Professor Henry Vaux from the University of California, Berkeley and Chairman of the Committee on behalf of The National Academy of Science presented the Committee’s study on ‘Himalayan Glaciers Climate Change, Water Resources, and Water Security.’ The complexity of the Committee’s remit and the title’s presentation itself tells something about how complex and interconnected issues of water are – especially across the seven countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, and Pakistan) that receive water from the Hindu-Kush, Himalayan (HKH) mountain ranges. As we were told, the study was prompted by the lack of clarity on the state and rate of glacial melt and its impact on downstream populations of 1.5 billion across the region. What was particularly interesting to learn was that the study by the National Academies was commissioned by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States – which speaks to the national and international security implications of the effects of climate change on glacial melt in the region.
Professor Vaux showed a picture of Bo glacier that his grandfather had taken in 1902 and a picture of the same glacier that he took himself in 2002 – the two pictures were dramatically different and showed the visible retreat of the toe of the glacier. Anyone interested in more comparative visuals of glaciers is encouraged to visit the M.I.T. Museum for the ‘Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalaya’ exhibition that will run till March next year (http://web.mit.edu/museum/exhibitions/rivers-of-ice.html). He also spoke of the difficulty of actual monitoring in the region e.g., aerial monitoring across national boundaries and that the Committee’s data gathering included requesting expert testimony and data from the region during its one-year working period. However, in the absence of physical monitoring at the higher elevations, there is now greater use of satellite imagery to study changes.
Professor Vaux stressed that it is helpful for us to think of glacial melt-water as a form of insurance in times of drought and dry seasons; thinking forward the concern will certainly be that if there is a permanent reduction in water flow from this source, there will be significant downstream effects once we have drawn down this insurance. He also spoke of the Committee’s study of Groundwater across the region and the concerns about its deteriorating quality and over-abstraction. In large parts of the basin, groundwater has been used to supplement inadequate surface waters but its unregulated use going forward is a source of major concern, perhaps even of greater significance than glacial melt-water in the short term. The social uses of water and changing population dynamics will have significant impacts on the amount and quality of water available for different uses and the Committee found that the robustness of institutions already in place in the region will affect the abilities of societies in planning for and responding to changed circumstances – and in helping to build the hardware and software of those institutions is where the region and its friends can have the greatest impact!
Henry J. Vaux, Jr. is Professor of Resource Economics, Emeritus Chair, Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy, University of California Riverside. John Briscoe, Professor of the Practice of Environmental Health, HSPH; Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Environmental Engineering, SEAS chaired the event.
– Erum Sattar, SJD Candidate, Harvard Law School
Watch the movie here: