[Solved]How will the melting of Himalayan glaciers have a far-reaching impact on the water resources of India? (UPSC 2020)

The seasonal flow of the Himalayan glaciers provides various water services to an estimated 800 million people for purposes such as irrigation, hydropower and drinking water. Glaciers are melting abnormally, eventually leading to water shortages. Overflow of rivers with increased flow.

The melting of glaciers affects the amount of snowfall to some extent. The frequent reduction in the amount of normal winter snowfall can lead to water shortages. Excessive thawing does not tolerate melt water, including rainwater and groundwater, and is used to irrigate crops and ensure future droughts. The relationship between runoff and precipitation determines groundwater regeneration and groundwater depletion.

 Melting glaciers will disrupt the distribution that sustains these large populations. As the Himalayan glaciers melt over the next few decades, flooding is expected, followed by rapid retreat of the Ganges and Indus rivers, severe water shortages and massive migrations causing invisible collisions.

Importance of Himalayan Glaciers:

  • The Himalayan snow deposits, the lifeline of the rivers emanating from this mountain chain.
  • It is critical to meet the water needs of millions of people in India and other Asian countries.
  • The Himalayan altitude and snow have been protecting India from outside invaders since the early times thus serving as a defence barrier.
  • By virtue of their scenic beauty, they have developed a large number of tourist spots.

Causes for melting glaciers:

Global warming as the most dominant cause for snow decay.

It also adds that the rampant environmental pollution in the plains along the Himalayan hills as also a cause.

The air pollutants, such as black soot (carbon) and dust, which find their way to the glacial ice, absorb heat from the sun and hasten snow melting.

Human activities like burning of fossil fuels, oil and gas drilling, deforestation, increasing land use in mountain regions, etc. are responsible for increasing rate of melting of these glaciers. Carbon dioxide and various Greenhouse gases emissions have caused temperature to rise even in poles.

The consequences of melting glaciers are

  • It has ramifications for the global climate. This region is a heat source in summer and a heat sink in winter.
  • Along with the Tibetan Plateau, this influences the Indian summer monsoon. So, any changes in this region would have a bearing on the monsoon itself that already shows signs of changes in spread and distribution.
  • It could trigger a multitude of biophysical and socio-economic impacts, such as biodiversity loss, increased glacial melting, and less predictable water availability—all of which will impact livelihoods and well-being in the HKH.
  • Faster snow and glacier melting due to warming is already manifesting in formation of glacial lakes. Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) are becoming frequent and causing huge casualties and loss to local infrastructures.
  • Glaciers in HKH have been retreating faster, and consistently causing greater water flows in rivers. In Tibetan Plateau, river run off has increased by 5.5 per cent.
  • Most of the lakes in high altitudes have also reported water level rise by 0.2 m/year besides their surface areas expanding.
  • ICIMOD report paints a bleak picture for the future of a region that is the source of Asia’s 10 major rivers and provides water, food, energy and carbon storage for almost two billion people.
  • Biodiversity is in steep decline driven by human development, pollution, overexploitation of resources and climate change. Example: Urbanization is on rise in many of the HKH countries.
  • With the growing impacts of climate change, along with new infrastructure development, trade routes and hydropower dams planned for the fragile region, the effects on the biodiversity is set to worsen further.
  • Along with species loss this will mean the loss of the key environmental services the region provides – such as water and carbon storage – to the rest of Asia.
  • Hydropower is a big threat, with over 550 large projects in existence or under construction. Example: The dams constructed and diversions of Amu-Darya and Syr Darya have now almost stopped feeding the Aral Sea.
  • Many of these areas are remote and authorities have little control over border regions sometimes plagued with ongoing conflict. Example: Indo-Burma hotspot.

Impact of melting Himalayan glaciers

  • Food insecurity
    Himalayan region give rise to large number of rivers that flow through plains and support numerous agricultural activities. Once the rivers dry, agriculture will be impacted and food security will be under threat.
  • Loss of drinking water
    Large number of population in Himalayan region is dependent on glacial rivers for drinking and domestic purpose. As the source dries up, people are expected to suffer tremendously.
  • Ground water depletion
    Himalayan glaciers not only contribute towards rivers but also helps in recharging groundwater aquifers in the region. This helps in making water availability easier.
  • Desertification
    Desertification is a process where land loses its fertility and turns into desert. Due to moisture and water loss, fertile lands will become deserts in future.
  • Ecological loss
    Large number of flora and fauna is supported by river ecosystem as well as high altitude regions. Hotspot regions of Himalayas will also be under threat.
  • Frequent Flooding & Droughts: Himalayan glaciers provide for a vital regional lifeline to over two billion people through 10 main rivers that originate from the glaciers.
  • Impacting Moonsoon: The Himalayas exerts a significant influence on seasonal shifts in the monsoon circulation and the distribution of rainfall over India.
  • The south-west monsoon accounts for 70% of the annual rainfall in India.
  • According to IPCC projections, the melting of glaciers could indicate a likely increase in summer rainfall by 4-12% in the near term and 4-25% in the long term.
  • Changing monsoon patterns, including increased severity and frequency of storms, could lead to mountain hazards that may destroy critical infrastructure.
  • Destabilize Flow of Indian Rivers: Increasing glacial melts could destabilize Indian rivers by changing their streamflow.

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