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Posts Tagged ‘Himalaya

India’s clumsy, insecure environment ministry hides mountain ecology report

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A 522-page report on the ecology of the Western Ghats and the threats to the biodiversity it harbours, a report that was months in the preparation and includes the outcomes of numerous consultations has been ‘released’ to the public by India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests. Not as a well-signposted link on the ministry website, no, that is far too direct and discomfiting for the secretive and conniving bureaucrats and their craven staff.

First there is a pdf document summarily inviting comments from the public on the report, the official title of which is the ‘Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel’ chaired by professor Madhav Gadgil. This pdf contains a link, not to the report, but to the disclaimer! This second pdf file has the text of the ‘disclaimer’ which is: “The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel report has not been formally accepted by the Ministry and that the report is still being analyzed and considered by the Ministry.” This second pdf then contains a link to the actual Report [pdf, 7.7mb]!

This is from the preface by Gadgil:

“The Western Ghats are naturally an important focus of sustainable development efforts. The protector of the Indian peninsula, the mother of the Godavari, Krishna, Netravathi, Kaveri, Kunthi, Vaigai and a myriad other rivers, Kalidasa likens the Western Ghats to a charming maiden; Agastyamalai is her head, Annamalai and Nilgiri the breasts, her hips the broad ranges of Kanara and Goa, her legs the northern Sahyadris. Once the lady was adorned by a sari of rich green hues; today her mantle lies in shreds and tatters. It has been torn asunder by the greed of the elite and gnawed at by the poor, striving to eke out a subsistence. This is a great tragedy, for this hill range is the backbone of the ecology and economy of south India.”

And this from the introduction:

A section from the map of ecologically sensitive zoning of the talukas of Karnataka

“Mountains also create isolated habitats far away from other similar habitats, promoting local speciation. Hence distinct species of the flowering plant Rhododendron and the mountain tahr goat Hemitragus occur on the higher reaches of the Western Ghats and Himalayas, with a large gap in the distribution of these genera in between. Moreover, mountains, being less hospitable to human occupation, retain much larger areas under natural or semi-natural biological communities.”

“This is why the Western Ghats and the Eastern Himalayas are today the most significant repositories of India’s biodiversity. Amongst them, the Western Ghats scores over the Eastern Himalayas in harbouring a larger number of species restricted to India alone. Not only are the Western Ghats and Eastern Himalayas biological treasure troves, they are also two of the world’s biodiversity hot spots, a hot spot being a biodiversity-rich area that is also under a high degree of threat.”

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The long orange line – India-Pakistan border from space

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This night-time view of the India-Pakistan border was photographed by an Expedition 28 crew member on the International Space Station. Clusters of yellow lights on the Indo-Gangetic Plain of northern India and northern Pakistan reveal numerous cities both large and small.

What the border looks like on the ground – near Jammu, India. Photo: BBC News

Of the many clusters of light, the largest are the metropolitan areas associated with the capital cities of Islamabad, Pakistan in the foreground and New Delhi, India at the top – for scale these metropolitan areas are approximately 700 kilometres apart. The lines of major highways connecting the larger cities also stand out – also visible are Lahore, Pakistan, which is close to the border, and Srinagar, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, India. More subtle but still visible at night are the general outlines of the towering and partly cloud-covered Himalayan ranges immediately to the north (left).

The full image from the ISS. Photo: NASA

[For other posts on Pakistan see Pakistan, India and people’s responsibility (new), Floods in Pakistan displace 5.4 million and Pakistan floods, six months later.] The striking feature of this photograph is the line of lights, with a distinctly more orange hue, snaking across the central part of the image. It appears to be more continuous and brighter than most highways in the view. This is the fenced and floodlit border zone between the countries of India and Pakistan. The fence is designed to discourage smuggling and arms trafficking between the two countries. A similar fenced zone separates India’s eastern border from Bangladesh.

