Hidden Glaciers, Crouching Governments

A catastrophic water shortage could turn out to be a much bigger threat to mankind this century than wars, soaring food prices and the ever relentless consumption of known sources of energy. The annoying thing is either water is so abundant (in some parts of the world) that it can be used leisurely and foolishly (amusement parks, fountains, golf) or it’s so scarce that you fight wars over it. Which region will be most affected?

Nicholas Stern, author of the Government’s Stern Review on the economics of climate change, warned several years ago that underground aquifers could run dry at the same time as melting glaciers play havoc with fresh supplies of usable water. That report, dated October 2006, (lauded by such luminaries as Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs) states clearly that fresh rainfall is not enough to refill the underground water tables and that water is not a renewable resource. BTW, the very same Stern has published another huge UN study – dubbed the “Stern for nature” which does attempt to put a price on global environmental damage, and suggests ways to prevent it.

Here’s the part of Stern’s telling report that really worries me:

“The glaciers on the Himalayas are retreating, and they are the sponge that holds the water back in the rainy season. We’re facing the risk of extreme run-off, with water running straight into the Bay of Bengal and taking a lot of topsoil with it. A few hundred square miles of the Himalayas are the source for all the major rivers of Asia – the Ganges, the Yellow River, the Yangtze, the Mekong, Brahmaputra, Salween, and Sutlej, among others – where 3bn people live. That’s almost half the world’s population.”

In this diary, apart from spotlighting the usual Global Warming deniers, I’d like to underline why China seems reluctant to give up Tibet, in the similar manner that Israel clings to the Golan Heights: water. Sure, some minerals fit into the equation as well for the Chinese government but the main reason remains water. Google Tibetan Plateau & Water, and you will find thousands of links dealing with this issue. I came across the Tibetan plight as a French environmental photographer friend, Luc Giard, sent me an email recently covering this story, knowing of my interest in water and global warming.

The Tibetan Plateau, located in the heart of Asia, stretches approximately 2,5 million square kilometres in width and 1,000 million square kilometres in length, making it the largest plateau on earth. Also referred to as “the Third Pole” for its vast amount of ice, snow, and water, its average height of over 4,000 meters above sea level gave it the epithet “Roof of the World.”

Picture the following: the Tibetan Plateau is an oxygen-scarce landscape of enormous glaciers, huge alpine lakes, and cascading waterfalls – a storehouse of freshwater so bountiful that the region serves as the headwaters for many of Asia’s largest rivers, as described above by Stern. It’s easy to see that almost half of the world’s population lives in the watersheds of the rivers whose sources lie on the Tibetan Plateau and stand to be most affected. Pic below courtesy of Xinhua Photo.

Recent studies – including several by the Chinese Academy of Sciences – have documented a host of serious environmental challenges to the quantity and quality of Tibet’s freshwater reserves, most of them caused by industrial activities. Deforestation has led to large-scale erosion and siltation. Mining, manufacturing, and other human activities are producing record levels of air and water pollution in Tibet. Together, these factors portend future water scarcity that could add to the region’s volatility


Because of man-made greenhouse gases the region’s warming climate is causing glaciers to recede at an alarming rate (and no, I’m not quoting that famously erroneous report in May 2007 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change though they were not too far off the mark). It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to observe that Tibet’s water resources have become an increasingly crucial, strategic, political and cultural element that the Chinese are intent on managing and controlling. At all costs.

“At least 500 million people in Asia and 250 million people in China are at risk from declining glacial flows on the Tibetan Plateau,” said Rajendra K. Pachauri, “a staggering number of people will be affected in the near future. There aren’t too many researchers who have looked at this water situation and its far-reaching impacts.”

Indeed! The Yellow River, which gets nearly half of its water from the Tibetan Plateau, now rarely flows all the way to the sea year round according to Nature. The Yangtze, Mekong, Salween and other rivers that flow off the plateau seem to be doing fine now. But with accelerated warming and faster melting of glaciers and permafrost, these great rivers will soon be under threat. Put simply, the Tibetan Plateau is melting, endangering much of Asia and the world’s population. The effects may be felt further afield: reading between the lines in Nature, some climate models show that a rise in the plateau’s surface temperature over the oceans can alter the intensity of the Indian monsoon and carry pollutants in water vapour globally.

What is most baffling for me is the sheer reluctance of global warming deniers to acknowledge that yes, there are reasons enough to believe that something is happening, and since we are all in the same boat, so to speak, we should all work towards solutions instead of hiding behind a war of words. Words will be meaningless when water ebbs away from us.

I’d like to leave you with an -obvious- telling quote from Jeffry Sachs:

The truth is that there is big money backing the climate-change deniers, whether it is companies that don’t want to pay the extra costs of regulation, or free-market ideologues opposed to any government controls.

We have known this for some time. Shills & hacks working for entrenched interests do show up on these boards too, from time to time. This next quote is equally telling, read the whole piece linked to his name, if you have the time:

But then I recalled that this line of attack — charging a scientific conspiracy to drum up “business” for science — was almost identical to that used by The Wall Street Journal and others in the past, when they fought controls on tobacco, acid rain, ozone depletion, second-hand smoke, and other dangerous pollutants. In other words, their arguments were systematic and contrived, not at all original to the circumstances.

My my! Even the Chinese know there is such a thing as Global Warming.

This entry was posted in Desertification, Environmental Issue, Water. Bookmark the permalink.

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