Asia’s Looming Water Crisis

With historical animosities plaguing Indio-Pak and Indo-China relations, the politics of water have always been an issue in the countries surrounding the Himalayas, an important source of the region’s water. However, experts say with the glaciers there melting at a faster pace than ever, its not only the country’s economic growth trajectory that’s at risk of collapsing but also India’s most vulnerable who would suffer.

At an event at New York’s Asia Society titled “Asia’s Looming Water Crisis”, we spoke to experts on climate change, including Vijay Vaitheeswaran, Global Environment and Energy correspondent for ‘The Economist’, Bill McKibben, co-founder of the grassroots political movement around climate change,, and Syed Iqbal Hasnain, a glaciologist from India who serves on the government-established Glacier and Climate Change Commission.

The consensus among the experts is that there is not enough sharing of information among the Himalayan neighboring countries. “China is only sharing information regarding water flows during the monsoon season. But for effective water management, India needs information on their dry season, which is when there is a shortage of water”, says Hasnain. “As far as the true politics of the glaciers is concerned, Pakistan is saying that India is hoarding water. India has a problem with China constructing dams in the Bharamputra that will divert water supply away from India”, says Hasnain. “But China is denying that they are even building dams.”

Below are excerpts from an interview with the experts on climate change, impacts, and getting beyond the politics.

Q: How do we get beyond the politics to address the issues of climate change and its impacts?

Vijay Vaitheeswaran:
At the moment we don’t have enough international cooperation. For example, in the North Pole region, there is wonderful Artic Council which coordinates policies and science in that region. We don’t yet have that for the countries in the Himalayan region and I would advocate one.

Bill McKibben:
The only way it will be possible is to build a political movement. At that’s what we’ve begun to do. Last October we had 5200 demonstrations on the same day in 181 different countries as part of the climate change campaign. The campaign aims to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million which is the amount scientists say must not be exceeded to avoid runaway global warming. It was called ‘the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history’.

Syed Iqbal Hasnain:
My concern is instead of fighting on these issues, and not sharing the data, let’s share the benefits. For example, Pakistan can ask India for power from power projects in exchange for sharing water. There needs to be a council among these countries. Climate change can be an entry point for cooperation, an opportunity to come together.

Q: India’s government is setting forth polices to help curb emission, is it enough/why isn’t it enough?

Syed Iqbal Hasnain:
The government controls scientific research, which is under the control of the Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Environment & Forest. So all scientific decisions are government controlled and the Directors will tell you that they know that the glaciers are melting and they can’t do anything about it. And the Joint Secretary is an IAS officer and doesn’t understand science. But all over the world these types of institutes are under a university set up. India has 320 universities but none of these [government] institutes are under a university set up. Why not?

Bill McKibben:
To get off fossil fuel the key thing is to put a stiff price on carbon and let the markets go to work. What governments around the world need to do is muster the political will to put a price on carbon. That’s what we tried to do in Copenhagen and failed. That’s what we’re trying to do in the US congress right now and failing. That’s what we have to do. If we can’t do it, then it will be just window dressing – little projects and demonstrations and photo opportunities. We’ve got to bite the bullet and get serious and understand that continuing to pour carbon into the atmosphere is the greatest problem that humans have ever faced.

Q: Why is there a greater urgency for the world to address climate change now than ever before?

Bill McKibben:
So far human beings have raised the temperature of the planet about 1 degree globally. It doesn’t sound like much but it has been enough to cause enormous change. Just in the last few months we can see those changes. There’s been record downpour and flooding in country after country from China to the US to the Andes in South America. That’s because warm air holds more water vapor than cold air. So we get more evaporation and then more downpours.

Everything frozen on earth is melting and melting pretty fast. The Artic and the Himalayas being the most obvious examples. Our oceans are turning acid as the seawater absorbs carbon from the atmosphere. So now our oceans are about 30% more acid. Even broad temperatures are going up. It may seem that the temperature going up one degree isn’t a big deal. It turns out that it masks huge statistical swings. You can have many more intense heat waves and that’s what we’re seeing. That’s why both SE Asia and Asia proper have set all new all time high temperature records in the last 6 weeks. It reach 118 degrees fahrenheit (47.77 celcius) in Burma. And 129 degrees fahrenheit (53.88 celcius) in Pakistan which is the new all time highest temperature it’s ever been on the continent of Asia. That’s scary.

That’s with one degree globally averaged. Scientists are very clear that unless we quickly get off fossil fuels before the century is out that global temperatures will have reached 5 degrees. If one degree higher melts the artic and if one degree lets you go to 129 degrees in Pakistan, we do not want to find out what 5 degrees does cause it will be terrible.

Q: What can we do as individuals to help?

Syed Iqbal Hasnain:
Solar energy is a way. But solar panels in India cost Rs 20,000 and an electric water heater costs Rs 5,000. The Indian government has to put up a lot of money into encouraging solar research just as the US administration has done. In Delhi, you won’t see a solar panel on any building. In China, every 3rd building has big solar panels. China has built an expertise now. If India doesn’t do the same, all the economic growth we talk about – 8%, 9%, will collapse. Unlike China, our population is still growing fast so we have more challenges than China and have to focus more on green technologies.

Indian policy makers should understand the dynamics of climate change because in the next 50-60 years when there won’t be many glaciers left.

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