Climate Change · Floods · Hydropower

Climate Change & Himalayan Glaciers: A News Round up

This year has witnessed erratic rainfall, increased snowfall, rising sea levels and other extreme weather conditions and the situation is not likely to improve in the coming months. Recent assessments have declared that this is the result of climate change, which we so conveniently blame for every untoward weather condition without properly addressing our own role in bringing it about or perhaps minimizing its effects. The climate is changing and the urgency to address this now is more than ever. Climate change acts as a catalyst and multiplies the threat we already face from certain environmental circumstances. The effects of climate change are being felt worldwide and global urgency is being expressed through various seminars and assessments being carried out by different international bodies like the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Scientists have warned that extreme weather events will increase in intensity if climate change goes unchecked. Unchecked climatic change is also responsible for loss of life and property. According to the World Bank Report ‘Building Resilience: Integrating Climate and Disaster Risk into Development’, “from 1980 to 2012, disaster-related losses amounted to US$3,800 billion worldwide. Some 87% of these reported disasters (18,200 events), 74% of losses (US$2,800 billion) and 61% of lives lost (1.4 million in total) were caused by weather extremes (Munich Re 2013)[i].”


Image showing the retreat of the Gangotri glacier (

These weather extremes can cause and are in turn caused by changes in various water resources such as seas, lakes, rivers and glaciers. The Himalayas, spreading across over 2500 kms are the source of various life giving rivers in India and other parts of South Asia. The Ganga, Brahmaputra and the Indus, among the most important rivers for the South Asian region, originate in the Himalayan glaciers. The Himalayas have the highest concentration of glaciers outside the polar caps. These glaciers are natural stores and regulators of water in these rivers, which in turn support needs and livelihoods of millions of people, provide water for irrigation, domestic consumption and energy generation. Climate change is likely to result in smaller glaciers and less melt water. For rivers like the Indus, which gets almost half of its water from the melting of glaciers, this can lead to the endangering of the livelihood of millions of people living in low lying areas.

Rapid retreat of Himalayan Glaciers as compared to global averages Courtesy ICIMOD
Rapid retreat of Himalayan Glaciers as compared to global averages Courtesy ICIMOD

Even though such fears are being expressed by various groups of people, studies done by the ICIMOD in collaboration with Netherlands’ Utrecht University and research organization FutureWater, observe that the water levels in the Indus, Ganga and the Brahmaputra are likely to increase at least until 2050[ii]. This, they say, is due to an increase in melt-water in the Indus and an increase in precipitation in the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. But these projections, as even the scientists acknowledge, do not say anything about the future of these rivers. With retreating glaciers, what will the fate of rivers like the Indus be, which depend largely on melt-water, is still to be ascertained.

Soaring temperatures, melting glaciers A study prepared by the Uttarakhand government has predicted that the mean annual temperature (MAT) in the Himalayan region is likely to rise by up to 2 degree centigrade by 2030. It has also predicted a rise of 5-13% in rainfall in the next 2 decades. This was disclosed in the Rajya Sabha on 5th of August, 2013 by the then Science and Technology minister, S Jaipal Reddy[iii].

According to a report presented in the Second India Water Forum in 2013, melting of glaciers will lead to a reduction in the critical water supplies for the people of the Himalayas. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) predicted that Himalayan water flow from the glaciers to the basin would reduce by about 25-50% by the end of this century[iv]. The significant effects of this will be seen in the upper reaches. Taking the case of Ganga, it is seen that though its snow and ice melts contributes only about 1-5% of the water in the Ganga and its tributaries, this is only an annual averageiv. The percentage of melt water becomes higher in the months of March, April and May. This then becomes a very crucial amount of water in the rivers in those summer months where it cannot be recharged through rain.

This is also very important for the hydro projects downstream. Seasonal melt-water serves as the main source of power for an increasing number of hydroelectric dams on the rivers served by the glaciers. The amount of electricity generated depends on the amount of water flow in the river. Thus with changing river patterns in South Asia, the hydropower production will be disrupted. A 1% reduction in stream flow can reduce electricity output by roughly 3%[v]. The unreliable and potentially decreasing flow of water implies that whole hydropower development plans need a comprehensive rethink, also considering the increaed threat of flashfloods and related disasters in changing climate.

Another report by the ICIMOD has found that glacier runoff contributes majorly to river flow for about 2-4 months, mainly from early/mid-summer, till late summer/early fall and reaches its maximum in the Northern hemisphere in July-August. The total mass of the glaciers is much more than what is recharged every year, thus leading to smooth inter-annual flow variability and thus reducing risks of the late summer droughts in hot and dry summers. Climate Change, however, may lead to consistent mass loss in glaciers, hence reducing their inter-annual storage capacity[vi].

