Kathmandu: Diplomatic Waters

Dispatches / by Gaia Vince /

Reporting from the developing world, traveling science writer Gaia Vince relays her first dispatch from the meltwaters of the Himalaya.

Hindu Kush-Himalayan region river basins. Credit: ICIMOD

Swerving past stray cows, improbably laden motorbikes, and boys out goat walking, the taxi ride through central Kathmandu was not for someone who had so recently finished their breakfast. The driver, obviously heeding an appointment more urgent than mine, and with an expression of committed intent, horn-blasted his way through clouds of fumes and dust to the outskirts of the city. I clung to the back of his seat and re-swallowed my breakfast.

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is a few miles from downtown Kathmandu and a world away from its chaotic fracas. The villa-style building in a valley of rice paddies exudes a calm that belies the often antagonistic relations of its member countries. ICIMOD is an initiative of the United Nations Environment Programme and the eight nations of the Hindu-Kush: Nepal, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Burma, and Bangladesh.

More than 1.3 billion people and their economies depend on ten large rivers  — including the Indus, Ganges, Irrawaddy, Yellow, Mekong, and Brahmaputra — that originate in the Himalayas. As climate change forces the mountain glaciers into retreat and effects frequency of precipitation, the rivers, and those living along them are vulnerable to reduced water flow. The impact could be felt far away from these mountain regions. Businesses in this  — one of the more water-poor regions of the world  — are actually exporting “virtual water” in the form of thirsty crops like cotton to places like Britain, which receives plentiful rainfall. “If you walk into any shop in the West, you’ll find that most T-shirts are made in China. Rice will come from India or Bangladesh,” ICIMOD specialist Mats Eriksson explains.

The 150-strong ICIMOD workforce is on the frontline between researchers and policymakers, tasked with treading the path between unwelcome climate-model predictions and their implications for the region’s water, energy, and agriculture management. But solving upstream-downstream conflict between countries is daunting, particularly given the problem of inadequate data on river volume and flow. 

Another issue for ICIMOD is glacial outburst floods. As glaciers melt they form vast lakes that are hemmed in by the moraine of loose rocks and debris left by the retreating glacier. Warming from climate change is increasing the number and size of these lakes and when these moraines give way, the resultant outburst washes away entire towns. “Almost the only monitoring we have on these lakes comes from remote satellites, and it contains very little information,” says Andreas Schild, the Swiss-born director of ICIMOD. “We need in-situ measurements using a common methodology, and that has to be done by the region’s governments.”

Collecting comparable data on glacial volume and melt and gauging the extent of river-flow dependence on glaciers and precipitation has been complicated by years of political unrest in Nepal, which has left the government unable to invest in these kinds of projects. And then there’s the daunting geography: Many of the glaciers are in remote and difficult-to-reach places at frightening altitudes. “The regional governments are distrustful about sharing what little data they have,” Eriksson says. “For instance, India’s individual states won’t share river-flow data with each other, let alone us.”
The same reluctance to solve river disputes was common between European nations along the Rhine a hundred years ago. But the success of long-standing commitments such as the Rhine Commission—in which countries along the river agree to share its resources  — and the Nile Basin Initiative in Africa, prove that rivers do not have to be a source of conflict, Eriksson says. ICIMOD is trying to set up a similar water-sharing protocol between its Asian member states so that a shared river can be tapped for hydropower or for agriculture and any country through which the river flows can split these energy or food resources regardless of whether power stations or crops lie within its boundaries.

Eriksson’s plea for greater cooperation among the governments of the world’s tallest mountain region comes at a time when 27 European Union member countries are agreeing to slash their carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020. In the taxi ride back to the turmoil of Kathmandu, I think back to Eriksson’s 100-year comparison between the Hindu-Kush nations and Europe, and I realize that none of us can wait a century for a regional agreement on water sharing.

Originally published December 26, 2008

Tags climate development globalization policy research water

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