Changes to 'roof of the world' threaten millions

Posted: 8 September 2005

The mountains of Asia, including the mighty Himalayas, are facing accelerating threats from a rapid rise in roads,settlements, overgrazing and deforestation, experts warn in a new report. The 2050, they predict, most of China's glaciers will have disappeared.

Herders with their flock in the Himalyas. Photo: UNEP/GRID Arendal
Herders with their flock in the Himalyas. Photo: UNEP/GRID Arendal
Herders with their flock in the Himalyas© UNEP/GRID Arendal
There is concern that the region's water supplies, fed by glaciers and themonsoons and vital for around half the world's population, may be harmed alongside the area's abundant and rich wildlife.

The report is being released in advance of this month's World Summit in New York, called to assess progress in reaching the Millennium Development Goals. These include the target of reducing by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.

The new report points to a critical gap in water supplies to billions of people in Asia and the crucial role of sound environmental management for sustainable development.

Satellite evidence

It says satellite images reveal that deforestation and unsustainable landuse may explain why the region's rivers now have the largest sediment loads in the world and why dissolved nutrients in the water areincreasing more than in any other region.

This is one of the primary causes of increasing human drought and flood-related disasters in the region, including the latest floods andin China and India.

By combining a range of local studies with satellite images from 1960 up to today, the scientists have been able to reveal for the first time the scale of land-use changes in the region.

Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said: "The Millennium Development Goals covering poverty eradication and the better supply of sufficient, safe, drinking water up to reversing the spread of disease cannot be met without economic growth. But this needs to be carried out in a way that conserves the life support systems and the ecosystem services they provide. Otherwise it cannot be sustainable for current or future generations".

Water towers

"Mountain areas are especially important and particularly vulnerable.These are the water towers of the world and often home to unique wildlife species upon which local people depend for food, medicines and other important materials. They have often been saved from uncontrolled development by their remoteness. But modern engineering methods mean thisis no longer the case," he said.

Achim Steiner, IUCN Director General said: "The fragile mountain ecosystems across the world are facing unprecedented threats. Some of these threats such as climate change are irreversible. But it is in our power to put development of these regions on a sustainable path through integrated management which blends economic, social and environmental interests".

Researchers claim some countries including China and Nepal are now acting to develop parks and protected areas aimed at conserving the Asian region's water supplies and wildlife.

However, they warn that far more effort is needed to extend protection right across the region in both lowland and mountain areas ifthe impacts are to be minimized.

Christian Nellemann of UNEP's GRID centre in Norway said: "The water from this region impacts over half of the world's population, but less than 3 per cent of the watersheds are protected. Many have become deforested and overgrazed.

"Impoverished people often have to settle in the most exposed flood-risk areas, and when the forest is gone further upstream, the floodswill hit them severely. This pattern will be repeated annually and will worsen with more extreme climate events unless care is taken to protect larger shares of the watersheds. In fact we can support development by doing so, as the floods have great economic and health consequences".

"We have to speed up conservation efforts in these watersheds to ensure safe water resources."

The findings have come from a new report entitled The Fall of Waterlaunched by IUCN and UNEP. It has been compiled and supported by a range of researchers from organizations including UNEP, IUCN, theInternational Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

Key findings

  • Many of the rivers in the region have alreadybeen affected by deforestation and increased use of water for irrigation. Only the Tarim hashighish levels of protection with around 21 per cent of its river basin in protected areas. Unfortunately, it also has the greatest relative water consumption for irrigation and large areas of wildlife habitats have been laidbare for irrigation to support growing settlements.

    The rest, including the Huang He or Yellow River; the Indus; the Amu Darya; the Ganges and Salween, have on average just 2.5 per cent of their basins protected.

  • Climate change as a result of the burning of oil, coal and other fossil fuels is likely to aggravate water problems.

  • Studies, carried out by UNEP, ICIMOD and others, have pin pointed some 50 lakes that have formed in Nepal and Bhutan in recent years as aresult of melting glaciers.These lakes, held back by soil and stones, could burst their banks sending torrential floods down valleys threatening villages and homes.

    Shrinking glaciers

  • New calculations indicate that China's highland glaciers are shrinking by an amount equivalent to all the water in the Yellow River each year. The Chinese Academy of Science says seven per cent of the country's glaciers are vanishing annually and that, by 2050, as many as 64 per cent of China's glaciers will havedisappeared.

    An estimated 300 million Chinese live in the country's arid west and depend on water from glaciers for their survival.

  • Up to half of the Asia's mountainregion is affected by infrastructure development and that, by 2030, this could rise to over 70 per cent if trends continue unchecked.

    It claims that the biggest impacts will be on river catchments and wildlife along the Karakoram highway, Pakistan, the Indian and southern side of the Himalayas and in south-eastern Tibet and the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of south western China. A huge problem is also overgrazing along road corridors in dry regions of Pakistan and China, that results in erosion,land-slides and dust storms.

  • All countries in the region are likely to see a decline in the abundance of wildlife over the next three decades on current trends. Lowland areas may see a decline of up to 80 per cent in their historic abundance of wildlife, decline depending on the measures taken to steer development in more environment-friendly ways.

    Mountain and upland areas could witness a 20 per cent to 40 per cent decline. There is particular concern for the remaining fragile populations of species like the snow leopard, the Black necked crane and Przewalski's gazelle.

    Surendra Shrestha, Director of UNEP's Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, said: "Most serious is the situation in parts of Pakistan,Northern India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and South-East Asia" Here human population pressures and piecemeal development for logging and other uses can have great impacts on biodiversity and water sheds, he said.

    Related links:Read the PDF report: The Fall of Water: Emerging threats to the water resources and biodiversity at the roof of the worldGLOBIOGlobal Methodology for Mapping Human Impacts on the Biosphere UNEP/GRID - ArendalGraphics, maps and photos of the reportIUCNThe World Conservation Union ICIMODInternational Centre for Integrated Mountain Development