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Multiple Climate Reports Warn of Water Conflict in South Asia

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Multiple Climate Reports Warn of Water Conflict in South Asia

The region is expected to suffer the most significant impacts of changing water availability this century. Yet tight-fisted governments are quibbling at COP28 over climate financing.

Multiple Climate Reports Warn of Water Conflict in South Asia

The Khumbu Glacier in the Nepal Himalayas, April 10, 2012

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Faj2323

At the 28th edition of the World Climate Summit (COP28) in Dubai, Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal made a strong pitch for immediate implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Despite near-zero contribution to global emissions, the Himalayan country is bearing the brunt of climate change. “We have already lost a third of our glaciers, and scientists have warned that we are going to lose another third by the end of this century,” Dahal said. “Mountains are tortured by rising temperatures. Save them first!”

The gravity of the situation prompted United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who visited Nepal and the Everest region in the last week of October, to express deep concerns about its implications at the Dubai climate meet.

In his speech at Dubai, Guterres called for developed countries to clarify the status of their pledge to mobilize $100 billion per year towards climate action in developing countries.

Originally set in 2009, the goal was supposed to be reached by 2020. But with developed countries failing to deliver on their promises, the deadline was extended till 2025 at the COP21 summit in Paris in 2015.

According to a report published by the inter-governmental forum Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in November, the total climate finance provided and mobilized by developed countries for developing countries in 2021 amounted to $89.6 billion, which was an increase of 7.6 percent over the previous year. However, almost 60 percent of this finance – $53.8 billion – was for mitigation, while only $24.6 billion, or 27 percent, was for adaptation. Adaptation finance dropped by 7 percentage points compared to the previous year.

While mitigation – transitioning into a lower-emission economy – is necessary for limiting global warming, most developing countries have greater requirement for adaptation finance with people already suffering massive losses and damages due to climatic changes.

“Adaptation finance, essential for enhancing climate resilience, remains low in both absolute and relative terms, despite being a paramount concern and priority area for numerous developing countries,” said the OECD report.  It also highlighted the low share of private finance. Of the $89.6 billion mobilized in 2021, $73.1 billion (80 percent) was public finance.

At COP28, Guterres asked developing countries for “a clear plan to double adaptation finance to $40 billion a year by 2025,” which he considered to be “a first step to devoting half of climate finance to adaptation.”

Even these sums “are dwarfed by the scale of what’s needed,” he said, calling for reform in international financial institutions and multilateral development banks so that they can “leverage far more private finance at reasonable cost to the developing countries.”

Without a change in course, “a catastrophe can be unleashed,” Guterres said.

According to the 10 New Insights In Climate Science report, launched at the COP28 venue on December 3, South Asia is among the regions “predicted to experience the most significant impacts from changing water availability this century” due to the melting of glaciers. It added, “Variable timings of glacier and snow melt affect water availability and may lead to conflict over resources.”

Two other regions, Central Asia and tropical and subtropical western South America, are expected to face a similar fate.

Glacial melt in South Asia refers to the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region, sometimes also called High Mountain Asia (HMA), stretching from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east, with the bordering regions of India, Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh in between.

The HKH is the most densely populated mountainous region in the world. This is the region too that is home to tense international borders between India and China, and India and Pakistan, with huge populations dependent on major transboundary rivers. About 240 million people live in the mountains and 1.65 billion downstream are dependent on these rivers.

A Himalayan Challenge

Several other reports launched at the COP28 venue echoed these concerns.

The 10 New Insights In Climate Science report said that glacier loss poses medium-term risks of water shortages, including areas with very large populations in the HKH region.

Besides, the Global Tipping Points Report launched at the summit venue on December 6 pointed out that while northern HMA has experienced wetting, the southern Tibetan Plateau has undergone drying, especially in the southeastern Himalayan region.

It remains uncertain at which point of time the present drying southeastern HMA region, referred to as the drying Himalayas, will transition to becoming wetter. The southeastern Himalayas include northeast India and China’s Tibet region.

Expressing concerns in this regard, Guterres said that the glaciers could disappear altogether and that means “massively reduced flows for major Himalayan rivers like the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, and deltas decimated by saltwater.”

Notably, India and Pakistan are already caught in a disagreement over amending the Indus Water Treaty that governs the sharing of water from Indus basin rivers between the two countries.

India has not yet agreed to repeated demands from Bangladesh on the sharing of water from Teesta, a major tributary of the Brahmaputra.

Besides, conflict has escalated between Afghanistan and Iran over the sharing of water from the Helmand river, which originates in the HKH and has recorded reduced water flow in recent years. Tension also exists between Afghanistan and Pakistan over the sharing of water from the Kabul river, which too originates in the HKH and flows into the Indus through Afghanistan.

The problem, indeed, is of Himalayan magnitude.

Home to the largest number of glaciers outside the polar regions, HKH is described as the “top of the world” and “the third pole.” All mountain peaks above 7,000 meters are in this region.

The WMO report is not the first scientific report to raise concerns about water security and prospects of conflict. A May 2023 report published by the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development said that mountain residents were trying to adapt with “autonomous measures,” which “may prove to be insufficient in the long run” and exacerbate “fears about the safety of the local inhabitants and the habitability of their locations.”

The situation is “raising concerns about possible transboundary water conflicts,” the report cautioned, adding that the seasonal distribution of mountain water resources for large lowland populations will become more uncertain in the coming decades, especially affecting irrigated agriculture.

“These knock-on effects threaten not only the security of water, food, energy, ecosystems, and their services, but also the livelihood security of millions of people in Asia, and hence will have far-reaching consequences,” it said.

In mid-November, the State Of The Cryosphere Report 2023 said that glaciers in some regions, such as the tropical Andes, or the Indus (stretching over China, India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) and Tarim (China) basins in High Mountain Asia, “contribute a high percentage of seasonal water supplies.” They are, therefore, more critical to water security.

The cryosphere comprises the frozen parts of Earth: glaciers and ice sheets, sea ice, snow, and perennially frozen earth.

While the rapid melting of glaciers might temporarily increase water availability, continued shrinking of the glacier will eventually lead to a decrease in seasonal availability.

“This may make certain economic activities – and even continued human habitation – impossible,” said the report on the cryosphere.