NASA has said this image was taken with a 16-mm lens, which provides the wide field of view, as the space station was tracking towards the southeast across the subcontinent of India. [NASA ref: ISS028-E-029679 (21 Aug. 2011)]

Written by makanaka

September 9, 2011 at 11:34

By lanternlight in rural Asia

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The Shivalaya Bazaar, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India

One of the magazines of the CR Media group of Singapore interviewed me about energy needs in rural Asia. My responses to some thoughtful questions have been published, although I don’t have a link yet to any of the material online. Until then, here’s a selection of questions and replies.

Do you have a case study or know of an innovative instance when an Asian country has broken the mould successfully in generating energy for its citizens in a way that is remarkable?

When you travel in rural South Asia you see that in almost every unelectrified village there is a flourishing local trade in kerosene and kerosene lanterns for lighting, car batteries and battery-charging stations for small TV sets, dry cell batteries for radios, diesel fuel and diesel generator sets for shops and small businesses and appliances. It’s common to spot people carrying jerricans or bottles of kerosene from the local shop, or a battery strapped to the back of a bicycle, being taken to the nearest charging station several kilometres away. People want the benefits that electricity can bring and will go out of their way, and spend relatively large amounts of their income, to get it. That represents the opportunity of providing power for energy appliances at the household level (LED lamps, cookstoves, solar- and human-powered products) and of community-level power generation systems (village bio-gasification, solar and small-scale hydro and wind power).

Household income and electricity access in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

Household income and electricity access in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

In areas such as western China, the South American rainforest or the Himalayan foothills, the cost of a rural connection can be seven times that in the cities. Solar power has spread rapidly among off-grid communities in developing countries, only sometimes subsidised. A typical solar home system today in South Asia provides light, power for TVs, radios and CD players, and most important charges mobile phones. At US$ 400-500, such a system is not cheap for rural Asia, especially when households are struggling with rising food and transport costs. But targeted subsidies and cheap micro-credit has made this energy option more affordable.

How can Asian countries cooperate to bring a new energy reality into Asia and balance development with conservation?

Let’s see what some authoritative forecasts say. The Sustainable World Energy Outlook 2010 from Greenpeace makes projections of renewable energy generation capacity in 2020: India 146 GW, developing Asia 133 GW, China 456 GW. These are enormous quantities that are being forecast and illustrate what has begun to be called the continental shift eastwards of generation and power. India dwarfs developing Asia the way China dwarfs India – the conventional economies today reflect this difference in scale. It’s important to keep in mind, while talking about energy, that Asia’s committed investment and planned expansion is centred to a very great degree around fossil fuel.

Factory and high-tension power lines, Mumbai, India

Certainly there are models of regional cooperation in other areas from where lessons can be drawn, the Mekong basin water sharing is a prominent example. But cooperation in energy is a difficult matter as it is such an essential factor of national GDP, which has become the paramount indicator for East and South Asia. Conversely, it is because the renewables sector is still relatively so small in Asia that technical cooperation is flourishing – markets are distributed and small, technologies must be simple and low-cost to be attractive, and business margins are small, all of which encourage cooperation rather than competition.

What could be immediately done to help alleviate energy shortage in South Asia for the masses, at a low cost? Do you have a case study of this?

Let’s look at Husk Power Systems which uses biomass gasification technology to convert rice husk into gas. Burning this gas runs generators which produce relatively clean electricity at affordable rates. Rice husk is found throughout northern, central and southern India and is a plentiful fuel. While Husk Power says that the rice husk would otherwise be “left to rot in fields” that isn’t quite true, as crop biomass is used in many ways in rural South Asia, but the point here is that this entrepreneurial small company has successfully converted this into energy for use locally.

Household income and access to modern fuels in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

Household income and access to modern fuels in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

I think it’s important that access to energy be seen for its importance in achieving human development goals. Individuals in governments do see this as clearly as you and I, but disagreements over responsibility and zones of influence get in the way. Responsible private enterprise is one answer. If you look at micro-enterprise funders, like Acumen, they recognise that access to electricity is also about healthcare, water and housing, refrigerated vaccines, irrigation pumps and also lighting in homes so that children can study.

What issues (externalities etc) do Asian governments do not factor in when they go for new sources of energy?

