Relations between India and China: Thawing over melting Himalayas?

Last weekend, India’s Environment Minister Jairem Ramesh announced that academic researchers in India and China would share information as part of a cooperative scientific investigation into the health of the Himalayan glaciers, called the Water Towers of Asia. He added that New Delhi was open to a dialog with Beijing over water resources, saying that the two countries had common concerns. Ramesh emphasized the desire for a collaborative research program, warning that India would not allow Chinese scientists “to climb all over India glacier’s.” The Himalayan region has been a source of conflict between India and China for over a half century.  In 1962, dispute over sections of the shared border escalated to outright war.  Today however, common concerns about the future of these mountains are bringing together the former enemies.  The Himalayas are melting.

The greater Himalayan region stretches 3,500 miles, from Afghanistan to Burma/Myanmar.
The Himalayan mountains form part of the border between India and China.

The greater Himalayan region extends 3,500 km from Afghanistan to Burma/Myanmar and includes the Hindu Kush, Pamir and Himalayan mountain ranges, eastern China and the Tibetan Plateau. Ten major rivers originate in these mountains,* fed by snowmelt. These rivers supply drinking water to 1.3 billion people, or 1/5 of the world’s population. Global warming is having dramatic impacts on this region. Temperatures are rising three times faster than the global average. Glaciers are melting faster than anywhere else in the world and could disappear completely by 2035. Warming is also altering the monsoon system, which brings the precipitation to recharge the glaciers. While some parts of India are experiencing more flooding, overall the monsoon rains are decreasing, resulting in less snow falling in the mountains.

While CO2 is the major culprit in climate change worldwide, recent studies suggest that black carbon (BC), a component of soot, may play as great a role in the region. First, as microscopic particles in the atmosphere BC absorbs heat and warms the air, much like asphalt on a hot day. Second, when BC lands on snow it darkens the surface, causing it to absorb sunlight and heat instead of reflecting it as clean, white snow would. Between 1950 and 2002, emissions of soot increased three-fold in India and five-fold in China.  Most of India’s emissions come from residential burning of biomass fuel (wood, dung) in cookstoves. In China, BC comes from rural coal-burning, both for residential heating and to fuel primitive brick kilns. In November 2008, a United Nation Environment Program report on Atmospheric Brown Cloud (ABCs)** concluded that “plumes of ABCs, measuring 1-3 km think surround the Hindu Kush-Himalayan-Tibetan [HKHT] glaciers, both from the South Asian and East Asian sides” and that “soot in ABCs is another major cause of the retreat of the HKHT glaciers and snowpack.”

Haze along the Himalayan Front Range
Haze along the Himalayan Front Range

Publicly, the Indian government has disputed the growing scientific consensus that climate change, particularly BC produced in the region, is melting the Himalayan glaciers. According to the Press Trust of India news agency, India’s Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal rejected the UNEP report, describing it as “propaganda” that was part of the pressure being exerted on Asian nations ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference to be held in Copenhagen Denmark in late 2009. Last month, Ramesh accused the developing world of needlessly raising alarm over the melting glaciers. Privately, however, India appears to be taking steps to clarify the issue.  Earlier this month, a Times of India headline declared “Black Carbon Major Cause of Global Warming.” The article described the preliminary findings of a 5-year project to study the impacts of black carbon on global warming in the Indo-Gangetic Basin. The study, launched in 2007 under the auspices of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), has already confirmed that “black carbon is [a] major cause of global warming…threatening to equal the impact of CO2 on melting snowpack and glaciers in the Himalayan region.”

* The ten rivers are: the Amu Darya, Indus, Ganges, Bramaputra (Yarlungtsanpo), Irrawaddy, Salween (Nu), Mekong (Lancang), Yangtse (Jinsha), Yellow River (Huanghe), and tarim (Dayan).

** The Atmospheric Brown Clouds report is available online:

You can expect many more blogs on black carbon and climate change – particularly on the melting of glaciers in the Arctic and the Himalayas (the “Third Pole”.)  In the meantime, check out the updated “Climate” page, which details some of my other ideas about climate change.

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