WE are living in a time of our planet’s history in which sustainable development is not possible without science, technology and innovation. Countries that are economically prosperous and socially stable have invested in science and human resources. Today, the need to bring science and society together to inform policy is more urgent than ever.
Mountains are a very important topographic feature in South Asia. The Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindukush (HKH) region extends 3,500 kilometres over eight countries from Afghanistan to Myanmar and has the third largest repository of ice and snow in the world (snow cover 760,000 square km, glacier cover 60,411 sq km).
Nearly 35 per cent of the global population benefits indirectly from the HKH cryosphere; the seasonal melting and replenishing of the cryopshere sustains 240 million people living in the HKH and 165m people downstream. The densely populated food plains downstream of Asia’s mountain ranges depend heavily on mountain water, especially for irrigation — with 16 million hectares (mh) of agricultural land benefiting three billion people with food produced in its river basins.
The HKH region is the source of 10 major Asian river systems, has four global biodiversity hotspots and is home to diverse cultures, languages and traditional knowledge systems. What happens here affects the rest of humanity. Glaciers and snowmelt contribute 60pc to 90pc of the water supply for agriculture and irrigation. Cryosphere dependency on water resources and agricultural livelihoods is most significant in the trans-boundary Indus river basin in Afghanistan, China, India and Pakistan.
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What happens here affects the rest of humanity.
The hydrological regime of the rivers makes the Indus basin most dependent on snow and glacial melt, with an estimated 40pc of total upstream flows coming from melt run-offs in contrast to the Ganges river basin, where estimated snow and glacial melt contribute only 10pc to the overall volume of the river’s streamflow. Covering a drainage area of 860,000 sq km, the Indus is regarded as one of the largest rivers in South Asia.
Pakistan occupies the largest portion of the Indus basin (52pc) and therefore needs to be more concerned about changes in the cryosphere, and responsive to external forces driven by climate change, disasters, economic growth, globalisation, migration and urbanisation. The monetary value of ice and snowmelt in Tarbela Dam is an eye-opener to the value chain associated with the high mountains and its precipitation regime. Tarbela provides irrigation for 9.5mh, 3,478 megawatts in hydropower and stores 14 billion cubic metres of water. The annual monetary value of water for agriculture adds up to $1.8bn, with $40m in benefits from electricity and 73pc contribution from glacier melt, and a total value of glacial water at $2.2bn.
However, keeping in mind the rapid changes in the HKH region and the accelerated rate of melting due to global warming, hydropower production may drop by 3pc to 10pc by 2050 in South Asia, and hydropower projects submitted as emission-reduction projects for carbon credits may also get affected.
It is, therefore, important to recognise the value of science and its role in helping society understand emerging scenarios to move from ‘business as usual’ to sustainable development pathways. Science that does not translate into actionable policy is of little use. Similarly, a society without knowledge of the causes behind changes in weather patterns, hydrological regimes and temperature rises is ill-equipped to build adaptive resilience.
Policymakers serve as a bridge between science and society. Policy and planning can deliver SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound) results if informed by science and society’s needs are taken into account, and blends the two to produce a policy that is place-based and people-centred using credible data and empirical evidence to address present and future needs and threats. At present, the study of the cryosphere and glaciology in Pakistan is weak; society is not well-versed in the subject, and policymakers are not attaching enough importance to something that serves as a lifeline for the nation’s economy.
Hazards in the cryosphere are another dimension of living in the Third Pole. The $37m Glacial Lake Outburst Flood project is still stuck between the UNDP and the Ministry of Climate Change, and the 2017 National Climate Act has become lost in a bureaucratic maze.
There is an urgent need to bring together diverse stakeholders at the national level and take a regional approach to sustain this global asset. Between the forests of the Amazon and the mountains of HKH, there is a whole world of humanity and biodiversity that thrives on the sustainable management of these resources. This requires a multidisciplinary and intersectional approach to policy and planning.
The writer is chief executive of the Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change.