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Securing the Third Pole: Glaciers, Snowpacks, and Water Vulnerability in High Asia

Join us for a discussion with USAID-funded researchers, international scientists, water program managers, and policymakers about the implications of changing snow and ice resources for water security in High Asia.

Date & Time

Dec. 12, 2018
2:00pm – 4:30pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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“For the longest time we thought that water was forever renewable and that it would always be there,” said Gloria Steele, Acting Assistant Administrator for Asia with USAID, at a recent Wilson Center event on water security in High Asia. “We now know that is not the case, and we need to protect it and manage it effectively.”

Known as the “Third Pole,” the Hindu-Kush-Himalaya, Pamir and Tien Shan mountain ranges of High Asia are home to the snow and ice headwaters of Asia’s most important rivers. Policy makers have a growing interest in this region as its economic development is intertwined with its water security, said Muthukumara Mani, Lead Economist for the South Asia Region at the World Bank.

The USAID-funded Contribution to High Asia Runoff from Ice and Snow (CHARIS) project has improved our understanding of this region’s hydrology. “The CHARIS project has provided us with a very good starting point for understanding the role of glaciers and seasonal snowfall in feeding Asia’s major rivers,” Steele said, noting that we can now more accurately forecast the future availability of water resources. Through substantial funding, training, and capacity building, CHARIS has also helped lay the foundation for a locally owned, regional approach involving eight countries to protect Asia’s high mountain water resources for all those who depend on them, said Steele.

Major Research Findings

This six-year project conducted research on nearly three million square kilometers of territory in High Asia’s glacier-covered peaks. The study shed light on snow and ice melt patterns, which play a key role in providing water for downstream irrigation, hydropower, and general consumption in the Syr Darya, Amu Darya, Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra river basins, said Richard Armstrong, Associate Director of Cryospheric and Polar Processes Division at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.

The study found that the Syr Darya, Amu Darya, Indus, and Brahmaputra basins depend on snow melt for their annual average flows. Glacier melt becomes increasingly important for these rivers in the late summer. In contrast, the Ganges is fed year-round primarily by rainwater.

In the face of climate change, melting glaciers and changing precipitation patterns pose a threat to water security in these river basins. High Asia’s glaciers will see “significant mass loss” in Central Asia and more specifically in the eastern part of South Asia, where the highest mass losses occurred in the past, said Tobias Bolch, a Senior Scientist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Bolch predicts that between 80 and 90 percent of the glaciers in High Asia could be gone by the end of the century. One relatively immediate concern, created by melting glaciers, is the threat of glacial lake outburst floods, which can destroy everything in their path, including vulnerable mountain communities.

Glacial melt is not the only environmental change facing the region. As average temperatures rise across High Asia, total precipitation is also rising. In fact, rainfall is rising at a much faster rate than total precipitation, said Sarah Kapnick, Deputy Division Leader at NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. When rainfall replaces snowfall, water management becomes complicated as long-term storage needs are no longer met by gradual snow melt.  Increasing risk of hazardous events including floods and landslides also become a challenge to manage. As a result, water stress is expected to increase in the western river basins when highland snow and ice melt, which naturally regulates water flow year-round, is replaced by intermittent supplies of rain water.  

Local Capacity Building

The CHARIS project’s work has strengthened regional capacity for building on this research by providing funding for equipment and training for students and researchers, said Rijan Kayastha, Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Engineering at Kathmandu University, and Adina Racoviteanu, Research Fellow at Aberystwyth University. For USAID, “this capacity building, and the ability to leave behind, in research institutions, the tools that they need to continue the work without us is one of the flagstones on the path to self-reliance,” said Mary Melnyk, Environmental Security and Resilience Team Leader for USAID’s Asia Bureau.

Policy Perspectives

The CHARIS project is already informing the design of new tools for decision makers. Richard Armstrong’s team at the University of Colorado and the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory have developed both snow-covered area and snow volume products for the Department of Defense, said Eli Deeb, Lead Physical Scientist of the snow program at the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory.

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“It’s really important to think about science and how it supports policymaking, especially in a region like the one CHARIS has been working [in],” where you have a very dynamic environment, where there is a great deal of uncertainty about the future environment, and where the risks are very high and very real, said Ari Nathan, Deputy Director of the Office of Conservation and Water at the State Department. 

Melnyk and Nathan noted that water security is fundamental to a country’s development. Some countries CHARIS is working with are at risk of increasing fragility or even potential failure if they can’t find a way to ensure their people get the water they need, when they need it, and where they need it, said Nathan. “Right now, as glaciers are declining, there’s an increase in runoff to the rivers. Yet, where is that tipping point when we need to be concerned about perhaps building the reservoirs or dams to preserve agriculture and water flows in the spring and summer, when crops need it most?” said Melnyk.

In order to address these issues, it will be important to be willing to be adaptable and to avoid getting locked into development pathways that could prejudice future policies, programs, and institutions, said Nathan. “What we have seen and heard today is that we are going to have changing conditions, and so we’re going to need to be able to have institutions and mechanisms and infrastructure that can adapt to those changing conditions.”

Written by Truett Sparkman

Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Global Risk and Resilience Program

The Global Risk and Resilience Program (GRRP) seeks to support the development of inclusive, resilient networks in local communities facing global change. By providing a platform for sharing lessons, mapping knowledge, and linking people and ideas, GRRP and its affiliated programs empower policymakers, practitioners, and community members to participate in the global dialogue on sustainability and resilience. Empowered communities are better able to develop flexible, diverse, and equitable networks of resilience that can improve their health, preserve their natural resources, and build peace between people in a changing world.  Read more

Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

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