"Glacier melt is part of larger hydrologic and climate systems, so effective programs will be cross-sectoral and yield co-benefits," said Elizabeth L. Malone, senior research scientist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, speaking at the Wilson Center on November 16. "Looking more closely at glacier melt, we come to understand that upstream actions and choices have a potentially huge effect on downstream communities," added Kristina Yarrow, health advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development's Asia and Middle East Bureaus.
Malone and Yarrow were joined by Mary Melnyk, senior advisor for natural resource management at USAID's Asia and Middle East Bureaus, to discuss the agency's new report, "Changing Glaciers and Hydrology in Asia: Addressing Vulnerabilities to Glacier Melt Impacts," prepared by Malone in collaboration with CDM International and TRG. "This report is a move towards mainstreaming climate change across the development portfolio to ensure enduring success of our investments," Melnyk said.
Mainstreaming Climate Change
Providing information about the science, vulnerabilities, and current efforts to respond to environmental change and glacier melt in Asia, the new report also features a number of practical, cross-sectoral approaches to addressing glacial retreat in Asia that, if implemented well, could produce multiple benefits. The report highlights the complexity of the issues surrounding glacier melt in the region, and the critical need to prepare today for future environmental changes.
"Climate change in general, and glacier melt specifically, can potentially impact all sectors: economic growth, governance, and health," Melnyk said. Because there is a lack of scientific knowledge on glacial retreat in Asia and limited financial and human resources to address these issues, it is critical to maximize results through programs that will provide environmental, health, and development co-benefits.
"The challenge is that, in practice, addressing issues of climate change and other environmental security issues still are not a part of the day-to-day business across sectors," Melnyk said. This report is a first step in the right direction to raise awareness and action on these issues and "although there is uncertainty, we need to move forward – the time to act is now," she concluded.
Multiple Sectors, Multiple Benefits
"Cross-sector collaboration and programs, when done correctly, can have a much greater impact than when doing a vertical program within a specific sector," Yarrow said, stressing the importance of multidisciplinary approaches to address environment, health, and development issues. Understanding the health impacts of climate-related environmental change now can help prepare us to address these specific impacts in the future.
"On a global scale, there is indeed a relationship between population growth, environmental change, and development," Yarrow said. In Asia, stress on water resources due to climate change and rapid population growth will likely exacerbate health problems caused by lack of clean water. Proactively expanding and improving programs that address the causes and effects of diarrheal disease and under-nutrition can help address these vulnerabilities and make communities more resilient.
"Finding innovative ways to improve access to and integrate family planning messages and services into climate adaptation programs will also yield some important co-benefits," Yarrow said. Family planning can slow population growth, which could help reduce projected demand for water supplies, as well as potentially reduce the amount of water pollution.
Yarrow also added that "population growth affects glacier melt indirectly through the consumption of resources that exacerbate black carbon." Black carbon, which is produced by cooking and heating with biomass fuels, contributes to regional climate change and severe health problems, including respiratory illness and pneumonia. Accompanied by efforts to promote alternative fuels, family planning could reduce black-carbon emissions, significantly improve health, and strengthen community resilience to climate change.
"Though challenging, integrating across sectors is absolutely essential – we're not experts yet, but we're definitely getting better," Yarrow said. "Understanding and addressing the multiple issues like climate change, poor health, poverty, dependence on natural resources, and governance challenges that these communities are dealing with in a comprehensive and holistic fashion will improve results."
Responding to Glacier Melt
"We simply do not have the kind of broad-scale knowledge that we would like to have," Malone said. Current data on glacier melt is scarce and very few direct measurements of glacier volume exist, making calculations of glacier retreat difficult. Moving forward, it is critical to respond to this lack of information by improving regional scientific cooperation on glaciers, snowpack, and water resources in High Asia, and strengthening climate and water monitoring capacity.
"Even the smallest amounts of glacier-melt contribution correspond to the regions of the highest population, so any change in water supply has large implications," Malone said. Glaciers may not be disappearing as fast as had been previously thought, but "climate change is happening in the Himalayas and is having an effect."
"If systems – both human and ecological – are already stressed, they are less able to be resilient in the face of changes. But the good news is that we can take actions now that will be crucially important to how societies can respond in the future," Malone said.
Implementing cross-sector projects can help to target places where environmental, economic, health, and even security issues overlap. Focusing on water resource management, ecosystems, and the needs of high-mountain communities, as well as mitigating climate change by reducing emissions of black carbon, can help reduce both direct and indirect vulnerabilities and improve resilience to future changes.
"The results of this report allow USAID and others to grasp the complexity of these issues, understand the critical gaps, and to respond to the changes in the glaciers to come," Melnyk said. The next step is applying the knowledge gathered in the report to practitioners in the field and in policy discussions.
"A crucial role USAID can play is to link partners in the government and private sectors to build capacity and spark synergies among new initiatives to really integrate new initiatives with concerns about glacier melt," Malone concluded.
Drafted by Ramona Godbole and edited by Schuyler Null and Meaghan Parker.