Updated: Aug 8, 2020
The Himalaya. It is difficult to comprehend the stupendous size of the world’s highest mountain range that stretches from Afghanistan to Burma, and rises into the edge of the stratosphere.
Everything about these massifs need to be described in the superlative: their tectonic origins, climatological significance, the biological diversity and hydrology, and their religious, cultural, and political importance.
Formed 65 million years ago with the collision of a drifting Indian plate with the Eurasian landmass, the Himalaya is the world’s youngest mountain range. The terrain rises from almost sea level to nearly 9km within a horizontal distance of only 90km. The joke in Nepal is that we have six directions: north, south, east, west, up and down.
Big rivers like the Indus and Tsangpo are older than the Himalaya. That is why they mostly start beyond the mountains in the Tibetan Plateau and over millions of years have cut deep gorges even as the mountains rose, literally, at the speed of a growing thumbnail.
The rivers thus provided access routes across the otherwise impenetrable mountains for the migration of peoples, military invasions, trans-Himalayan trade and cultural exchanges, and the spread of Buddhism from Nepal and India to Tibet, China and beyond to Korea and Japan.
In winter, this mountain range serves as a barrier to stop frigid winds from Central Asia from blowing into the Indo-Gangetic plains. And in summer they block monsoon clouds giving its southern slopes the highest precipitation rate in the world, while the Tibetan Plateau to the north remains high and dry.
What makes these mountains scenic also makes them seismic. The peaks are still rising, and the region suffers frequent mega-quakes. Landslides are common on the fragile slopes lashed by heavy rainfall. Downstream, Himalayan rivers burst their banks during the rainy season, causing devastating annual floods.
It is not without reason that the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau are called ‘The Roof of the World’. Asia’s main rivers all start here: the Yangtze and Hwang He emerge from eastern Tibet and flow through China to empty into the Pacific Ocean, the Mekong flows down from China through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to empty into the South China Sea, the Burmese rivers all go into the Andaman Sea, the Tsangpo first flows 2,000km east to find a gap in the Himalaya and cuts into India as Brahmaputra before joining the Ganges in Bangladesh to discharge into the Bay of Bengal, and the Indus travels westward through Pakistan to empty into the Arabian Sea.
One-fifth of humanity depends on the rivers that originate in the Himalaya. In the dry season, spring thaw in the mountains keeps the rivers flowing — making them a vital source of water for agriculture. This is why the Himalaya is also called ‘The Water Tower of Asia’ because it stores water as ice only to be released into the rivers, conveniently when people downstream need water the most.
In fact, the Himalaya has the third largest ice cap after the two polar regions. And like the North and South Poles, the snow and ice here had been melting naturally since the last Ice Age. That process has now accelerated because of the accumulation of anthropogenic carbon in the atmosphere. At the current rate of melting, scientists predict that more than a third of the remaining ice in the Himalaya will be gone during this century.
How fast the mountains melt depends largely on how quickly countries around the world reduce their carbon emissions. But a lot of the melting is also caused by soot particles from coal and diesel burning (called ‘black carbon’) which, when deposited on the ice fields in the mountains, reduce reflectivity, causing them to melt faster.
The Himalaya is now prone to multiple disasters as glacial lakes swell with melted ice. Hundreds of lakes in Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and India are in danger of bursting. Worse, simultaneous lake bursts caused by earthquakes can send catastrophic Himalayan tsunamis raging downstream.
The climate crisis is also already impacting on the Himalayan ecology, threatening its rich biodiversity. Plants are creeping up the mountains as the atmosphere warms, as are mosquitos carrying dengue, encephalitis and malaria. Invasive species disturb the ecosystem, causing endemic species to disappear.
Blaming the West for historical emissions of carbon since the Industrial Revolution is not helpful anymore. China’s carbon emissions are more than the US and Europe combined. And India now ranks third in total emissions. These two giants that share a common Himalayan border now produce 38% of the world’s greenhouse gases. In short, the fossil fuel they burn melts the mountains on which they depend on for water.
The Himalaya has historically faced another crisis: the mountains form the frontier between countries that share it. India and Pakistan have rival territorial claims on Kashmir, India and China share a poorly demarcated Himalayan border that is often the source of clashes, Nepal and India, China and Bhutan also have border disputes.
While geo-tectonics make the mountains unsafe, rising geo-political tension threatens regional cooperation in economic development, as well as mitigating and adapting to the climate crisis. Regions downstream from the Himalaya are already facing severe water shortages, climate simulations show this will get worse in the next 30 years.
Water has become a strategic commodity. The climate crisis will make it an even more important resource. Important enough to fight over. The Himalayan mountains will be hotspots in more ways than one — they are already politically volatile and the climate crisis will increase competition for water, worsening tension.
There is still time to do something about it. This modest initiative, ‘The Geopolitics and Ecology of Himalayan Waters’ is an attempt to be a ‘base camp’ for the exchange of ideas, inter-disciplinary knowledge sharing, and a resource base for academics, researchers, scientists, students, the media and the public on the inter-generational crises that we face in the Himalaya.
There are examples of innovations and best practices throughout the region that can be learnt: Nepal’s community forestry program that has increased forest cover by 40% in the past 40 years, Bhutan going carbon negative, local communities in the Mt Everest region taking action to protect themselves from glacial outburst floods, or India and China announcing time-bound timetables to switch to electric transport.
The seriousness of the coming politico-ecological emergency needs to be communicated unequivocally to governments, policymakers and the publics in our countries. Hopefully action will follow at individual or community level, but also on the national, regional and global stage.