Himalayan rivalry impacts climate science

Chinese military exercises on the Tibetan Plateau last week. Photo: GLOBAL TIMES

Environment ministers from eight countries that border the Himalaya were all set to gather in Kathmandu in April for a rare meeting to discuss data sharing, and cooperation in mitigating the impact of the climate crisis and threats to biodiversity.

Some of these countries are not exactly friends: there is tension on the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and violent clashes erupted recently between India with Pakistan and China. Rival claims to Himalayan territory are even  affecting Nepal-India and Nepal-China relations.  

That these countries had even agreed to meet under the auspices of the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) was remarkable. However, the conference was cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It had taken ICIMOD more than two years to convince ministers from China, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Burma to sit together to discuss solutions to cross-border environmental problems.

“We are hopeful that all countries will come to the meeting with more commitment when we do it possibly next year,” said Philippus Wester, coordinator of the event and the lead editor of The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People released last year.  

The assessment warned that the Himalayan mountains are set to lose at least one-third of their ice cap during this century. But that projection may have to considerably revised because the rate of warming has now been found to be more rapid than first projected.

Even as the pandemic hit the region, the worst clashes in 45 years erupted between Indian and Chinese troops in a disputed region of Ladakh, leaving dozens dead on both sides. Tensions also flared between Nepal and India over Kathmandu’s claim to 360sq km of mountainous terrain on the tri-junction of its border with India and China.

The India-Nepal-China geopolitical tri-junction, Kunda Dixit

The endangered snow leopard is one of the animals that make up the Himalayas’ rich biodiversity. Photo: HIMACHAL PRADESH WILDLIFE DEPARTMENT

This week, reports came from remote mountainous district of Humla of China building several structures inside what Nepal claims is its territory. Chinese border guards sent back a Nepali patrol that went to inspect the site on Monday. 

All this is affecting cross-border scientific cooperation in the Himalaya. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) fourth assessment report, released as far back as 2007 identified the entire Himalaya as a ‘black hole’ for data, with no monitoring in a region that is warming much faster than the global average.

After that report, countries of the Himalaya committed to cooperate on research to quantify the impact of climate change. But after more than a decade, there has not been much action. By 2014, when the IPCC released its fifth assessment report, the Himalaya had the same problem despite warnings from the scientific community about the severe consequences of not having enough information to make collective decisions.

Scientists working in the region say things have improved slightly in recent years even though there are dire warnings about the impact of the climate emergency on the Himalaya, and what it will mean for water supply downstream.

“From my experience, most scientists from the region work well together and we have a common goal to understand how the atmosphere, the cryosphere and the hydrosphere interact and we all aim to quantify how climate change will impact the region’s water resources,” said Walter Immerzeel at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who has been researching the hydrology of the Himalaya. “There is of course the everlasting issue of data sharing between countries, but over the years things have improved, albeit slowly, and everyone respects each other’s constraints.”

Data sharing between countries in the Himalaya is weak and hampered by secrecy policies, and heightened military tension on the border has not helped. Researchers and activists have been demanding open data sharing, but governments concerned about national security are not willing to do so.

“To be frank, scientific culture doesn’t have deep roots in this region,” says Dipak Gyawali, Nepal’s former water resources minister. “Countries think somebody else will use the science that they are doing. That is wrong. Science ultimately benefits others beyond borders.”

The region is also one of the most militarised in the world. The Fund for Peace’s 2017 Fragile States Index gave five of the eight countries in the Himalayan region ‘alert’ status.

Nepal's glacial lakes in danger of bursting, Mukesh Pokhrel

‘Working together to better manage shared resources could yield important dividends that go beyond immediate development benefits, including improved understanding among countries and long-term peace building,’ wrote David Molden,  ICIMOD’s director-general of ICIMOD in a 2017 paper.

Strategic alliances along the Himalaya have led to a infrastructure-building spree.  The China–Pakistan Economic Corridor project will link Xinjiang province in China with Pakistan’s Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea, with 3,000 km of roads, railway and oil pipelines. India’s Border Roads Organisation is building 3,400 km of strategic border roads along the mountains. China’s Tibet Railway is being extended to the Nepal border at Gyirong.

‘Invoking the external threat is a tried-and-true method for politicians to deflect domestic criticism, particularly in those parts of Himalayan Asia where such messaging finds ready audiences. These motives … predispose national governments toward unilateral river use and away from joint river management,’ Peter Engelke and David Michel wrote in their book Ecology meets Geopolitics published last year.

The greater Himalayan region has a population of approximately 250 million, but supports almost two billion people who are dependent on the rivers that flow through, and down, from them. It is also a region particularly rich in biodiversity. All of these are under threat.

‘Militarisation, land-use changes, and habitat destruction and fragmentation across the Himalaya are likely to push several species with small populations to extinction. Diplomacy is their only hope,’ Maharaj K Pandit, an environmental scientist at the University of Delhi, wrote last month.

In addition to the border tensions and rivalry, experts say, the global recession due to the pandemic will  have an impact on funding for transboundary scientific cooperation.

“The current framework of cooperation is likely to change not only because of border tensions but also due to virus-induced economic turmoil, especially in the West which has been key to supporting several trans-boundary initiatives,” says Nepal’s Dipak Gyawali. “Science and research in the Himalaya is definitely going to be impacted.”

A version of this article appears in thethirdpole.net

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