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30 Mar 2020 | Climate change

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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近期的空气质量寿命指数(AQLI)报告标题为:“空气污染是地球上人类预期寿命面临的最大外部威胁”。这一严厉警告应该足以激励全球采取行动应对这一最严重且无处不在的威胁。然而,目前还没有专门针对这一“沉默杀手”的全球合作框架或公约。据世界卫生组织称,每年有 700 万人过早死亡与空气污染有关,这比迄今为止死于 Covid-19 的人数还多,而且根据该报告,空气污染对普通人的健康危害比吸烟或酗酒还大。为纪念今年国际清洁空气蓝天日,我紧急呼吁全球和地区领导人建立应对空气污染的全球合作框架。该框架应与解决“三重地球危机”的其中两个要素——气候变化和生物多样性丧失——的框架保持一致。 兴都库什-喜马拉雅地区受到的空气污染的严重影响,根源有很多,包括:机动车辆、工业、焚烧固体生物燃料、农作物秸秆和家庭废物。重要的是,这类受污染的空气并不是某个城市、地区或国家特有的,而是整个印度河-恒河平原和喜马拉雅山麓——横跨北印度次大陆和山脉的数十万平方公里的区域——所共有的。该地区空气中的悬浮颗粒经常超过安全水平,影响着居住在这里的大约十亿人。 正如联合国空气污染倡议所解释的,颗粒物是微小的污染颗粒,这些微小、肉眼看不见的颗粒污染物会深入我们的肺部、血液和身体。约三分之一的中风、慢性呼吸道疾病和肺癌死亡病例以及四分之一的心脏病死亡病例都因这些污染物造成。阳光下许多不同污染物相互作用产生的地面臭氧也是哮喘和慢性呼吸道疾病的原因之一。 美国芝加哥大学能源政策研究所发布的空气质量寿命指数报告显示:“如果污染水平将持续,孟加拉国、印度、尼泊尔和巴基斯坦的居民预计平均寿命会缩短约 5 年。” 报告继续指出,“亚洲和非洲负担最重,但缺乏关键基础设施”。尽管如此,我们还是有理由希望在我们的地区找到可能的解决方案,因为中国在空气污染防治的努力仍然取得了显着成功,而且工作仍在进行中。正如该报告所述,“自 2013 年(即中国开始“反污染之战”的前一年)以来,中国的污染已下降了 42.3%。由于这些改善,如果减排持续,中国公民的平均寿命预计会延长 2.2 年。”

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