Tuesday, December 1, 2009

On Thinner Ice

Seasonal snowpack and glacial meltwaters from the Himalayan Plateau, often referred to as the water tower of Asia, supply fresh water to over 2 billion people in Asia. Snow and ice from the metaphorical roof of the world feeds every major river system in the region: the Indus, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze and Huang He (Yellow). The Asia Society has released a short video (8 minutes long) entitled On Thinner Ice which uses repeat photography from the filmmaker David Breashears to document the retreat of some of the glaciers surrounding Mt. Everest.

It highlights the very real challenge of managing water resources in a changing world. At the same time population in these river basins is rapidly increasing and generating greater demand for fresh water, the glaciers supplying much of this water have been receding at unprecedented rates in recent decades. In a report published last year, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that “67 per cent of the nearly 34,000 square km (12,124 square mi) of Himalayan glaciers are reported to be receding.”

This combination of increasing demand and decreasing supply is expected to lead to regional water shortages, compromised water quality and stream sedimentation throughout the region. While the mechanics of high-altitude/low latitude warming, glacial recession, seasonal snowmelt, and the timing of monsoonal rains can describe the variability of water supplies, the real impacts of these systemic changes cannot be calculated until the political, social, and economic pressures of a growing population with few resources to spare are accounted for.

This is vulnerability. As changing environmental conditions collide with social and economic pressures, some populations around the world will be more vulnerable and at risk than others.

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