Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Glacial retreat in Jammu and Kashmir could plunge South Asia into a crisis

Frontline (India) has a worthwhile, if lengthy, piece about the region's glaciers: ...Back in 1976, when soldiers began to blast their way through the 18,200-foot (5,460 metres) la, or pass, the road beyond the plaque opened out on to a wall of ice. Trucks and cars moving northwest from Leh to villages in the Nobra valley had to traverse a bridge across the Khardung glacier. Through much of the winter, road-maintenance crews had to battle against the snow to keep the road open for military convoys making their way to the ring of frontier outposts that support Indian troops on the Siachen glacier.

For the past five years, though, Ladakh has seen unusually mild winters and low snowfall. The Khardung glacier has thinned to the point where the bridge that traversed it has been dispensed with. “Over the years,” says Pinto Norbu, Nobra’s representative in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, “I’ve watched this massive river of ice disappear. It’s bizarre.”

In a region that sees less than 50 millimetres of rain each year, glaciers are a key source of water – and Ladakh residents are beginning to fear that they will count among the victims of global warming. If those fears prove well founded – and a growing body of scientists suggests they might – it would have serious consequences for much of Pakistan and India, both of which depend on river systems fed by Ladakh’s glaciers for much of their water needs.

Ladakh residents’ fears are founded on the evidence before their eyes. Mountaineering guides, for instance, say that glaciers on the high mountains, which once needed sophisticated ice-craft to traverse, can now be negotiated by trekkers. Local residents note that the region has also seen freak weather in recent years, including flash foods which swept through Leh and the Nobra valley last summer, for the first time in living memory....

Dependent on the Indus for an estimated 90 per cent of its irrigation needs, Pakistan saw per-capita water availability decline from 5,600 cubic metres in 1947 to just 1,200 cubic metres in 2005. Groundwater reserves are reported to have fallen to alarming levels in over half of Pakistan’s 45 canal commands. Worse, silt deposits in Pakistan’s major Indus dams mean that it can store less water for the months when it is most needed: by 2010, experts estimate, Pakistan may lose over half its water storage capacity.

India, too, has been moving inexorably towards a water crisis. In 1950, per-capita water availability stood at over 5,000 cubic metres; in 2005, that figure stood at 1,800 cubic metres. Some states have reported per-capita water availability below 1,000 cubic metres, the crisis threshold used by the World Bank. Farmers in States critical for Indian agriculture, such as Punjab and Haryana, have responded to the shortage by overusing groundwater, leading to precipitate falls in the water table. In time, pressures on Indian policymakers to use more water than the IWT allows them could well grow....

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