thirds of the region’s glaciers by the end of this century.

The conclusions of the report released February 4, are alarming as the area of HKH (from Afghanistan to Myanmar) is vast. The region is home to 10 of the most important river systems, and ice melt is the only water source for 250 million mountain dwellers. In addition, 1.65 billion people live in downstream valleys.

The study is authored by The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a regional intergovernmental learning and knowledge sharing centre serving the eight regional member countries of the Hindu Kush Himalaya.

The HKH region covers 3,500 kilometers and the glaciers feed 10 of the world’s most important river systems, including the Ganges, Indus, Yellow, Mekong and Irrawaddy, and directly or indirectly supply billions of people with food, energy, clean air and incomes. Additionally, the region contains four of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. 

The glaciers have been retreating since the 1970s, when global warming first set in, and the changes have ripple effects throughout the region. Glacier melt is exacerbated by air pollution that comes from one of the most polluted areas in the world. The pollution deposits black carbon on the glaciers, hastening their melting and changing monsoon circulation, and rainfall distribution over Asia. 

As the glaciers melt, the water flows into lakes and rivers, at times causing sudden flooding. This, then, leads to the destruction of crops and other important habitats. As a result of the HKH ice melt, more water is expected to surge through the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, forcing a change to the agriculture in the valleys around them. As the number and intensity of these disasters increase, more than one billion people, already very vulnerable, are at risk.

Despite the cultural and political diversity of the countries studied, they are united in the unique challenges facing mountain regions, which will only get worse with climate change and glacial melt, the report asserts, while calling for greater recognition of mountain areas and the HKH region in global climate efforts.

According to Philippus Wester of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) lead author of the report, “this is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of. Impacts on people in the region, already one of the world’s most fragile and hazard-prone mountain regions, will range from worsened air pollution to an increase in extreme weather events. But it’s the projected reductions in pre-monsoon river flows and changes in the monsoon that will hit hardest, throwing urban water systems and food and energy production off kilter.”

“The massive size and global significance of the Hindu Kush Himalaya region is indisputable, yet this is the first report to lay down in definitive detail the region’s critical importance to the well-being of billions and its alarming vulnerability, especially in the face of climate change,” said David Molden, director general of ICIMOD.

Free