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Special Report: Climate Change in the Himalayas

24 December 2009 Lucy Symons No Comment

Roshni.jpgTwo days before the official beginning of the 2009 UN climate change summit, I happened to be watching a remarkable gathering of government officials near Everest base camp. Instead of flying to Copenhagen to attend the summit as a youth activist and spokesperson, I had flown into Kathmandu for a few days and was pleased to note that I was present in the city as government officials were sending a historic message to the rest of the world.

To make a point, the Prime Minister of Nepal, Madhav Kumar Nepal, was meeting with other members of the cabinet at the base of Everest, to discuss the impacts of climate change on the small mountain country and adopt a 10-point Everest Declaration. The Prime Minister stated that the Himalayas were important for 1.3 billion people who depended on waters from the mountains for their livelihoods, and that a global policy response was needed to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change. Watching the live broadcast on television, it was inspiring to see the group of 24 cabinet members sitting at Kalapatthar plateau (5,242 metres) surrounded by the majestic glaciers and mountains. What was more striking though was the evident ice loss on the slopes, merely highlighting the threat of global warming.

Nepal like other least developed countries, together with developed and developing nations, is participating at the ongoing Copenhagen meet. Although Nepal’s emissions are negligible, the small Himalayan country is amongst 14 of the most climate vulnerable nations globally and the poor will be the ones bearing the brunt of climate change.

Reports from the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) program in Nepal indicate that temperatures have risen in the past 25 years and as a consequence, thousands of kilometers of glaciers in the greater Himalayas are at risk.  In its 2007 global warming report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared that glaciers in the Himalayas were reducing faster than in any other part of the world. These glaciers are the largest outside the Polar Regions and are a significant water tower of Asia, providing water to India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China. Not only that, the glaciers feed the river system of the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Yellow and the Yangtze rivers. Historically, these rivers have been fed by Himalayan ice, which has always been regular and dependable. But with climate change, this balance could be disrupted as water levels continue to decrease as a consequence of ice loss. A 2009 study conducted by Oxford University has estimated that there has already been a temperature increase by 0.06 degrees Celsius in the past ten years, potentially affecting a billion people in the region who depend on these waters for sustenance and maintaining their livelihoods.

Already most of the region is in a state of water scarcity and to add to the stress, the population is set to increase, even as economic growth will increase demand for water used in industry, agriculture, food production and tourism. Countries in the region including Nepal, are really going to be vulnerable to climate change. Not only that, but there is a serious threat to the national security of countries in the region. Countries could fight over access to already limited water availability, thus causing instability in the region and triggering international conflict. India and China are prime examples where economic growth will equate to even greater demand for water, resulting in potential disputes over access to water. This makes securing the Himalayan glaciers even more essential for the region and their potential loss all the more threatening. It is clear that we need to take action now.

As it stands, our leaders continue to make empty promises that mean absolutely nothing or have a very remote chance of actually being fulfilled.  The longer we wait, the more difficult it is going to get to turn back the momentum of climate change.

Over a billion people in the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries are most at  risk and will bear the negative effects of climate change. Yet they are least responsible for contributing to global warming. One in 19 people living in the developing world were affected by a climate disaster between 2000 and 2004 compared to one in 1500 in the developed world.

Some 85% of today’s youth live in the developing countries. They will be the first to suffer from the approaching disasters caused by climate. While the problem of climate change is global and the response must be global collaboration, rich countries must lead the way in taking action, given their relative wealth, technology, and major responsibilities for past emissions and thus greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  The 10-point Everest Declaration the cabinet adopted includes reference to supporting developed countries’ plans to allocate 1.5% of GDP to a climate fund and working together to mitigate the impacts of climate change. In these last days at COP 15, it is necessary that developed countries’ including the US, take the lead in committing to GHG emission reductions. Essentially, developed nations need to reduce their GHG emissions by at least 45% by the year 2020 and at least 85% by 2050. Additionally, developed nations need to transfer finance and technologies to developing countries through appropriate structures under, and consistent, with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This is not the time for compromises that fall below the minimum required to avoid catastrophe.

Roshni Dave is a Canadian/Kenyan, 27 year old Environmentalist/Policy Analyst. Roshni is currently working in Geneva with the South Centre was a GHF youth member.

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