The report further reads:

The withdrawal of glaciers and seasonal snow covers as the transient storages for precipitation in certain areas implies first and foremost the loss of flow regulation capacity in basin’s headwaters… Combined effect of the reduction of glacier area and seasonal snow extent on the seasonality of flow from the alpine catchments will be characterized by an increase of the magnitude of the short-term flow variability, in particular, an increase of autumn and winter flow, shift of late spring-early summer peak to earlier dates and possible decrease of mid-late summer flow (assuming no changes in precipitation). Hydrological regimes will be gradually changing from glacio-nival to fluvial, i.e., dependent primarily on rainfall… The glacier runoff simulation results suggest that relative shares of renewable and nonrenewable components in total glacier runoff have undergone a remarkable change: the nonrenewable component increased from 16-30% of total glacier runoff in 1961-1990 to 26-46% in 2001-2010 in all the study basins. However, the increase of non-renewable runoff in none of the basins has been large enough to overweigh the decrease of the renewable component of glacier runoff due to overall reduction of the glacier-covered area.[vii]

According to another study co-authored by Anil Kulkarni, visiting scientist at the Divecha Centre for Climatic Change, entitled, The state and fate of Himalayan glaciers, the rate of loss of glacial mass in the Himalayan and Karakoram (H-K) region, has increased after roughly 1995. Rough estimates suggest that glaciers in the Indian Himalaya are losing mass at the rate of 16 Billion T per year[viii]. The loss in mass for many small glaciers located in low altitude range could be larger than the average suggests, being as high as 1 m per year. This is substantial loss considering mean depth of small glaciers could be between 30 and 50 mviii.  These small glaciers and ice fields are important source of water for many mountain communities. This source of water is and could be significantly influenced in near future and could affect sustainability of many mountain communities. There is today neither a mapping of such vulnerable communities, nor any plans to compensate them for the losses they are suffering and will suffer for no fault of theirs.

This loss of mass, especially if it comprises of non-renewable runoff, can also lead to further complications. According to geophysicist and seismologist, Geological Survey of India, Mr. O.P. Mishra, melting of glaciers due to increasing temperatures and high rainfall also add to the already existing complex of factors influencing earthquake activity in the Himalayan region[ix]. According to him, the ice sheet melting leads to the loosening of the litho static pressure (vertical pressure on the underlying crust)ix. As a glacier retreats and its weight eases, the earth could show a tendency to bounce back up in the form of a moderate or even a strong earthquake. According to him, there is a strong correlation between the retreat of ice sheets and increased seismic activityix. This increase in seismic activity can also lead to further melting of glaciers and a change in their behavior as it has the capacity to alter the axis of rotation, which can then lead to changes in surrounding areas.

According to a study conducted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the glaciers in the Tibetan plateau, which form the source of vital rivers such as the Brahmaputra, have shrunk by about 15%, which would mean about 8,000 square kms since 1980[x].

Retreating glaciers in Tibet Photo:
Retreating glaciers in Tibet Photo:

They also found that the perennial frozen earth in the plateau had decreased by 16% over the past 30 yearsviii. This does not present a favourable scenario for water security in the region and downstream areas of the Brahmaputra. According to scientists, this glacial retreat has accelerated since the 1990s and is making the plateau more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This again means the plans for hydropower projects in North East India will need a review, but unfortunately, the Environmental and Social Impact Assessments of these projects are not even considering these factors and the MoEFCC’s (Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change) Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley Projects is not even taking these into consideration while appraising these projects in spite of repeated submissions on this by SANDRP.


Above: The scale of glacial melting on the west Rongbuk Glacier located in Southern Tibet,between 1921 and 2008. Photo by: RGS and David Breashears. (

The situation is similar in the case of the Gangotri glacier. Scientists at the GB Pant University of Himalayan Environment and Development have observed that the gangotri glacier is reducing in volume and size. The glacier is 30.2 km long and is the origin of the Bhagirathi, one of the main tributaries of the Ganga. This has retreated more than 1500 metres in the last 70 years. According to researchers, from the year 2000 onwards, the average rate of retreat of the glacier per year has been about 12-13 metres[xi].

Even while this is happening, there have not been any efforts to sensitize the scores of pilgrims who flock to Gangotri every year towards the condition the glacier is in, and how they can help in not letting it deteriorate further or at least in slowing down the process. They need to be made aware of the danger that the environment is faced with and should be encouraged to take steps towards its conservation. The state and union government also needs to ensure that local projects do not lead to worsening the situation. It is also the responsibility of the local people of the area to conserve what is important for them. They have to come out and take responsible action to ensure that they have a say in the plans made for their area.

