It’s sink or swim for the Himalaya

The Himalaya is a hotspot in more ways than one. Climate breakdown is melting its ice at an unprecedented rate, countries that border the Himalaya are not in speaking terms, and the world’s youngest mountain range is in a seismically active zone.

Geopolitics and geotectonics collide along the 2,400km Himalayan arc, even while its glaciers shrink and the snowline recedes. The Siachen Glacier at 6,000m elevation is the world’s highest battlefield where the militaries of India and Pakistan have been eyeball-to-eyeball since 1984. Thousands of troops have died either because of altitude or by avalanches, few in actual fighting.

India and China have over 60,000 troops facing each other in a disputed part of Ladakh, and dozens on both sides were killed when clashes erupted in 2020.

Accelerated melting of Himalayan glaciers have created hundreds of new lakes along the mountains. Because they are dammed by fragile moraines, these are in danger of bursting — a risk that has been compounded by earthquake risk.

The climate crisis is a water crisis, and nowhere is this more acute than in the Himalaya. What happens at the UN Climate Summit (COP27) in Egypt this week will determine whether greenhouse gas emissions that thaw the Himalaya will be reduced in the coming decade.

Some 2 billion people living downstream depend on rivers that originate in the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau. In fact, as the permanent ice in the Himalaya melts, water is going to be a strategic commodity that could further inflame geopolitical tensions in an already volatile region.

In their new monograph Governing the ‘Water Tower of Asia’: The Case for a System of Integrated Knowledge for the Hindu Kush Himalaya, Jayanta Bandyopadhyay and Sayanangsu Modak of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi make a strong case for integrating water management of the ten river basins of the Hindu Kush Himalaya mountain range.

The circulation of water vapour in the atmosphere, along rivers and of underground water does not respect international boundaries, but policies governing the water cycle are national in scope. The authors propose the creation of ‘integrated knowledge’ that is essential for combined management of water in future as the climate crisis magnifies current problems. Such knowledge has to be trans-boundary as well as trans-disciplinary, they argue.

In their study, Bandyopadhyay and Modak come up with the concept of SINK (System of Integrated Knowledge) that tries to transcend present fragmented planning to include inter-disciplinary knowledge.

‘Nature organises itself in a systematic and integrated manner, (but) the reductionism that has predominated the contemporary governance paradigm interrupts nature’s systems,’ they write.

The Himalayan landscape is a ‘climate-maker’ that precipitates water from sky rivers as snow and rainfall. The ice on mountains has accumulated over millennia, advancing and retreating with the Ice Ages, but the present glacial retreat is different because of its pace, and since it is caused by anthropogenic carbon build-up in the atmosphere.

Although ice and snow are more visible and get most of the attention in the climate debate, it is groundwater stored in deep aquifers and released slowly through perennial springs into rivers on which most people depend. In fact, besides being the ‘Water Tower of Asia’, the Himalaya has also been described as a gigantic sponge.

Both the ice and groundwater storage is now being impacted by global warming and the changes in landcover due to deforestation, haphazard infrastructure, or mining activities. The hydrology of Himalayan rivers from the Amu Darya to Brahmaputra, the Ganga and its Nepal tributaries, the Mekong, the Burmese rivers, and the Yangtse and the Yellow Rivers are all changing rapidly.

Because of the transboundary nature of water, the author’s SINK model cannot be nationally defined. The way a country tampers with its river-floodplain ecosystem does not just affect its own population, but spills over the border to people living downstream in another country.

The monograph examines each of the ten Himalayan-Hindu Kush river basins. It cites the silt load on the Yellow River, the disruption caused by the three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze, dam-building by China on the Mekong and its impact on Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, the Chinese dams on the Salween and Irrawaddy that flow into Burma, the Brahmaputra-Yarlung Tsangpo that flows from China through India into Bangladesh, and the Ganga basin.

Studies have shown that only 9% of the total flow of the Ganga is from glacial melt (it can be up to 50% for the Indus) More than 60% of the annual flow of the Ganga is from tributaries in Nepal, and up to 80% of that goes down during the four monsoon months.

The Ganga plains in India is one of the most densely-populated parts of the world, and 70% of its area is intensely farmed — mostly along the fertile floodplains. Besides the seasonal fluctuation in its rivers, distribution of water in the basin is also unbalanced, with the western parts much drier than the east.

All this has historically had a bearing on flood control embankments in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, large-scale irrigation projects, and over-extraction of groundwater in the dry season. As the authors note, big flood control projects in India have exacerbated the crisis because sedimentation raises the river bed, embankments are breached, the floodplains are deprived of nutrient-rich silt.

Then there are geopolitical implications for the construction of storage reservoirs to regulate flow and generate electricity from the Ganga’s tributaries in Nepal. But the authors warn, ’Upstream water storage is an attractive proposition to control the spate of flooding but research indicates that it could, at best, reduce the intensity of flooding.’

A key paragraph in the text underlines the importance of cross-border interdisciplinary planning on rivers: ‘Monsoons and the resultant high flows in the river system are a key ingredient for the ecological integrity of the whole basin. They allow for the geomorphic actions within river corridors – generation of sediments, their transportation and deposition, recharge of aquifers and water bodies, and help enhance the productivity of land in a landscape that is still closely integrated with the natural system.

The integration between the economy, ecology and society needs to be rewired to create harmony and balance preferably at a river basin or large watershed scale to respect the natural process of integration.

Alas, within countries and in trans-boundary rivers there is a disregard for crossborder planning, and a fragmented approach that exploits river flows unsustainably and harms the entire ecosystem. These man made disturbances are further upended by climate breakdown.

The monograph devotes an entire chapter to expounding in detail about SINK by integrating three disciplines: natural sciences, social sciences and indigenous knowledge. It rejects the historical reductionist engineering paradigm that has governed river planning. Local knowledge and re-defining ‘development’ are also critical in the SINK approach.

The authors list governance challenges for professionals while addressing the multiple crises in the Himalayan basin: surviving extreme weather aggravated by climate change, sustainable sediment management, conserving biodiversity, reducing river pollution, and one that is particularly relevant to Nepal: intra-basin hydropower development.

Bandyopadhyay, who earlier served with ICIMOD in Kathmandu, hopes that the recommendations will help policymakers to shift from a business-as-usual model to governance that makes integrated water management ecologically and economically sustainable -- and socially just.

Governing the ‘Water Tower of Asia’

The Case for a System of Integrated Knowledge for the Hindu Kush Himalaya

Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. 2022

119 pages

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