Ep3: Himalayas' Melting Glaciers Impact Billions
Himalayan glaciers have long served as a frozen water tower, releasing water on which billions of Asians rely — into 10 of Asia's mighty rivers, into agricultural and food systems, and into ground water. Climate change is now rapidly melting those glaciers — up to two-thirds of them may be gone by the end of this century — throwing ecosystems throughout the region off-balance.
Anjal Prakash has been studying all of this for more than two decades, helping both rural and urban communities adapt to climate change and its increasing drought, floods, and wilder storms and cyclones. He's research director and an adjunct associate professor at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy, at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, in India.
Click below to see the full episode transcript:
COAL+ICE Podcast, Episode 3: Himalayas' Melting Glaciers Impact Billions
February 22, 2022
Mary Kay Magistad: The Himalayas have inspired music and poetry, and spiritual focus. They’ve challenged climbers and adventurers to reach new heights.
And they’ve stored ice – more than anywhere else on earth, except for the Arctic and Antarctic. That ice, those glaciers, have for millenia, fed many of Asia’s greatest rivers – in China and India, Pakistan and Southeast Asia – helping to feed billions of people.
But that ice is now melting fast – caused by climate change. And the melting of that ice is itself accelerating climate change – with the effects felt, throughout the Himalayan region – including India.
(Montage of news coverage)
Anjal Prakash: I think at least the people who are affected directly by the changes in the environment in the weather patterns, they are definitely convinced that this is unprecedented. These changes are unprecedented. They have not seen that in their life.
Mary Kay Magistad: This is Anjal Prakash. He has been focused for the past quarter century on the effects of climate change on water and ecosystems in the greater Himalayan region. And he’s here to tell you what it all means for billions of people who rely on waters melting too quickly now, all around the Himalayas.
Mary Kay Magistad: This is the COAL and ICE podcast, from Asia Society. I’m Mary Kay Magistad.
If you go to Coalandice.org, you’ll see dramatic photos of Himalayan peaks. It’s part of a photo exhibition and event series at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, March 15th to April 22nd, 2022. But take a peek now – go on. You’ll see photos showing how Himalayan glaciers have shrunk, and retreated. You’ll see images of coal miners, in China and around the world – and images of people struggling with the effects of climate change, coal use and other fossil fuels being one of the big causes of climate change.
Anjal Prakash has done a lot of thinking, writing and research about all of this. He’s research director and an adjunct associate professor at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy, at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, in India. He has thought about the tension and frustration that comes from developing countries, like India, trying to grow their economies and create better lives for their people in an era of climate change that largely, they did not create.
Anjal Prakash: India is the 3rd largest polluter, but the per capita emission for India is minuscule, actually, if you compare with the two greatest polluters at this moment, which are the United States and China.
Mary Kay Magistad: India’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions are about a quarter of China’s, and an eighth of the United States. India *is* trying to grow its economy, to help millions of people out of poverty. And all of this will need more energy. India does still rely on coal for more than half of its energy – but it’s working on increasing its use of solar and other renewable energy, as US climate envoy John Kerry recognized on a trip to India before the Glasgow Climate Summit in 2021.
India is getting the job done on climate, pushing the curve. You are indisputably a world leader already in the deployment of renewable energy. And your leadership in the International Solar Alliance promises to advance clean energy across India, and other dynamic, growing economies around the world.
Mary Kay Magistad: Great – Anjal says – so, developed nations – show us the money, that will help us make this change more quickly.
Anjal Prakash: So what we people, not only India, but if you look at other countries in South Asia – Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh – they have to divert their development finance money to combat climate change. We know that a huge percentage of GDP actually has to go in fixing the problem which we have not created.
Mary Kay Magistad: So, South Asians – and others in developing countries – are calling for climate justice, while they live with ever more disruptive effects of climate change. Anjal Prakesh has been seeing it in his own work, and writing about it in reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s reports. That includes a recent special report on how climate change is affecting oceans and the cryosphere – which means, basically, everything that’s frozen – the Arctic, the Antarctic, and mountain glaciers, like those in the Himalayas.
Anjal Prakash: Himalayan glaciers actually contribute to 10 major rivers in the entire Asia. So glaciers are a very, very important ecosystem that we must protect. Under global warming, what is predicted that with this same business as usual scenario, two-thirds of the glaciers will be actually declining by end of the century. And some of this declining rate actually is much more faster than what the models are projecting already. That is probably a long term understanding.
But for the day-to-day issues, what we see is a huge change in weather patterns which is impacting the Himalayan regions, especially in terms of precipitation changes. The total average precipitation or the rainfall has not changed over a period of time. But there's a huge variability in rainfall. That means when you want rains, the rains will not come. When you don't want, it will just pour. And that means that the downstream areas get flooded. The midstream areas get flooded. There's a huge loss of life because sudden changes happen.