The poverty factor has for years obscured many other considerations. Providing energy, infrastructure and jobs has been the focus of central and provincial governments, and in the process issues such as environmental degradation and social justice have often been overlooked. That has been the pattern behind investment in large, national centrally-funded and directed power generation plans and in many ways it continues to shape centralised approaches to renewable energy policy.

Developing Asia is still mired in the legacy bureaucracies that have dominated (and continue to) social sector programmes, which for decades have been the cornerstone of national ‘development’. Energy is still seen as a good to be allocated by the government, even if the government does not produce it. And it still takes precedence over other considerations – ecosystem health, sustainable natural resource management – because of this approach. If India has a huge programme to generate hydroelectricity from the rivers in the Himalaya, there is now ample evidence to show both the alterations to river ecosystems downstream and the drastic impacts of submergence of river valleys, let alone the enormous carbon footprint of constructing a dam and the associated hydropower systems. Yet this is seen as using a ‘renewable’ source of energy.

World on the Edge, writes Lester Brown, Earth Policy

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In his introduction to the upcoming title, Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute says that we are facing issues of near-overwhelming complexity and unprecedented urgency. “Our challenge is to think globally and develop policies to counteract environmental decline and economic collapse. The question is: Can we change direction before we go over the edge?”

The edge is what Pakistan and Russia did go over in 2010. In the summer of 2010 record-high temperatures hit Moscow and torrential rains caused immense devastation in Pakistan.

NASA Earth Observatory, Russia fires

NASA Earth Observatory, Russia fires

At first it was just another heat wave, says the first chapter of the book, but the scorching heat that started in late June continued through mid-August. Western Russia was so hot and dry in early August that 300 or 400 new fires were starting every day. Millions of acres of forest burned. So did thousands of homes. Crops withered. Day after day, Moscow was bathed in seemingly endless smoke. The elderly and those with impaired respiratory systems struggled to breathe. The death rate climbed as heat stress and smoke took their toll.

The average July temperature in Moscow was a scarcely believable 14 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm. Twice during the heat wave, the Moscow temperature exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit, a level Muscovites had never before experienced. Watching the heat wave play out over a seven-week period on the TV evening news, with the thousands of fires and the smoke everywhere, was like watching a horror film that had no end. Russia’s 140 million people were in shock, traumatized by what was happening to them and their country.

Mohammad Rezwan, 24, swims one hour every other day to get food from at a World Food Programme distribution in Kashmore, Pakistan. Photo: IRIN News

Mohammad Rezwan, 24, swims one hour every other day to get food from at a World Food Programme distribution in Kashmore, Pakistan. Photo: IRIN News

Even before the Russian heat wave ended, there were reports in late July of torrential rains in the mountains of northern Pakistan. The Indus River, the lifeline of Pakistan, and its tributaries were overflowing. Levees that had confined the river to a narrow channel so the fertile floodplains could be farmed had failed. Eventually the raging waters covered one fifth of the country. The destruction was everywhere. Some 2 million homes were damaged or destroyed. More than 20 million people were affected by the flooding. Nearly 2,000 Pakistanis died. Some 6 million acres of crops were damaged or destroyed. Over a million livestock drowned. Roads and bridges were washed away.

Although the flooding was blamed on the heavy rainfall, there were actually several trends converging to produce what was described as the largest natural disaster in Pakistan’s history. On May 26, 2010, the official temperature in Mohenjodaro in south-central Pakistan reached 128 degrees Fahrenheit, a record for Asia. Snow and glaciers in the western Himalayas, where the tributaries of the Indus River originate, were melting fast. As Pakistani glaciologist M. Iqbal Khan noted, the glacial melt was already swelling the flow of the Indus even before the rains came.

Great Game – the Karakoram Corridor

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The Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief provides more input to the new Great Game theme.Writing in the latest China Brief is Vijay Sakhuja who describes the Karakoram Highway and its importance to China.

In China’s quest to secure raw materials, resources and markets, writes Sakhuja, Beijing has laid out a sophisticated blueprint to develop a region-wide transit corridor throughout the subcontinent. In the Himalayas, it has built rail, road and air networks that can support the Chinese military’s logistic supply chains and showcase its capability to overcome the tyranny of geography.

