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Himalayan glaciers are melting quickly. When they’re gone, Asia could be in serious trouble.
Ice on the Zanskari River provides the locals' only access to the outside world (Photo by Kodda / © iStockphoto.com)
Without ice, the Zanskaris would be isolated into oblivion.
The yak herders and barley farmers of this former Buddhist kingdom of about 10,000 souls live along the Zanskar River, in India’s high Himalayan mountains. The Zanskar flows down from the glacier fields, past their villages and then cuts a 40 mile-long incision, sometimes only a few shoulders wide, between 20,000-foot mountains before spilling into the Indus. The whitewater is too dangerous to risk by raft, but during January and February, the river freezes solid enough to travel on — the only route out of their homeland. They call the path the Chadar, meaning “the frozen one.”
For centuries, Zanskaris have endured the four-day hike on the ice between the mountain walls to reach Leh, the neighboring city. Without it, the ill cannot reach hospitals; pilgrims cannot reach monasteries; parents cannot visit children at school; and traders cannot buy and sell goods at the market.
Walking the Chadar has always been a hazardous journey. The gorge is prone to avalanches and, like a moving jigsaw puzzle, the ice floe shifts and cracks. But in recent years, the path has simply disappeared. As temperatures in the Himalayas rise at rate of 0.6 degrees Celsius per decade — an average ten times faster than the rest of the planet according to The International Center for Integrated Mountain Development — temperatures around the river have crept above the freezing line.
Two years ago, a 26-year-old porter named Joldin fell through ice, the first drowning in memory. His body wasn’t found until the spring thaw. According to Paljore Khangchang, a Chadar guide, “When I first started trekking the Chadar 12 years ago, the ice was nine or 10 layers deep. You’d fall through one or two layers and there’d still be ice beneath. These days, two, three layers maximum.”
The Zanskaris’ predicament is an acute one, but ice is important to many people who live far from the Himalayan highlands, even those who live thousands of miles away in countries so hot that glaciers are hard to imagine.
Some 1.3 billion people across six different countries — China, India, Bhutan, Pakistan, Nepal and Afghanistan — depend on the Himalayan water. Ten major rivers stream from its glaciers including four of Asia’s mightiest: the Indus, Ganges, Yang Tse and Mekong. In addition to numerous big cities, the world’s largest rice suppliers depend on this water.
When it comes to climate change, scientists use ice as their barometer. Rapidly retreating glaciers, ranging from the South Pole to Alaska, have signaled worldwide warming.
Climatologists and policymakers have called for more research in the Himalayas in order to more fully model the micro-climates in its jagged terrain, but evidence of a bleak future is mounting. Himalayan ice already contributes up to 70 percent of downstream water during the dry season. A United Nations study predicts that the water flow will increase until 2050, when the glaciers run out. The study anticipates that crop yields across Himalayan states will then drop by as much as 30 percent. The loss of sustenance could devastate countries such as India and China whose populations are already overwhelming their resources.
In the last 40 years, the Tibetan Plateau alone has already shed a volume of ice the size of Delaware. Satellite images show that glaciers across India have shrunk by more than 20 percent. Even in Zanskar, where the evidence is anecdotal, Drang-Drung, the largest glacier in the region and the source of the Zanskar River, has been shrinking. “It’s sad to see all these things,” said Gyalses Namgyal-Ldey, the elderly king of the former Zanskar kingdom. “When I was young, I would climb onto the tallest guy’s shoulders to cross Drang-Drung. The glacier was so high up when we were young. Now it’s low and far away.”
Glaciers rely on snowfall and precipitation to restore their volume. But climate patterns that ordinarily follow a stable monsoon cycle have become chaotic. This year’s paltry monsoon saddled Nepal and India with one of the worst droughts on record. As if to highlight the climatic chaos, the shortage comes on the heels of a flood in 2007 that killed 2,000 people and displaced 2.5 million in Northern India.
“Farmers are complaining they don’t get as much snow anymore. Instead they get intense rainstorms. It’s frustrating. Instead of replenishing the dry earth, their topsoil is getting washed away,” said Mats Eriksson, a water specialist for ICIMOD.
The south Asian nations took their first step to combat the oncoming crisis this September, when Kathmandu hosted a regional conference in anticipation of the UN climate conference in Copenhagen this December. In a 10-point joint statement, the delegations agreed to tackle research and water management issues on a basin-wide scale.
China, however, declined to attend the meeting. There were early reports that the Indian delegation wouldn’t turn up either, but they did. Both countries have refused any caps that may stunt their rapid economic development. “More should have come out of this,” said Ugan Manandhar, World Wildlife Foundation head of Nepal’s Climate Change and Energy Unit. “The negotiations are not going to go forward without China and India at least committing something.”
Nonprofits like ICIMOD and WWF have turned to mountain villages like those in Zanskar for grassroots solutions to the global-scale problem. “There’s a lot of common sense with people who have been living in symbiosis with their environment for generations. They are capable of assessing what to do if they see their environment changing rapidly,” said Martin Beniston, a mountain climatologist who heads of climate research at University of Geneva.
In Zanskar, locals have temporarily stemmed their problem by drilling horizontal rebar poles into the side of the mountain walls in sections where the ice on the Chadar is prone to vanishing. Travelers, from children to grandmothers, climb on top of the bars to get across the melted ice. It’s a haphazard method of shoring up Zanskar’s winter path, while army road crews begin to lay a route on the side of the mountain walls above the river. The Indian government claims it will be finished in five years, but at its pace of half-a-mile a year, it’ll take another 80.
Editor's note: Reporting for this story was funded in part by a fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association.