Mary Kay Magistad: And, he says, such effects of climate change – along with droughts, floods, fiercer cyclones, rising sea levels, and dwindling catches of fish and seafood in warming oceans, disproportionately affect the poor.
Anjal Prakash: These farmers are under huge stress. There's a raft of farmers’ suicide which has been reported. Farmers protest, also, as you may have seen that has made headlines in India. It's partly also because the agriculture system has been very, very prone to climatic disaster. The rice and the wheat farming has been affected. It’s a slow onset, but it is definitely seriously going to affect us in the future, but now also food production has been reduced quite drastically.
Mary Kay Magistad: So something like a decade ago you were looking at water use by farmers in in Gujarat. And one of the issues you were focusing on was overuse of groundwater, because farmers could just dig wells, with low rates for electricity to bring it up from a low and sinking water table. So a crucial issue for India, for many of us, as climate change intensifies, is availability of water, for agriculture, for rural people’s own use, and also to channel to expanding populations in cities. That’s a lot of challenges, all being faced at once. For starters, what’s being done to modulate groundwater use in places like Gujarat?
Anjal Prakash: You know, the stark reality is that the groundwater usage has gone up tremendously in India. Groundwater development has happened in the very private sphere. That means you can sink a bore well and access water and supply it for your needs, as well as you can actually sell it. And that's why the groundwater markets have developed very efficiently, I would say, in India, where at least the management has been very good. And Gujarat has been one of the pioneers in that.
But what has happened over the years is that it has depleted the water supply…going down. And when water levels starts going down, it leads to salinity, fluoride and some lot of other nitrate issues have also come up. That has also led to a lot of health issues in many many parts. So overdevelopment of groundwater is not something that the policy should be encouraging. And this has been there. But this has happened in the context of declining surface water systems, at large scale. So during the British’s time that many of these large-scale irrigation systems have been developed and maintained later. But this has also some limitation. And that's why the groundwater boom has built up from that.
Mary Kay Magistad: So then what’s the government doing to ensure there’ll be adequate water supply, both for urban and rural areas?
Anjal Prakash: There have been a lot of policy regulations in terms of groundwater management. And I think Gujarat is one of the pioneers, again, where they have actually separated the grid which would feed into the agriculture system as well as the domestic household systems and all that. And there has been some experiment which has actually arrested the further decline of groundwater. But Punjab, for example, has not done that. There's a free water supply, and then free electricity to offer accessing groundwater. And that's why huge problem of groundwater development and salinity in Punjab has been also reported.
What we need, actually, is a little more coherent policies. And then a lot of moves have been made by activists, saying because water is a state subject in India, and they're saying that you now have to bring it into federal subject, which – you can regulate the entire India based on that. There has been debates around that, for and against. But I think in the wake of climate change, you need to have lot more research which looks into the linkages of groundwater in the context of changing climate to look at the sharper linkages in the future.
Mary Kay Magistad: How much has the water table dropped in some of these places?
Anjal Prakash: Ah, okay. So I'll give you an example of Gujarat, where I was doing my field work. And I found that was this Ahmedebad-based scientific agency called Physical Research Laboratory. And they took a sample of water. And people had gone down 2,000 feet below to access water. And they found out that the water they were using was 5,000 years old. So people have actually gone very deep to access water.
Punjab also has a huge problem. But Gujarat is more a drier state. Punjab has a lot of rivers and surface water is better. Still, they have problems of salinity, because as you're overusing the groundwater, salinity increases, and the land becomes saline and becomes unproductive for long periods. These issues are coming up.
Mary Kay Magistad: So farmers have a lot to contend with – they’re having to dig deep for a reliable source of water, but then they’re also dealing with all of this weather where the rain is dumping down at a time when it's not helping the crops so they don't have a successful season in terms of raising enough crops that they can make a living. So some of them just going to give up and move to cities right? There is a pull to urban areas where you have other kinds of jobs without quite as much uncertainty and hard labor. So you've looked specifically at urban water use as well as rural water use. What happens when you get a large flow of people coming from the countryside to cities? How much more water is needed? What are the new challenges in India?
Anjal Prakash: You know, India is a vast country and there are different ecologies. There are different levels of problems in each of the ecologies. And I'll give you one or two snapshots of what is happening. For example, the mega cities like Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Chennai. Water is one where, you have to rely totally on groundwater, a lot of groundwater uses in the urban areas.
Second is also you have to source water from the rivers which is actually not in their watershed. So water comes from some other places. And because cities are places also where rich people stay, there has been a transaction of water, rural waters versus urban water. So for the place where I stay in Hyderabad in south India, the city started developing very fast, because of the IT companies who has come and settled here, and because of that, a lot of migration of skilled people coming from other parts of India as people have come. Bangalore and Hyderabad are two places where (to which) a lot of people have migrated.
