Melting away

Published : Jan 18, 2008 00:00 IST

Buddhist Prayer flags on the Khardung glacier, which supplies water to Leh.-

Buddhist Prayer flags on the Khardung glacier, which supplies water to Leh.-

Glacial retreat in Jammu and Kashmir could plunge South Asia into a crisis.

Buddhist Prayer flags

IN MEMORY, reads the small stone plaque by the side of the worlds highest road, of 18 men of the 201 Engineer Regiment who lost their lives fording the Khardung La.

Back in 1976, when soldiers began to blast their way through the 18,200-foot (5,460 metres) la, or pass, the road beyond the plaque opened out on to a wall of ice. Trucks and cars moving northwest from Leh to villages in the Nobra valley had to traverse a bridge across the Khardung glacier. Through much of the winter, road-maintenance crews had to battle against the snow to keep the road open for military convoys making their way to the ring of frontier outposts that support Indian troops on the Siachen glacier.

For the past five years, though, Ladakh has seen unusually mild winters and low snowfall. The Khardung glacier has thinned to the point where the bridge that traversed it has been dispensed with. Over the years, says Pinto Norbu, Nobras representative in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, Ive watched this massive river of ice disappear. Its bizarre.

In a region that sees less than 50 millimetres of rain each year, glaciers are a key source of water and Ladakh residents are beginning to fear that they will count among the victims of global warming. If those fears prove well founded and a growing body of scientists suggests they might it would have serious consequences for much of Pakistan and India, both of which depend on river systems fed by Ladakhs glaciers for much of their water needs.

Ladakh residents fears are founded on the evidence before their eyes. Mountaineering guides, for instance, say that glaciers on the high mountains, which once needed sophisticated ice-craft to traverse, can now be negotiated by trekkers. Local residents note that the region has also seen freak weather in recent years, including flash foods which swept through Leh and the Nobra valley last summer, for the first time in living memory.

Science appears to bear out what Ladakh residents fear. Measurements of one glacier in the Karakoram range, conducted by paleo-climatologist Bahadur Kotlia using a Global Positioning System, showed it had retreated by 15 to 20 metres a year between 2001 and 2003. This rate is chaos, Kotlia said in a recent interview, this should not be happening.

Kotlias findings have been borne out by a study of 466 glaciers in the Chenab, Baspa and Parbati river basins, published by the Indian Space Research Organisations (ISRO) Anil Kulkarni and six other scientists in January 2007. Writing in the journal Current Science, Kulkarni and his co-authors reported an overall reduction from 2,077 square kilometres in 1962 to 1682 square kilometres at present, an overall deglaciation of 21 per cent.

Of the consequences of these developments, Kulkarni and his colleagues left little doubt. The observations made in this investigation, they wrote, suggest that small glaciers and ice fields have been significantly affected due to global warming from the middle of the last century. In the future, if additional global warming takes place, the processes of glacial fragmentation and retreat will increase, which will have a profound effect on the availability of water resources in the Himalayan region.

Scientists disagree on the causes of glacial retreat. Some have attributed the receding of glaciers to human interventions, like heightened vehicle activity on the Khardung La or Siachen. Others have argued that the retreat could be, at least in part, a periodic cycle. Whatever the truth, its consequences could prove too horrific to imagine.

Just why this might be so in fact requires little imagination: glacial retreat could provoke a meltdown of the India-Pakistan peace process. Speaking on the World Day for Water in 1999, Executive Director Klaus Toepfer of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned that as water becomes increasingly rare, it becomes coveted; capable of unleashing conflicts. More than over land or oil, it is over water that the most bitter conflicts of the near future may be fought.

Back in 1947, when Major-General Akbar Khan ordered the first Pakistani irregulars into Jammu and Kashmir sparking off a conflict without apparent end water occupied a central place in his strategic vision. Pakistan, General Khan wrote in his memoirs, Raiders in Kashmir, simply could not afford to allow India to have control of its irrigation head-works at Mangala, and of the sources of its most important river system, the Indus.

In the event, India and Pakistan hammered out a treaty to regulate their use of the rivers which head west from Jammu and Kashmir. While Pakistan has protested against what it claims are Indian violations of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), and some in India have called for an abrogation of the agreement to punish Pakistan for sponsoring terrorist groups, the accord has survived three wars and two insurgencies. Glacial retreat, though, has begun to erode one of the pillars of a future India-Pakistan peace.

Put simply, retreating glaciers mean less summer waters in rivers both countries depend on for survival, and that at a time when their needs are growing.

