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Celebrating World Water Day 2020: Water and climate change

Complex climate change-induced water issues demand regional solutions. And those solutions must be community-led and targeted at vulnerable communities.

David James Molden & Santosh Nepal

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Rivers have been the life force of civilizations from time immemorial. The Indus Valley, Ganges, and Mesopotamia civilizations all emerged and flourished around rivers that sustained and nourished them. The importance of water for our sustenance and progress has not diminished. And this only underlines the importance of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH), given that it is the origin of 10 major rivers that support 1.9 billion people in the region. How we conserve and manage these water resources will define our own civilization.

Rapid climate and socioeconomic changes in recent decades are already altering the spatial and temporal patterns of the river systems in the HKH. Flow regimes are changing, flooding events are increasing, and water scarcity is felt across the HKH region. Alarmingly, extreme climate events have already started impacting different societal groups differently, with women and marginalized communities struggling the most with disasters and water stress.

Today, World Water Day is being celebrated across the globe to highlight the importance of protecting our water resources in the face of climate change. This year’s theme – “Water and climate change” – is very pertinent to ICIMOD’s commitment to improving understanding on how climate change is affecting the region’s water resources and how communities can accordingly adapt.

Climate change as a major threat

In the last two years, some important global assessments have highlighted the climate change threat in various mountain ecosystem components. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. This report predicts that global warming will lead to severe global calamities in the coming decades and that the impacts of global temperature rise by 2oC above pre-industrial levels would be much more severe than a 1.5°C rise. The 2019 IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate shows that the cryosphere is shrinking globally and impacts are being felt across major mountain systems. This will have serious implications for river flows and ecosystems in downstream areas and will adversely affect communities who depend on water for their livelihoods.

In 2019, ICIMOD published a comprehensive report – The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment –which assesses the current state of knowledge of the HKH region. The report highlights that even if global warming is limited to 1.5°C, the HKH region will warm by about 2.1°C because of elevation-dependent warming. Under these (conservative) scenarios, the HKH region will lose one-third of its glacier reserves by 2100. If greenhouse emissions follow current trends, the volume of glacier loss will rise to two-thirds. Under both scenarios, the downstream flow contributed by the many perennial rivers which originate from these glaciers would be seriously affected, with catastrophic impacts on sectors which depend on meltwater. For example, in the plains of the Indus and Ganges, these changes would impact 130 million farmers who partly depend on glaciers and snowmelt supply to irrigate their crops.

Mountain-specific water management challenges

Mountain communities in the HKH are already facing water stress because of various societal and environmental changes. Growing mountain towns and cities are unable to meet the increasing demand for water, and solutions fit for the plains may not work for the hills and mountains. It is clear that water security for urbanizing hills and mountains needs urgent attention.

Communities in the middle hills depend heavily on springs for their daily needs and there is increasing concern that many of these are drying up and discharging less water. A recent ICIMOD study in Kavre District, in Nepal’s middle hills, shows that about 15%–30% of springs have dried up within the last decade. Similar trends are reported from other HKH countries. In some countries like Bhutan, water scarcity has caused local communities to migrate seasonally or permanently. Climatic changes, including extreme weather events, are likely to aggravate such mountain-specific issues, making water availability more scarce and unpredictable. Water-related hazards such as floods and droughts are also likely to increase.

ICIMOD’s interventions

ICIMOD is committed to providing solutions to water-related issues in the HKH in the context of climate change. We work on two fronts to reduce the impact of climate change and enable mountain communities to better adapt to these changes. First, ICIMOD generates interdisciplinary knowledge about climate change science in mountain environments. Second, we work on co-developing and upscaling solutions to enhance water supply and demand management across multiple scales of landscapes and river basins. Our work on springshed management provides gender-responsive tools and approaches to revive springs and ensure better and more equitable access to water supply facilities for different community groups. Flood early warning systems (both local and regional) are being implemented at a local level across the HKH countries and have proven successful in reducing the impact of floods. In the transboundary Koshi basin, communities from both Nepal and India have together established a flood early warning system, with the upstream country (Nepal) providing crucial flood information to Indian villages downstream. ICIMOD is also facilitating a consortium of Himalayan universities for collaborative research and capacity building on mountain-specific topics, including climate change and water.

Future outlook

As highlighted by this year’s theme for World Water Day, water and climate change are inextricably linked, so holistic solutions to water issues must be developed with all relevant stakeholders.  It is time to act decisively to better understand the impact of climate change on water resources and related sectors from an upstream–downstream perspective. Such an understanding is crucial for designing adaptation and mitigation strategies for different sectors. Climate change impacts are transboundary, and solutions require transboundary cooperation. ICIMOD is committed to facilitating regional collaboration on climate change, water, and related impacts.

Our solutions must be community-led and targeted at impacted communities, especially women and marginalized groups. And everyone has a role to play in securing our water resources. We must combat water-related issues – disasters, scarcity, pollution – and climate change itself through community engagement and regional collaboration. We cannot afford to wait.

With this thought, we wish you all a very happy World Water Day 2020.

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