So there are two or three things which have happened. One is that you have gone further to access your water. So there's a water market, so you get your water in the form of a tanker.
Cities, also, you have to source water, and there has been a huge conflict over water between rural water and urban water, because it’s the cost of the rural water that your urban population is being fed into.
And on the top you have climate change. Now, what climate change has done is, for example, some of the cities get just flooded, Mumbai, for example, three or four times in a year, you’ll find there is an incessant rain, and an entire city gets flooded. Now, when the city gets flooded, you have drainage flows which have not been equipped to handle this much water. And the city goes stand-still. So imagine a city like Mumbai for example, goes stand-still for three days or four days, the loss to the economy is huge.
So what I have been telling is we really have to work on is climate-resilient infrastructure – be it road networks, be it electricity networks, or water supply and drainage systems. And that is a major challenge, because cities are growing up without much planning in India. And then you are only coping with the new influx of people coming from different parts of India, settling in cities, and new areas are coming up. But planning is something that has been deficient in India. And that is one of the major issues.
Mary Kay Magistad: And that hasn't really started to turn the corner yet.
Anjal Prakash: That’s exactly! So it is like a kneejerk solution. So you have a problem, you fix it tomorrow. But then day after tomorrow another problem comes up, and you don't know how to deal with that, with that, those problems. And also, the larger population that you have, any planning you have to do will affect people. So how do you make the city not affected by the day-to-day construction process, or anything that you do with the city, and at the same time, keep up the sanity of the city and keep the city going? That is something that's a huge challenge.
And that's only about Class One and Class 2 cities. But the Class 3 and Class 4 cities are cities which are still being built up. I think that’s something that if we focus on those areas, and we are trying to work with the climate-resilient infrastructure in those areas. But that means huge resources. You need to double and triple your money that you've allocated for building up a city. And that is something that the cities have to really decide, how is going to cope up with these things. Either you have put in this much money, so that your infrastructure at least is coping -- adapting and coping with the changes in the climate, or you just leave it like that. And most of time it is the other way around and that's why we are always reeling under one crisis or another.
Mary Kay Magistad: So that's on the reacting/adapting side. How much do you feel can still be done by Himalayan countries, including China, to prevent additional melting of glaciers in the Himalayas?
Anjal Prakash: Yeah. I think one thing I have been telling for a long time is regional cooperation. We need to have the countries of the Himalayan who are sharing Himalayan resources -- there are 8 countries, but there are people who are also outside who are interested. They need to come together.
There are a couple of things that can be done immediately. One is definitely sharing of information and data, right? You understand that China and India, India and Pakistan, the relationships are not that smooth. So even the small amount of trust is not there to share the data, the information that you have.
But what happens in China will affect India. What happens in India will affect the other downstream countries. So we are all interlinked. We are part of one world. We need to have more trust and more regional cooperation, so that we can get this together.
Now, I understand that India has its own concern because, you know, you have seen the kind of terrorism India has faced from the across the borders. There are expansionist economies around the corner. So you have to deal with this day in, and day out.
Mary Kay Magistad: A quick side note here from me, as a former Asia corespondent. High in the Himalayas, China and India have had a tense standoff for more than half a century. They have an undemarcated border – and there they fought an actual war in 1962, in which China seized control of territory that India had considered its own. There was another clash a couple of years ago, where China seized more territory. China is also building roads leading right up to that undemarcated border. And in the part of Kashmir that Pakistan controls, but India also claims, China is also building roads, dams, and more. It’s part of China’s Belt & Road Initiative – building new infrastructure around the world, binding recipient countries closer to China, and gaining geo-strategic advantage with many of those projects – including those in Pakistan and Kashmir. As for Pakistan itself, well, India’s tensions with Pakistan go back 70 years, since Pakistan broke off from India and became its own country, and that can make cooperation challenging.
Anjal Prakash: So regional cooperation. It looks very good in in the papers, that you must have. How do you achieve that unless everybody comes together? So that's one problem that I always feel. But I think there's no other goal than to cooperate, because otherwise it's a shared resource and we'll lose most of it. And everybody will be affected. That’s one. It's like a tragedy of commons that we have, you know? It’s the usual case which happens, and then, how do we come together?
Second is, most of the rivers that we have in South Asia are transboundary rivers. You have big rivers like Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra. Most of the rivers are transboundary. That means they share more than one country’s boundaries. And that means they also have to come together.
