Regional cooperation key to sustaining eco-friendly development in the fragile Hindu Kush Himalayas

14 Aug 2013


New Delhi, India

In the wake of the recent devastating floods in Uttarakhand, Dr Mihir Shah, Member, Planning Commission of India, requested the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) to make a presentation to the Planning Commission on ways to collaboratively address the regional concerns on floods.

ICIMOD made the presentation on 13 August 2013 at the Planning Commission, New Delhi. The meeting was chaired by the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and was attended by members and advisors of the Planning Commission, secretaries of Ministries and senior officials from various departments and agencies.

Deputy Chairman Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia and other Members of the Planning Commission attended the presentation made by ICIMOD

Dr Eklabya Sharma of ICIMOD highlighted the nature of devastation caused by floods, especially flash floods in the Himalayan region. He said the lack of hydro-meteorological data, inadequate early warning systems, and poor infrastructure planning often exacerbate the damages caused by floods in terms of human lives and properties. Further, the transboundary nature of these disaster events and absence of regional data sharing mechanisms add to the woes of the people living in the fragile environment. 

In the face of these challenges, ICIMOD emphasizes the need for end-to-end information systems for flood forecasting to ensure that information reaches people faster than flood waters. Such information systems have several components, from acquiring satellite data to flood forecasting models to setting up community-based early warning systems. ICIMOD is one of the few organizations in the region with its own MODIS satellite data receiving station which was used successfully to test a forest fire warning system in Nepal. ICIMOD and its partners have also piloted localized flood early warning system in Assam and Bangladesh. 

Another issue that has been brought to the fore by some of the recent flood events in the region has been the need for proper infrastructure planning, be it roads, settlements or hydropower plants. The mountains have huge hydropower potential and the region has seen a spate of development activities in the last decade or so. However, there are risks posed by glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) to existing and planned hydropower plants in the region. 

The many glaciers in the HKH region are thinning as a result of climate warming, and this has resulted in the formation of meltwater lakes. These lakes are often held back by unstable moraine dams that could potentially breach causing serious floods and debris flows downstream. This phenomenon is known as glacial lake outburst flood, and GLOFs can cause extensive destruction in the valley downstream. Unfortunately, almost all hydropower plants are located in the downstream of such lakes.

One of ICIMOD’s main tasks has been the regional mapping of glacial lakes and assessment of the increasing risk from GLOFs. This task builds upon ICIMOD’s past experience in the technical and physical aspects of mapping of glaciers and glacial lakes in the HKH countries since 1999. Around 200 glacial lakes have been identified as priority lakes in the region, but the real risk of these lakes bursting their dams remains largely unknown and needs to be researched. ICIMOD is carrying out mapping and risk assessment in collaboration with national partners in the region.

Members of the Planning Commission, some partners and ICIMOD staff

One example of a GLOF is the 1985 breaching of Dig Tso in Khumbu, Nepal, which almost completely destroyed the Namche Hydropower Plant, washed away 14 bridges and agricultural land, and caused many casualties. The Government of Nepal now does mandatory risk assessment of glacial lakes as part of planning process for hydropower plants. Similar approach needs to be followed by other countries in the region. 

“Underpinning the end-to-end information systems and proper infrastructure planning is the need for regional cooperation for transboundary data sharing,” said Dr Eklabya Sharma. “We must also put in place institutional mechanisms that can use technological advances in forecasting. We have been very enthused by the response and support provided by the countries of the HKH region in the last few years and we hope that it will be enhanced even further in the years to come.”

In conclusion, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia said “There is a need for data sharing, organizations like ICIMOD should set the example by making all their data publicly accessible. This will slowly encourage governments to do the same”.

For more information, please contact: 

Ms Nira Gurung
Communications Officer, ICIMOD
Tel. +977 1 5003222