The transportation network through the Karakoram mountain range is particularly noteworthy. Notably, the corridor provides Chinese access to Pakistan that can be extended in the future to provide connectivity to the Indian Ocean and to the energy rich Persian Gulf, particularly Iran. Furthermore, the modernization of the regional transit infrastructure will be conducive to stronger connectivity between South Asia and the Central Asian Republics, yet at the same time it will expose China’s borders to the region’s growing security challenges.

The 1,300 kilometer-Karakoram Highway (National Highway 35 or N35), also dubbed “Friendship Highway,” links Islamabad with Kashgar in Xinjiang. It is the highest metalled road in the world and it took nearly two decades to build. In 2006, Pakistan Highway Administration and China’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) agreed to widen the highway from 10 to 30 meters and upgrade it to make it accessible by motor vehicles during extreme weather conditions. China completed the widening of the highway on its side but Pakistan could not raise the funds, which delayed the project. As a result, China agreed to give Pakistan a soft loan for the project.

Main pier at Gwadar port. Satellite image from Google Earth

The joint China-Pakistan project to link Kashgar in Xinjiang to Havelian near Rawalpindi in Pakistan through the Khunjerab Pass in the Karakoram Range through a rail corridor is indeed ambitious. It has been noted that the rail track running nearly 700 kilometers “will transform the geopolitics of western China and the subcontinent”.

At the southern end of the Karakoram corridor is the Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea. The port offers several strategic advantages to China. In economic terms, it can potentially link Xinjiang to the global trading system through the Karakoram Highway.

Pakistan has urged China to use and “take maximum benefits from the Gwadar port”. The Gwadar port was built with Chinese financial assistance (80% of its initial US$248 million development costs) and was offered to the Ports of Singapore Authority (PSA) to conduct shipping operations in February 2007 for 40 years.

Deadly floods, torrential rain hammer Pakistan

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Children sit among the rubble of their house in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa

Children sit among the rubble of their house in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz

Torrential rain and floods in usually dry regions of South Asia are continuing to kill hundreds, maroon thousands and destroy the homes and livelihoods of many hundreds of thousands. The situation in northern Pakistan and adjoining Afghanistan is very serious.

The UN News wire has reported that with monsoon rains expected to continue pummeling Pakistan for several more weeks, the United Nations warned today that the country’s south could also be affected by deadly flooding, which has already affected millions of people. Martin Mogwanja, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Pakistan, told reporters that the devastation wrought by the current flooding is on par with that caused by the earthquake that struck the country in 2005.

Damage Overview of Flood-Affected Towns In Nowshera District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. This map presents the preliminary findings of a damage assessment over sixteen flood-affected towns and cities along the Kabul and Kalpani Rivers including the main city of Nowshera, Nowshera District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. UNOSAT

Damage Overview of Flood-Affected Towns In Nowshera District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. This map presents the preliminary findings of a damage assessment over sixteen flood-affected towns and cities along the Kabul and Kalpani Rivers including the main city of Nowshera, Nowshera District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. UNOSAT

He said that the floods – the worst in Pakistan in living memory – have affected 4 million people so far, with at least 1.5 million people having lost their homes. Mr. Mogwanja said that 1,400 people have been killed so far, “but this number may rise as new bodies may be found.” The monsoon season, he pointed out, could last up to four more weeks, with the possibility that the flooding – currently concentrated in northern Pakistan – could move south towards the Indian Ocean, affecting millions more people. Already, the central areas of Sindh province in the south have felt the effects of flooding.

The search-and-rescue and evacuation phase has come to an end, with many people having been moved to safer areas by helicopters and boats. UN agencies have been rushing relief to the area since the early days of the disaster. The World Food Programme (WFP) has provided 500 metric tons of food, while the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has distributed enough clean drinking water for 700,000 people. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has supplied 11,000 tents and the UN World Health Organization (WHO) has distributed dozens of cholera kits for health centres.