So it's not only about the glaciers but it's also about the river management system. What happens, for example, if there's a huge rainfall in Nepal? It will flood half of Bihar, which is in the downstream state of India. And this has happened every year. So we must cooperate, that’s a part of it, and to start with, can share also the information, the data, and come together, as people and as countries, to save, and to pull in the resources.
Mary Kay Magistad: The Himalayas are just one mountainous region in the world where glaciers are melting. All told, about 10% of the earth's land is covered by glaciers or ice sheets and lots of people live in high mountainous areas – almost 700 million at the moment. The kind of cooperation you’re talking about is needed in many places. How is that going outside of the Himalayan region?
Anjal Prakash: The Arctic example, of cooperation in Arctic region, has been much better than what we see it in the Himalayan region. I think there's more maturity for people, countries and organizations to come together to save the Arctic. I guess we need to have a similar process also in South Asia, especially, to save the Himalayan glaciers. That is one example we can see, that started with the UN organization which pulls in the information, the data, together.
If you look at South Asia, and especially at the countries which are affected by the Himalayan glaciers, there are three things we need urgently. One is a better early warning system, because of the nature of the rivers we have, the transboundary rivers. That means more than one country has to come together and collaborate with each other so that upstream and downstream people are connected through the information that we have. That’s number one.
Second is that we also need institutional innovations in tackling with disasters. You’ll see that disasters are happening every day, and we have similar economies. What do I do here in India. I may learn something from Bangladesh, which has done very well in flood management or cyclone management systems. Similarly, Pakistan has many experiments that probably we can learn from. This kind of exchange of knowledge system, innovations in tackling disaster, understanding is very important.
And third, I would say, is resilient livelihood practices. The entire subcontinent had a very resilient agriculture, which we have actually – knowledge has been slowly eroding. We need to come together, because that's the only way we can actually save our agriculture. Because that has been there a long time, the knowledge system which is there, we need to protect.
Mary Kay Magistad: You've devoted your career to looking at climate change, and its effects, and what needs to happen to make sure we all have the water we need as glaciers and polar ice melt. What keeps you up at night? What worries you most about where we are now and what we're doing and not doing? And what is the best case scenario when you think about people moving in the right direction?
Anjal Prakash: What worries me is the lack of international cooperation. I have watched the COPs very closely, have been participating in some of the international debates around this one, and I see that there's lack of consensus for leaders of the world to come together and save the planet. The leaders have to own up, countries have to own up responsibilities and come forward and be more pragmatic, and more giving in that nature.
That's the thing which is worrisome for me. But what I'm really positive about is the innovation part, the agency of people. I have a huge faith in people's agency. I feel that we'll come out of this crisis as some action will be taken by people, collective action or individual action.
I see that the next 10 to 15 years will be an era for innovation, will be a time where people will be innovating and also finding the solution within our own society. We don't have to look up to people from the northern countries for technologies. I think there's a lot of innovation which is happening.
And a lot of these, I’m seeing there's innovation, small technologies are coming up to combat certain problems. For example, flood protection programs. Accessing water supply, bringing water supply to the poorest of the poor – a huge program has been rolled out.
And I see a lot of the new generation – I think our generation has failed to protect the planet. But the next generation is much more aware. I know my own daughter is very, very aware of how much water we are using, what electricity we are using in the house, and that has been also because there are a lot of curriculum changes which happened, making people aware of the consumption pattern that we are living in, and how we can be more sustainable in our lifestyle. So I have a huge respect for the newer generation, the young generation in bringing innovation, so that we can combat climate change through new technologies, and also in changing the lifestyle in which we are living at this moment. So consumptive lifestyle we move away, and be closer to nature. I think that's something I'm very hopeful about.
Mary Kay Magistad: That’s Anjal Prakash in Hyderabad, India, where he directs the Bharti Institute of Public Policy at the Indian School of Business, and is an adjunct associate professor, focused on water systems – and how they’re affected by melting glaciers -- throughout the Himalayan region.
You may have noticed that different guests on the COAL+ICE podcast – in India, the UK, and South Africa – all have said that while we all face an acute climate crisis, the focus and understanding of the younger generation on climate change, gives them hope.
We at COAL+ICE share that hope. Our photo exhibition and event series at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, March 15th to April 22nd, welcomes school groups, and has activities and events meant to inspire and engage young visitors. Visit coalandice.org to learn more. And if you like the podcast, please subscribe – and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps others find it.
The COAL+ICE podcast is a production of Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations, where Orville Schell is director, and I’m associate director – and editor and producer of this podcast. Our assistant producer is Taili Ni. The COAL+ICE exhibitions curators are Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, and Dutch exhibition designer Jeroen de Vries.
Next up in this biweekly podcast series, how climate change is affecting biodiversity around the world, and why it matters. Hope you’ll keep listening, to the COAL+ICE podcast.