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18 Mar 2019 | Cryosphere

To share is to care, for the HKH and beyond

Chimi Seldon

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Participants learned about automatic weather stations (AWS) from Inka Koch, Glacier Hydrologist at ICIMOD during a field-based training at Yala in Langtang Valley. The AWS at Yala is 5,060 metres above sea level. (Photo: Sharad Joshi/ICIMOD)

Scientists struggle with research challenges as they endeavour to improve our understanding of rapid changes in the environment and their impacts in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH). There is another challenge that is as great, and it relates to sharing information and data. Data sharing is regarded as a major issue in the HKH, but are we doing everything we can to improve the situation on the ground?

Clarity and justification are needed to encourage data sharing in the region. To promote knowledge and information exchange across borders, it is extremely important to explain what data and information are needed for. Information on the amount of snow, glaciers, water, and ice, for instance, can contribute directly to disaster risk reduction, adaptation, saving lives, and improving livelihoods.

Snow, glacier, and ice are critical sources of water not only for drinking and domestic use, but also for irrigation and hydropower plants that have become a major source of energy and a base for viable economic growth in the region. However, the paradox here is that while the HKH has the largest expanse of snow, glaciers, and permafrost outside of the poles, it has the least data on how they are changing. This data gap is narrowing but still needs much work.

Building the institutional capacity of implementing partners has proven to be an effective way of establishing cryosphere monitoring mechanisms to generate and allow access to data for decision making. ICIMOD is collaborating with relevant agencies in its regional member countries to establish a long-term cryosphere monitoring programme since the skills and capacity to carry out long-term monitoring and research are still at a nascent stage.

In November 2018, 20 participants from Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, and Pakistan attended a glacier monitoring training, including hands-on training on the Yala Glacier in Langtang, Nepal. Most of the participants were university students and faculty members engaged in glaciology research, and some were staff from government institutes carrying out cryosphere monitoring.

Evidence of progress

A thriving cryosphere research culture needs a committed scientific community and government support to ensure continuity of the research. It would also mean that decision makers understand the value of cryosphere data and data sharing, and that investments are made and sustained.

Nepal has in place a consolidated cryosphere monitoring programme led by the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM), a long-term partner of ICIMOD. In Bhutan, ICIMOD has supported the National Centre for Hydrology and Metrology (NCHM) to set up a long-term cryosphere monitoring programme.

Hedayatullah Arian, Associate Professor and Head of the Hydrometeorology Department, Kabul University, a participant from Afghanistan, said that the university team has already started preliminary glacier monitoring activities in some of Afghanistan’s accessible glaciers. “We are carrying out field work in four glaciers. The next task is to identify the benchmark glacier to initiate long-term glacier monitoring.”

“Despite the difficult conditions including lack of human resources, skilled people, financial support, and access to glaciers, so much work is going on,” observed Nadine Salzmann, senior scientist and lecturer, University of Fribourg, who was one of the resource persons for the training.

These are country-level efforts. There is still much to be done when it comes to convincing regional member countries to share data across borders and with lower riparian countries.

Regional data sharing 

Sharing cryosphere data and knowledge can contribute to better science, development planning, adaptation, and disaster risk management in the mountains and river basins downstream. However, data sharing continues to be a challenge in the region. Experts attribute this unwillingness to a lack of understanding about the use of data – how information on the amount of snow, glaciers, water, and ice, for instance, can contribute directly to disaster risk reduction, adaptation, saving lives, and improving livelihoods. For countries that are interested in sharing data, lack of awareness about data rights, and deficient expertise and infrastructure in implementing data-sharing practices present challenges. Good internet connection, data servers, software, and applications are requisites for data sharing, and these are not always available.

“In all the meetings I have attended, lack of data from this region is always the main issue. Even within one country, agencies are not sharing data; we need to first put in place data-sharing protocols within our respective countries and scale these out to encompass the HKH,” says Smriti Basnett, Research Associate, Sikkim University, who is working on compiling a syllabus on glaciers for her university.
A regional data-sharing mechanism is the need of the hour, and institutions like ICIMOD can play a role in enabling regional collaboration and data sharing.

“Data sharing can contribute to better science and a holistic picture of the behaviour of glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya,” says Irfan Rashid, Assistant Professor, University of Kashmir, one of the instructors at the training programme. “At the moment, even glacier inventories are not in the public domain,” he added.

What was evident during the glacier monitoring training was the participants were interested in learning about each other’s cryosphere monitoring activities. Smriti Basnett from Sikkim University, for instance, will base the glacier syllabus she is developing for her university on the modules shared by her fellow participants at the workshop.

Anna Sinisalo, Programme Coordinator, Cryosphere Initiative, ICIMOD, pointed out during the orientation that there are more than 50,000 glaciers in the region, of which only 10 have either been studied enough to generate five years of data or are sties of ongoing field monitoring programmes. She called for joint efforts from the region to improve the situation. “Networking and collaboration are crucial not only for sharing and making data available but also to learn from each other, standardize methods, and do better science,” she said.

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