Dependent on the Indus for an estimated 90 per cent of its irrigation needs, Pakistan saw per-capita water availability decline from 5,600 cubic metres in 1947 to just 1,200 cubic metres in 2005. Groundwater reserves are reported to have fallen to alarming levels in over half of Pakistans 45 canal commands. Worse, silt deposits in Pakistans major Indus dams mean that it can store less water for the months when it is most needed: by 2010, experts estimate, Pakistan may lose over half its water storage capacity.

India, too, has been moving inexorably towards a water crisis. In 1950, per-capita water availability stood at over 5,000 cubic metres; in 2005, that figure stood at 1,800 cubic metres. Some states have reported per-capita water availability below 1,000 cubic metres, the crisis threshold used by the World Bank. Farmers in States critical for Indian agriculture, such as Punjab and Haryana, have responded to the shortage by overusing groundwater, leading to precipitate falls in the water table. In time, pressures on Indian policymakers to use more water than the IWT allows them could well grow.

Hemis village in

Within Jammu and Kashmir, politicians cutting across party lines have already begun making precisely such demands. The IWT permits the construction of hydroelectric dams storing 3.6 million acre-feet on the Indus, the Jhelum and the Chenab, and the irrigation of only 121,000 hectares of land. These restrictions, the scholar Erin Blankenship has recorded, act as a chokehold on Kashmirs capacity for progress. Jammu and Kashmir is treaty-bound to use only a fraction of its 15,000 mega-watt hydroelectricity potential and has been able to irrigate only 10 per cent of its farmland, as opposed to 80 per cent in Pakistan.

While water shortages alone place serious strains on the IWT, Blankenship has noted, to add the projected human population growth is to raise the stakes to an entirely different level. Indias population in 2025 is projected to rise to 1.3 billion, thrice that of the time when the IWT was signed. Pakistan by then is expected to have 270 million residents, more than six times its original population. Substantial sections of these populations, dependent as they are on Himalayan rivers, are likely to be in a near-perennial state of drought.

Solutions do exist and have been pushed with increasing urgency by experts. Senior journalist B.G. Verghese, for instance, has called for a revised Indus-II treaty, built on joint investment, construction, management and control of the three west-flowing rivers. Verghese has argued that Indus II should be fed into the current peace process as a means both of defusing current political strains over Indus-I and insuring against climate change. In his view, it could reinforce the basis for a lasting solution to the Jammu and Kashmir question by helping transform relationships across the Line of Control and reinventing it as a bridge rather than a boundary.

Former Union Water Resources Secretary Ramaswamy R. Iyer, one of the regions most respected experts, has also called for a reworking of the IWT. In a recent article, Iyer succinctly argued that the IWT was a negative, partitioning treaty, a coda to the portioning of the land.

While politicians debate whether or not to explore new possibilities, the stark fact is that time is running out. With the glaciers in retreat, there may just not be enough water to go around.

Panic, though, is not a response Leh District Magistrate Mandeep Bhandari believes is useful.

Lehs ground-water levels, he points out, are excellent: hand-pumps installed to meet villagers needs hit aquifers at six metres or less, and farmers report an abundant flow of water from glacier-fed mountain streams. Ladakhs use of non-conventional resources to minimise fossil-fuel demand has been exemplary; solar panels, small river-powered electricity plants and windmills dot the landscape.

Its not as if there is a crisis staring us in the face, Bhandari says, but I do think we need to start thinking hard about the future. We need to consider if were using water in ways that are appropriate to our environment.

Part of the problem is a consequence of well-meaning efforts to improve the economy. With road links to Himachal Pradesh and the rest of Jammu and Kashmir severed for several months a year, farmers in Ladakh have been encouraged to cultivate vegetables. While the high-altitude desert now meets a significant part of its vegetable needs locally, cultivation in its dry soil demands constant irrigation. Trees planted to meet the rural need for firewood, too, have created new demands for water. People are pumping too much water, says Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Chief Executive Tsering Dorjay, which, in practice, means using our glacial reserves without care for the future.

Tourism, too, has created new problems. While most rural Ladakh and old-town Leh residents make do with buckets filled from hand-pumps, the growing influx of tourists has spurred the creation of modern hotels which draw copious quantities of water to feed showers and baths. As tourism expands in the region, so too will the number of hotels and other water-intensive facilities for the upmarket tourists Ladakh hopes to draw, like swimming pools and golf courses.

Ladakh, then, faces an anxious future. Its fate will be shared by all of South Asias peoples.

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