Economic losses mount as glaciers melt on the mountains

Economic losses mount as glaciers melt on the mountains

From 1985 to 2014, economic losses resulting from disasters in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region totaled USD 45 billion, much higher than those of any other mountain region.

Climate change has now become synonymous with money as countries and regions, including Bhutan, affected by it are desperately seeking funds to minimize the vulnerabilities, like in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region. Likewise, marred by floods and destruction due to climate change, the region also suffered economic losses upto USD 45 billion until 2014.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has therefore come as a relief by launching a scheme to help assess and manage climate and disaster risks.

The ADB said it would undertake deep analysis of multi-hazard risks which include landslides, earthquakes, and floods-including glacier lake outbursts-and vulnerabilities in Bhutan and Nepal.

“This will help to strengthen the two governments’ capacities to conduct risk assessments in priority river basins. These assessments will be used to develop early warning systems and risk management options for future infrastructure development,” an statement from the ADB reads, adding that the Hindu Kush Himalayas-home to the largest ice reserves outside of the polar regions-feed 10 major rivers which sustain the livelihoods of 240 million people in the mountains and more than 1.6 billion people downstream.

The region is warming faster than the global average and if global temperature rise hits 3°C, 75 percent of glaciers in Bhutan and Nepal could melt by the end of this century. That would place unprecedented stress on access to water, threaten food and energy security, and result in significant biodiversity loss.

“The roof of the world is melting,” the ADB President Masatsugu Asakawa was quoted as saying. “The Hindu Kush Himalaya region is critical to the wellbeing and economic security of more than a billion people across our region. This initiative will help equip Bhutan and Nepal with essential information and enable them to invest in effective climate adaptation which is now critical to managing climate risk.”

Bhutan’s development is highly dependent on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, hydropower, and forestry. The most significant impact of climate change in Bhutan is the formation of supra-glacial lakes due to the accelerated retreat of glaciers with increasing temperatures. The risk of potential disasters inflicted by Glacial Lakes Outburst Floods (GLOFs), which pose new threats to lives, livelihoods and development, is mounting as the water levels in several glacier lakes approach critical geostatic thresholds.

Although current disaster management policies, risk reduction, and preparedness plans in Bhutan are able to address recurrent natural hazards in the country, they are not yet prepared to deal with the new GLOF threat. Bhutan’s entire northern region has glacier/snow-fed lakes near its mountaintops. With a majority of Bhutan’s population and infrastructure development concentrated in large river valleys, climate-induced GLOFs could cause significant human and economic devastation. Rising mean temperature, attributed to climate change, is the main cause of glacial retreat and is correlated with faster rates of glacier melt. The result is that glaciers in Bhutan are receding at a rate of almost 30-60 meters per decade. The melting ice from these receding glaciers is increasing the volume of water in glacial lakes, and the melting of ice-cored dams is destabilizing them, pushing the hazard risk for GLOFs to critical levels.

Bhutan’s National Environment Strategy, “The Middle Path,” highlights hydropower development, industrial growth and intensification of agriculture as the three major avenues for sustainable development in Bhutan. Tourism is also an important economic sector. All of these sectors are highly climate sensitive and vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. Hydropower critically depends on predictable and stable patterns of precipitation which will be perturbed due to climate change.

Subsistence farmers will be directly affected by temperature changes and monsoon patterns that are less predictable as a result of climate change. Bhutan’s roads and other important infrastructure will suffer more damage from landslides and flashfloods. The rapid melting of glaciers, besides affecting the base flow of Bhutan’s rivers, will dramatically increase the risk of GLOFs. Bhutan’s extensive forest cover, rich biodiversity and clean water resources will also be affected by climate change, which will then negatively impact the tourism and service sectors.

All these adversely impact the economy of the regions as well. From 1985 to 2014, economic losses resulting from disasters in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region totaled USD 45 billion, much higher than those of any other mountain region. Since then, the increasing frequency and intensity of disaster events have pushed up economic losses and the number of people killed or displaced by such events.

ADB’s assistance will help the governments, private sector, and local communities to understand the risks they face so they can decide on disaster risk reduction and adaptation measures, as well as risk transfer solutions including insurance. The technical assistance will set the stage for advancing knowledge across the Hindu Kush Himalaya region on climate resilient investment planning, development, and risk management, added the statement.

Tashi Namgyal from Thimphu