Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A word from a victim of global warming

While working on a report on the Clean Development Mechanism that aims to mitigate global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, I came across this strongly persuasive article from Kunda Dixit, editor of Nepal Times. For us, smug in our sanitised environs, global warming remains a distant threat but many as, Dixt points out, paying for the misdeeds of others. The best way to save the Maldives from drowning, he adds, is not to fly there anymore. And if you want to trek in the Himalaya, try doing it in Second Life.

Here is his article:

For many of us who live in countries in the periphery like the Maldives or Nepal, there is a real feeling that we don’t just have to suffer for someone else’s crime. We actually have to pay for their misdeeds as well.

You don’t have to be a scientist to see what is happening to our mountains. The people of Pokhara in Central Nepal saw something apocalyptic last winter: Machapuchre, the 7,000m high pyramid-shaped peak that towers over the town was snowless for the first time in anyone’s memory.

In the Everest region, the Imja Glacier now has a lake three km long where there was just ice 30 years ago. When one of these lakes burst 10 years ago it washed away a newly-built hydroelectric plant. Dorje Sherpa lost his daughter and grandchild. He blamed the gods, but had he known, he would have blamed fossil carbon.

For us in the Himalaya, global warming is already a fact of life. And of death.

Scientists can do more modeling, find out the exact speed at which the Himalayan ice caps are melting. Or they can simulate the impact of melting snow on Himalayan rivers in the next 50 years. But actually, we don’t need any more evidence. What we need is for experts to tell us what to do. And then we need to find the money to do it with.

It’s not just the people of the Himalaya who are going to be affected by melting snow and ice. The water tower of the Tibetan plateau is the source of major rivers on which nearly 1.5 billion people in Asia depend directly. The Indus that flows into the Arabian Sea, the Tamir of the Taklamakhan Desert, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, all the rivers of Nepal and Bhutan, the three great rivers of Burma, the Mekong, and the Yangtse and Huang He that flow down to the China Sea—they all start as melting snow high in the Himalaya.

The melting of the ice cap on the Tibetan plateau and the mountains on its rim is already affecting the flow of these rivers. Perhaps we do need more data to give us a better idea of what to plan for. But the data is out of bounds. The Himalaya is a war zone. It is located in a multiple conflict zone: Afghanistan, India vs Pakistan, India vs China. Hydrological and precipitation data is still a military secret in our mountains.

Countries in the region also need better transboundary early warning so when a glacial lake bursts behind Mt Everest, villages on the Nepali side are warned in time.

The worst case scenario is a magnitude eight earthquake in eastern Nepal or Bhutan that could cause dozens of glacial lakes, swollen by global warming, to burst simultaneously. It’s like nuclear war, you don’t want to think about it. But we must. And we must plan for these disasters.

As journalists, we’re ambulance chasers. We are used to covering disasters after they happen. Here is one chance we have to predict a disaster so safeguards can be put in place. It’s not a question of if there will be a glacial lake catastrophe, it is a question of when.

Climate science is complex. We haven’t even started factoring in Global Dimming: how Asian Brown Cloud over the Indian Ocean is filtering the sun but adding to global warming because of a blanket of soot particles in the atmosphere. The fine black dust is also covering the snows and so it melts faster. So there are certain things we can do regionally and right away (like reducing the brown cloud, or funding mitigation like glacial lake outburst protection) while we wait for the world’s polluters to agree on emission cutbacks.

The Himalaya are the youngest mountain range in the world. Our rivers are older than the mountains and cut through the main range in spectacular gorges. Combined with heavy monsoons and heavy population density, the slopes of these mountains were fragile even without global warming. Climate change just magnifies all the problems we have many times.

These mountains are perhaps seeing some of the most dramatic changes since they were formed 65 million years ago. How to ensure that these changes are not too drastic and global average temperatures don’t rise more than two degrees is not in the hands of the inhabitants of the mountains. It is in the hands of the big polluters, two of which are our next door neighbours.


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