The Hindu of India has reported that the death toll in the Leh cloudburst has climbed to 130, with 600 more people feared washed away in the calamity that was followed by torrential rains and flash floods devastating this Himalayan town in the Ladakh region. Sources in Ladakh, of which Leh is the district headquarters, fear that the death toll could cross over 500 as several far flung villages were yet to be accessed by rescue teams in this high-altitude terrain. Ladakh is a high mountainous region in northern India, in the western Himalaya. A small village before Choglumsur, which bore the brunt of the incessant rains, was completely wiped out as rescue workers were looking for survivors in the mud slush and debris. Over 200 people were still reported to be missing from the village.

Updated Overview of Flood Waters in Punjab Province, Pakistan. This map presents the standing flood waters over the affected Provinces of Punjab, Pakistan following recent heavy monsoon rains. UNOSAT

Updated Overview of Flood Waters in Punjab Province, Pakistan. This map presents the standing flood waters over the affected Provinces of Punjab, Pakistan following recent heavy monsoon rains. UNOSAT

The United Nations health agency said today that it has begun sending medical supplies to aid thousands of people affected by recent flooding across Afghanistan, where the major health concerns right now are water contamination and the spread of waterborne diseases. The Afghan government estimates that the floods have left several thousand individuals homeless in northeast Kapisa, central Ghazni, Laghman, Nangarhar, Kunar, Logar, Khost and northern Parwan provinces, where at least 2,500 houses have been destroyed. An estimated 80 people have reportedly died in the floods, and much of the arable land, where crops were planted, has been inundated.

Pakistan’s Express Tribune reported that news coming in from many parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, especially Swat because of its mountainous terrain, describes people displaced by the floods being desperately short of food, medicines, drinking water and other supplies essential to their survival. There is talk of starvation with no food available and international relief agencies are also warning of outbreak of diseases in the relief camps-mainly because clean drinking water and sanitation facilities are in short supply. In other parts of the flood-stricken region there are accounts of disease breaking out. Things could become worse in the coming days if the relief effort is not quickly streamlined. In Swat, many of those hit have already withstood many months of conflict. This Reuters AlertNet news feature describes the situation.

Russia wildfiresThe unfolding tragedy in Pakistan and Afghanistan comes alongside extreme weather events in Moldova, China and Russia. In Moldova, authorities have been evacuating people and goods from the flood-hit zones and to carry out prevention works. Xinhua News reported that in China, more than 4 million people have been affected since the flood season began in June and some 700,000 people have been evacuated. Additionally, about 62,000 houses have collapsed and 193,000 others have been damaged, along with 1.2 million hectares of cropland having been inundated. In the hardest-hit areas, flash floods have cut roads, isolated villages, and disrupted communications and water supplies. In the industrial city of Tonghua, torrential rains have damaged water pipelines, leaving 300,000 people without tap water for two days. The Voice of Russia has reported that wildfires are still burning in a number of Russian regions, including Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Voronezh and Ryazan. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed, and the air is thick for smog. Dozens of people have been killed by fires.

[The maps from which these images have been posted are from UNOSAT, the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Operational Satellite Applications Programme, implemented in co-operation with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).]

How June 2010 blazed new climate records, and the story of Rongbuk glacier

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NOAA, National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate, Global Analysis, June 2010It’s been another searing half year from January 2010 to June. Global temperature records have been surpassed all over the place. Both land and sea temperatures have climbed upwards to match previous highs, and in some places to top them. Here are the global highlights for June 2010 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA), National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate, Global Analysis, June 2010:

* The combined global land and ocean average surface temperature for June 2010 was the warmest on record at 16.2°C (61.1°F), which is 0.68°C (1.22°F) above the 20th century average of 15.5°C (59.9°F). The previous record for June was set in 2005.
* June 2010 was the fourth consecutive warmest month on record (March, April, and May 2010 were also the warmest on record). This was the 304th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average. The last month with below-average temperature was February 1985.
NOAA, National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate, Global Analysis, June 2010* The June worldwide averaged land surface temperature was 1.07°C (1.93°F) above the 20th century average of 13.3°C (55.9°F)—the warmest on record.
* It was the warmest April–June (three-month period) on record for the global land and ocean temperature and the land-only temperature. The three-month period was the second warmest for the world’s oceans, behind 1998.
* It was the warmest June and April–June on record for the Northern Hemisphere as a whole and all land areas of the Northern Hemisphere.
* It was the warmest January–June on record for the global land and ocean temperature. The worldwide land on average had its second warmest January–June, behind 2007. The worldwide averaged ocean temperature was the second warmest January–June, behind 1998.
* Sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean continued to decrease during June 2010. According to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, La Niña conditions are likely to develop during the Northern Hemisphere summer 2010.

