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Melting Glaciers Pose Serious Threat to Human Lives - 2002-05-31


The Himalayas are where the earth meets the sky. This majestic mountain range in the heart of south Asia is crowned with snowcapped peaks and draped with vast glaciers. Mountaineers, trekkers and pilgrims have come here to witness the challenge, the beauty and the power of nature.

But the pristine Himalayan range which includes Mt. Everest, the world's tallest peak is threatened.

In connection with the United Nations Year of the Mountain and World Environment Day on June 5, a new report offers disturbing evidence that human activities are partially responsible for warming temperatures that have been melting glaciers and increasing the number of glacier lakes in the Himalayas.

The changes are posing a new threat to human lives, the local economy and the environment

A team of veteran mountain climbers from England, New Zealand and Chile has just returned from an environmental fact-finding mission in the Himalayas. They collected first hand accounts from monks, local people and other travelers on the state of the world's most famous mountain range. What they found confirms a new report that says that in the Himalayan countries of Nepal and Bhutan, warming temperatures are melting glaciers and creating lakes that could overflow and flood wide areas. Temperatures in the region have risen one degree Celsius over the last thirty years.

The United Nations Environment Program produced the report with the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, based in Nepal. Suendra Shrestha is regional coordinator in Asia for the United Nations Environment Program. He said glacier melt poses a serious threat to human lives, economic assets and the environment.

"These lakes grow to a size and then the moraine brakes and this mass volume of water, [on] average comes down 4,000 plus meters. As it comes down it picks up speed and debris and it cuts everything in its path to the sea. We are looking at infrastructure, at population. If we look down from Bhutan, Nepal we go to densely populated areas and also large infrastructure like roads, towns, hydro power dams and so on," he said.

Satellite mapping and other surveys indicate that the glaciers are retreating at a rate of 30 to 40 meters a year.

The study identifies 2,323 glacier lakes in Nepal and 2,674 glacier lakes in Bhutan. Researchers estimate that 20 lakes in Nepal and 24 in Bhutan are likely to burst within five to 10 years.

Suendra Shrestha said the information can help mitigate disaster and even turn a potential crisis into an economic asset.

Suendra Shrestha: "It is possible to drain the lakes before they burst and use that water for small micro-hydro energy. [You could] use that energy for the villages around to go from one crop to high valued crops like fruits and vegetables. And in the evening or in the night (you could) use (the energy) for heating and lighting and have less of an impact on deforestation."

Skirble: "So, what you are saying is that you can forecast such events?"

Suendra Shrestha: "Yes, we can see the growth, how fast it is growing, and we know how much it can hold. So before it actually burst its banks we can not stop the glaciers retreating or melting, but we can see the lakes growing and utilize for hydro power and energy."

Mr. Shrestha is encouraged by the initial response to the study.

"[Since] the release of the report, all of the governments in the Himalayan region have expressed a strong interest to participate in a regional effort. We've also had good feedback from the donor community to support the study and mitigation measures," he said. But Suendra Shrestha believes that much more aid is needed. The United Nations official said glacier melt in the Himalayas - one of the world's largest fresh water reserves is a wakeup call for governments around the world to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. He said the United Nations Environment Program hopes to expand the study to other countries in Asia.

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