Rivers threatened as Himalayan glaciers retreat

Hundreds of millions of people in China, India and Nepal could suffer water shortages as a result of glaciers retreating in the Himalayas due to global warming, a WWF report has warned.

Meili Mountain, where WWF China is implementing community development and environmental education projects. Baimaxueshan Nature Reserve, Deqin County. Copyright: WWF-Canon / LI Chao

Meili Mountain, where WWF China is implementing community development and environmental education projects. Baimaxueshan Nature Reserve, Deqin County. Copyright: WWF-Canon / LI Chao

"The rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers will first increase the volume of water in rivers, causing widespread flooding," said Jennifer Morgan, Director of WWF's Global Climate Change Programme. "But, in a few decades this situation will change and the water level in rivers will decline, meaning massive economic and environmental problems for people in western China, Nepal and northern India."

The report states that glaciers in the region are now receding at an average rate of 10 - 15 metres a year.

Himalayan glaciers feed into seven of Asia's greatest rivers - the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze and Huang He - ensuring a year round water supply to hundreds of millions of people. As the glacier flows dwindle, however, reduced irrigation will mean lower crop production, while the energy potential of hydroelectric power will decrease causing problems for industry.

As a result of the glacial retreat so far, the report shows that three of Nepal's snow-fed rivers have shown declining trends in discharge; in China the Qinhai Plateau's wetlands have seen declining lake water levels, lake shrinkage, the absenceof water flows in rivers and streams and degradation of swamp wetlands. In India, the Gangotri glacier, which supports one of India's largest river basins, is receding at an average rate of 23 metres a year.

The report was released to coincide with a two-day ministerial roundtable of the world's 20 largest energy using economies, including China and India.

"Ministers should realise now that the world faces an economic and development catastrophe if the rate of global warming isn't reduced," said Jennifer Morgan. "They need to work together on reducing CO2 emissions, increasing the use of renewable energy and implementing energy efficiency measures."

By David Hopkins


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