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State of our Water Tower: News from the Third Pole!

Jan 20, 2021


Much has been written and talked about what’s happening in the Indo-Gangetic plain, Sunderbans, submerging coastal cities, flooding, droughts, the killer heat and humidity, increasing severity of cyclones in the Bay of Bengal, rising frequency & severity of storms in the Arabian Sea. However, the third pole tends to be out of sight. The high-mountain ‘water tower’, which acts like a giant storage tank, of the Planet’s nearly 2 billion population. According to National Geographic, climate change is hitting that region more brutally than the world on average. Insurers and risk managers need to wake up to the linkages between what happens in the plains, how it triggers chain reactions in the water tower zone and the unintended consequence for those that depend on it.

U shaped valley caused by advancing ice-age and glaciers – then the ice retreated leaving the valley as we see today! South Annapurna glacier in the Annapurna sanctuary, Nepalese Himalayas, Nepal. December 2012: With the permission of renowned photographer Ashley Cooper, author of highly acclaimed book Images From A Warming Planet.

World’s most important and most threatened

A study authored by 32 scientists from around the world assessed the Planet’s 78 mountain glacier-based water systems. For the first time, they have been ranked in order of their importance to adjacent lowland communities – while assessing their vulnerability to future environmental and socio-economic changes.

A study authored by 32 scientists from around the world assessed the Planet’s 78 mountain glacier-based water systems. For the first time, they have been ranked in order of their importance to adjacent lowland communities.

“What is unique about our study, says Prof. Walter Immerzeel of Utrecht University, is that we have assessed the water towers’ importance, not only by looking at how much water they store and provide, but also how much mountain water is needed downstream and how vulnerable these systems and communities are to a number of likely changes in the next few decades.”

The findings published in Nature, provide evidence that global water towers are at risk, in many cases critically, due to the threats of climate change, growing populations, mismanagement of water resources, and other geopolitical factors.

Of the 78 global water towers identified, Asian Water Towers relied on the river systems including Indus, Tarim, Amu Darya, Syr Darya, Ganges-Brahmaputra are ranked as the most important and most threatened ones. The most relied-upon and one of the most vulnerable mountain system is the Indus water tower, according to their research. The Indus water tower – made up of vast areas of the Himalayan mountain range – covers portions of Afghanistan, China, India and Pakistan.

Of the 78 global water towers identifiedone of the most vulnerable mountain system is the Indus water tower.

The vicious cycle

The climate model tagging technique developed by Dr. Hailong Wang, atmospheric scientist, of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) tracks snowpack-melting particles. “Soot on snow in the northwest plateau causes more warming than all other sources in the area. It’s bigger than the effect of greenhouse gases and soot in the atmosphere,” says Dr. Wang. “The strong heating caused by soot on snow and in the atmosphere can change air circulation over the Plateau, leading to a broader impact on climate.”

Like a dark blanket, the soot acts to warm the ice and snow enough to speed up snowmelt and shrink glaciers. The study confirmed previous work that soot causes net warming over the entire Himalayan -Tibetan Plateau (HTP) region. The work showed that soot pollution could affect the people living there by altering the seasonal water supply.

To track soot, Dr Wang’s team developed a new way to tag particles emitted from individual sources within the climate model. Biofuel and biomass emissions in South Asia make the largest contribution to annual mean black carbon burden and deposition, followed by fossil fuel in South Asia, then fossil fuel in East Asia. Cuts in South Asia can effectively reduce the soot level on the entire plateau, especially in the Himalayas.

Soot on snow in the northwest plateau causes more warming than all other sources in the area. It’s bigger than the effect of greenhouse gases and soot in the atmosphere.

Affecting 40 percent of the population

Another study by Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT), Finland, on the climate change and geochemical process of waters and lake sediments on the Tibetan Plateau shows that global warming affects geochemical processes such as glacier melting, soil erosion and sediments release. This deteriorates water quality of rivers and lakes, thus significantly impacting the lives of 40 percent of the world’s population living in the area.

The finding indicates that atmospheric long-range transportation of pollutants in remote areas of the Himalayas might deposit at high altitudes. Precipitation during the monsoon season in the region has high concentration of nutrients implying that atmospheric pollution is possibly being transported to the Himalayas from South Asia by the India monsoon. Thus validating the fact that human activities in the surrounding area have effects on the waters of the Tibetan Plateau.

Rising temperatures export old carbon stores from ancient permafrost into contemporary rivers in the Tibetan Plateau. Global warming will continue to release more carbon to the water system, which will, in turn, intensify the regional climate change and affect water quality.

“Rising temperatures export old carbon stores from ancient permafrost into contemporary rivers in the Tibetan Plateau. Global warming will continue to release more carbon to the water system, which will, in turn, intensify the regional climate change and affect water quality. It will affect human livelihoods, rangeland degradation, desertification, loss of glaciers and more” reminds Dr. Mika Sillanpää of LUT.

With solid science evidencing the build-up of threatening climate risk triggered by anthropogenic activity, the urgency to mitigate this risk has never been so pressing. Howsoever distant the high mountains may seem, let’s not miss out the vital circularity. To those who wish to supplement the emerging scientific insights, the recent conversation between HH Dalai Lama and Greta Thunberg on ‘feedback loops’ should be distilled wisdom. Physical, transition and systemic risks – in particular – need to be rapidly addressed to safeguard the well-being of the Planet and its vast sea of humanity. And all fingers point at fossil fuels!

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