Hindu Kush Himalaya: Climate Change is a Crisis at the Top of the World

Hindu Kush Himalaya is poised to lose approximately a third of its glaciers by 2100. Photo: Huzaifa Ginwala.
Hindu Kush Himalaya is poised to lose approximately a third of its glaciers by 2100. Photo: Huzaifa Ginwala.

By Declan Magee, Avani Dixit

The time to act against the changing climate is now, as the investments made today will determine the resilience of the Hindu Kush Himalaya region for generations to come.

The top of the world is melting fast. The climate crisis has become a water crisis in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region. And that affects us all.

Hindu Kush Himalaya is known as the Third Pole or the Water Tower of Asia because it holds the largest ice reserves outside of the polar regions. These freshwater reserves feed 10 major Asian river systems and support four global biodiversity hotspots, which sustain the livelihoods of 240 million people in the mountains and another 1.65 billion people downstream.

The signs of climate change are already plain to see across the region. Glacial retreat, changes in snowfall patterns, and altered monsoon dynamics contribute to shifts in water availability, affecting river flows and impacting water-dependent sectors such as water supply, irrigation and agriculture and hydropower.

Sadly,  even if global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees, the Hindu Kush Himalaya region is poised to lose approximately a third of its glaciers by 2100. The hotter it gets, the faster glaciers will melt― if global warming reaches 3 degrees, up to 75% of glaciers will melt in parts of the Himalayas.

Water flow in the rivers of the Hindu Kush Himalaya will peak by 2050, mainly due to melting of snow and glaciers, and then start to decline for the remainder of the century. This poses serious threats to both the environment and the people in the region. Too much water will increase the frequency and intensity of hazards such as floods and glacial outburst floods. Too little water threatens food security and the viability of major industries such as hydropower.

The Hindu Kush Himalaya region, crucial for its ice reserves and biodiversity, faces a severe climate-induced water crisis, threatening the livelihood of billions.

What needs to be done to develop resilient infrastructure?

If we want to be able to manage the risk, we must first be able to measure it. Assessments of hazard risk tend to be backward-looking, relying on historical damages to predict future losses.  We need to have a more forward-looking approach that shows how multi-hazard risk is going to evolve in response to climate change and melting glaciers. Fortunately, there are ways to do this and these solutions can be brought to countries like Bhutan and Nepal with the right type of investment.

The second thing that we can do is improve how we design infrastructure. Risk management approaches need to be brought upfront in infrastructure design. This includes taking steps to avoid risk such as selecting a project site based on a thorough analysis of multi-hazard risk; taking measures to prepare for risk such as installing early warning systems; reducing risk by incorporating protective measures into the design of the infrastructure; and transferring some risks, for example through insurance mechanisms. As financiers of large-scale infrastructure, multilateral development banks can help take the lead on this, helping to set standards and determine good practice.

A third consideration is to be creative about how we finance this. Enhanced risk management will have upfront cost implications in many cases (although good risk management costs countries less not more in the long run because you are paying for quality).

One approach is to mobilize grant or concessional funds to cover the additional cost of making infrastructure resilient, though it can be challenging to mobilize sufficient grant or concessional resources to do this at scale. Another approach is to mobilize funds in financial markets for example through thematic bonds. Insurance services provide yet another option where insurance premiums can be reduced in exchange for ongoing investments in resilience.

Finally, hazards cross borders so a glacier lake outburst flood in one country can cause devastation elsewhere. Combatting these challenges will require collaborative, and multi-country efforts to share information of risks and good practice in terms of responses.

 The Hindu Kush Himalaya region is at a crossroads, facing unprecedented challenges. Ensuring resilient community and infrastructure is not just a necessity; it is a moral imperative to protect the well-being of the communities and ecosystems, and to safeguard decades of development gains.

The blog is based on research related to the project Building Adaptation and Resilience in the Hindu Kush Himalayas-Bhutan and Nepal, which is featured in discussions at COP28.