Pilgrims at Gomukh, snout of Gangotri Glacier Photo from :
Pilgrims at Gomukh, snout of Gangotri Glacier Photo from :

The impact of glacier melting is felt in the upper reaches of the river and also in low-lying areas. For example, the Tawi river in Jammu has become shallow over time so much so that one does not need a boat to cross it anymore at certain locations and certain times. According to the retired director of operations M.M. Munshi, Geological Survey of India, “the glaciers and barrier lakes in the Jujdhar and Seojdhar ranges, which contribute a larger share of water to Tawi, have almost disappeared… water flow in all the rivers is declining… the perpetual snow line in Jammu and Kashmir has gone up to 16,000 feet from 13,000 feet in the last hundred years”[xii]. Such changes affect those who mainly rely on water for their livelihoods, i.e., farmers as also ground water recharge. It is not only the unavailability of water, but also the floods caused due to untimely or heavy rains. In such situations, which are recorded to be increasingly occurring in this region, people have to suffer the loss of land, livestock and thus even livelihood.

Such floods in the upper reaches by the headwaters can also be caused due to the flooding/breaking of glacial lakes. These glacial lakes can either already exist or even get formed in case the precipitation and/or glaciers melt increases. Global warming is seen as one of the key causal factors in their formation. According to recent reports, melting of glaciers is leading to the formation of small lakes in the high reaches of Himachal Pradesh. These lakes pose danger to the villages downstream. Out of the 249 glacial lakes in Himachal, 11 have been identified as having high potential for breach. Glaciers and ice-bodies cover a total of 2472.49 sq km (4.44%) of the total area of 55673 sq km in the state[xiii]. This is made worse by the uncertainty of rainfall and increasing frequency of higher intensity rainfall.

These kind of glacial lakes are forming in many areas in the Himalayas. Such lakes can also have loose moraines with them, which pose a greater threat to downstream areas as there could be a sudden breach of the moraine dams leading to flooding. One of the ways to prevent excessive harm to the people is if the rate of glacier melting can be studied with some degree of attentiveness, then alarm systems can be installed in areas downstream to warn the people in case of a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF).

Rapidly increasing frequency of flash floods and GLOFs in Hindukush Himalayas Courtesy: ICIMOD
Rapidly increasing frequency of flash floods and GLOFs in Hindukush Himalayas Courtesy: ICIMOD



Above: People in Halji Village, NW Nepal, watch as a GLOF destroys their fields. (

The monsoon is likely to become even more unpredictable in the coming years. Thus the threat to our environment from climate change is on the rise and it increases every day that we choose to ignore it. The government had set up the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) in 2008 which was intended to serve as a road map on how India plans to combat climate change. There are various missions under the NAPCC amongst which are the National Water Mission and the National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem, which has been constituted primarily to understand to what extent the glaciers are retreating and how the problem can be addressed. The government plans to review all the missions in 2017. However, as SANDRP publication “Review of NAPCC: There is little Hope here” showed, both content and process of formulation of the NAPCC had nothing to be hoped for particularly as far as vulnerable communities were concerned. A more detailed review of the National Water Mission in SANDRP’s 2012 publication “Water Sector Options for India in a Changing Climate” showed, the process, content and implementation of the National Water Mission is not going to bring any help to sustainable water resources development or to the vulnerable sections.

We have seen various so-called natural disasters happen since 2008, a very significant one of which was the Uttarakhand flood disaster of June 2013. The Uttarakhand government, at the end of last year, proposed a Rs 9,000 crore action plan to minimize the effects of climate change. Under this plan, it had allocated Rs 108 crore to be spent on water resources, like the treatment of catchment areas and flood control, etc. These measures just show the desperation of the government to show that something is being done in the namesake, even though it is not based on any scientific studies or participatory process. It seems to be the same way in which the Disaster Management cell was set up in Uttarakhand to try and manage any disaster that might strike the region, the campus of which was affected in the 2013 floods. The affected people have still not received sufficient help from the government. Even the basic minimum facility like the road that leads into Uttarkashi has not been constructed. The local people have to cross tracts of dusty and congested roads to reach from one place to the other when it has been over a year since disaster struck the town.

What we need is for the community to be involved at every stage from planning, impact assessments, decision making, implementation, operation and maintenance process and awareness creation in the areas which are most vulnerable. The current top-down approach that pushes business as usual situation will clearly not help.

Padmakshi Badoni, SANDRP,

Standing Proud: Chewang Norphel from Ladkah who has been constructing small check dams and helping form artificial glaciers. Photo: climateheroes.oeg
Standing Proud: Chewang Norphel from Ladkah who has been constructing small check dams and helping form artificial glaciers. Photo: