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Opinion

Himalayan states must unite to protect mountain environment

Time for a Himalayas Council to manage and safeguard vital water supplies

As global average temperatures warm, glaciers are retreating.   © Reuters

The recent photo of a snaking queue of climbers waiting to reach the top of Mount Everest worried many, suggesting the world's highest peak was becoming another tourist trap. But the heavy traffic -- and resultant ecological damage -- might be the least of the Himalayan range's troubles.

Some of the world's most populous and fast-developing countries, notably China and India, depend on the water released from the Himalayas and nearby ranges, which feeds important rivers including the Ganges, Indus, Mekong, Yangtze, Yellow, Amu Darya, Salween, Irrawaddy and Brahmaputra. The river basins they support generate $4.3 trillion in annual GDP and over 3 billion people rely on food grown there.

Thanks to environmental pressures, regional competition and inept management, however, the vital flow of this water faces disruption, in turn causing greater local strife. It is time for the continent to learn from international efforts to protect other vital environmental resources -- such as the Arctic -- and come together with a Himalayas Council.

India, China, and Pakistan represent the first, second, and fourth largest water users worldwide. Since the 1970s, water demand in these three nations alone has surged by nearly half. Such swelling needs have pushed many areas to the brink of their sustainable resources.

In considerable portions of the Hindu Kush Himalayan river basins, monthly withdrawals of surface and groundwater exceed available supplies for half of the year or more. For over 250 million people in India and Pakistan, water demand surpasses supply all year round.

As regional populations grow and economies expand, the Asian Development Bank anticipates water use across Asia-Pacific will climb another 30-40% by 2050 to meet the rising claims of agriculture, cities, and industry, portending further strains on shared supplies.

Global climate change will exacerbate Himalayan Asia's water challenges, disrupting the seasonal and geographic precipitation patterns that nourish the region's water sources. Extreme weather events, floods and droughts are projected to increase in frequency and degree.

Crucially, many of Himalayan Asia's rivers depend on the mountains' ice and snow cover to sustain their yearly flows. The Hindu Kush Himalayan ranges alone contain 54,000 glaciers (Montana's Glacier National Park in the U.S. has 26).

Glaciers act as massive regional water repositories, accumulating snow and ice at high altitudes and releasing spring and summer meltwaters that contribute one-third of annual runoff on the Indus River, for example, and two-thirds of total runoff in the Amu Darya.

As global average temperatures warm, however, glaciers are retreating. In the near term, increased glacier melt will augment water supplies; in the longer term, as glaciers dwindle, they will assure far less.

Ultimately, shifts in the timing, location, and quantity of river flows may mean there will not be the right level of water, rather too much or too little, where and when it is needed, compromising livelihoods, food security and energy production across Himalayan Asia.

According to the World Bank, without active countermeasures, combined socio-economic pressures and the impact of climate change on water supplies could slash gross domestic product by 6% or more across most of the Hindu Kush Himalayan countries by 2050.

The international character of Himalayan Asia's water resources complicates this picture. Most of the major rivers that flow from the mountains are shared by at least two countries. A dam built by one country to provide hydropower to its own citizens, for instance, can alter river flows to farming communities reliant on irrigation water downstream or impede migratory fish from reaching fishing communities upstream.

Without effective cooperation and communication to help navigate such trade-offs and negotiate mutually acceptable solutions, mistrust and misperception can readily pitch contending interests into conflict.

As we found in an Atlantic Council report published in spring 2019, effective trust, cooperation, and communication are all too often lacking in Himalayan Asia.

That is why we need a Himalayas Council, similar to the Arctic Council. So far, there has been almost no attempt to build multilateral governance structures to manage this unique place. None of the eight transboundary rivers arising from these mountains, for example, are governed by international agreements or cooperative mechanisms incorporating all the riparian countries.

The Arctic provides the appropriate model. The Arctic Council, established in 1996, promotes knowledge-building and consultation regarding stewardship of the Arctic's unique and swiftly-changing environment, ranging from pollution control to species conservation to emergency preparedness.

To reinforce this practical mandate, scientific advisory groups gather and assess monitoring data and other information, feeding into the council's decision-making structure. These features have enabled substantial constructive cooperation between the council's eight member states, including the United States and Russia, notwithstanding these two nations' long history of fraught geopolitical relations.

Asia needs a parallel institution designed to improve the management of shared transboundary ecosystems and collective natural resources within Himalayan Asia, one capable of building trust and cooperative interaction among countries frequently riven by mutual suspicions, including historic great-power adversaries.

Such a forum could be modeled after the Arctic Council in purpose and organizational structure. To be viable, the effort would have to be forged and led by the countries within Himalayan Asia.

Like the Arctic Council, only states possessing territory in the region would be entitled to membership. But the broader international community, which includes other states, multilateral organizations and intergovernmental forums, has experience and resources to offer.

The peaceful and sustainable prosperity of this vital world region is a shared interest that should be advanced through collective action. Himalayan Asia now falls far short of this ideal. Rather, individual states struggle to advance their interests within a context defined more by acrimony and distrust.

Nonetheless, it is possible to imagine a different and far more cooperative future. For decades International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, or ICIMOD, an intergovernmental organization based in Kathmandu, has served as a "learning and knowledge sharing center" for its eight Hindu Kush Himalaya member countries.

Although ICIMOD's mandate is much narrower than the mission of a Himalayas Council would be, its sheer existence and ongoing work testify to the proposition that cooperative multilateralism is possible in the region. The international community should take this cue and begin the initial steps toward a Himalayas Council.

Peter Engelke is resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. David Michel is senior research fellow at the Center for Climate and Security. They are co-authors of Ecology Meets Geopolitics: Water Security in Himalayan Asia

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