NOAA, National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate, Global Analysis, June 2010The ‘State of the Climate, Global Analysis’ for June 2010 said that warmer-than-average conditions dominated the globe during the month, with the most prominent warmth in Mexico, northern Africa, and most of Europe, Asia, South America, and the USA. The world land surface temperature June 2010 anomaly of 1.07°C (1.93°F) was the warmest on record, surpassing the previous June record set in 2005 by 0.12°C (0.22°F).

The warm conditions that affected large portions of each inhabited continent also contributed to the warmest June worldwide land and ocean surface temperature since records began in 1880. The previous June record was set in 2005. Separately, the worldwide ocean surface temperatures during June 2010 were 0.54°C (0.97°F) above the 20th century average—the fourth warmest June on record. Warmer-than-average conditions were present across most of the Atlantic, Indian, and the western Pacific oceans.

NOAA, National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate, Global Analysis, June 2010“June 2010 was the fourth consecutive month with reported warmest averaged global land and ocean temperature on record (March, April, and May 2010 were also the warmest on record),” said the Global Analysis for the month. “When averaging the last three months, the combined global land and ocean surface temperature during April–June 2010 (three-month period) ranked as the warmest April–June on record, with an anomaly of 0.70°C (1.26°F) above the 20th century average. The previous April–June record was set in 1998, which had an anomaly of 0.66°C (1.19°F) above the 20th century average.”

The areas with the wettest anomalies during June 2010 included southern India, southern China, southern Europe, the midwestern USA, and parts of northwestern South America. The driest anomalies were present across northern India and across parts eastern Asia, northeastern South America, and Australia. There was climate havoc in China. According to the Beijing Climate Center (BCC), the provinces of Guizhou, Fujian, and Qinghai had above-average precipitation during June 2010, ranking as the second wettest June since national records began in 1951.

The BCC also reported that ten provinces in southern China were affected by storms that brought heavy rainfall across the area—resulting in record breaking daily rainfall in some places of Jiangxi and Fujian. The copious rainfall prompted floods that killed nearly 200 people. Meanwhile, the province of Jiangsu had its driest June on record, while Shanxi had its second driest on record. Overall, the monthly averaged precipitation in China during June 2010, 95.0 mm (3.7 inches), was near the 1971–2000 average.

Asia Society-The 1921 photograph taken by George Mallory of the Rongbuk Glacier and the northern slope of Mount Everest in the distance, Tibet Autonomous Region

Asia Society-The 1921 photograph taken by George Mallory of the Rongbuk Glacier and the northern slope of Mount Everest in the distance, Tibet Autonomous Region

The impact of a succession of record warm Junes is described in photographic detail by an eye-opening exhibit of the Asia Society. (The Telegraph of Britain had an early report on the startling photos.) The two pictures show an alarming retreat in ice over more than 80 years.

The first was taken in 1921 by British mountaineer George Mallory. The Asia Society commissioned the same picture to be taken of the main Rongbuk glacier on the northern slope of Mount Everest in Tibet in 2007.

The new picture by mountaineer David Breashears show that the glacier is shrunk and withered. Breashears retraced the steps of the 1921 British Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition Team, using photos taken then by surveyor and photographer Maj Edward Wheeler and amateur photographer George Mallory, who later died attempting to reach the Everest summit in 1924.

Asia Society-The 2007 photograph taken by David Breashears of the Rongbuk Glacier taken from the same place as Mallory's 1921 photograph

Asia Society-The 2007 photograph taken by David Breashears of the Rongbuk Glacier taken from the same place as Mallory's 1921 photograph

The Himalayan glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, as is starkly documented in photographic comparisons between archival images and recent photographs taken by mountaineer David Breashears in the new Asia Society Museum exhibition Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers in the Greater Himalaya. “That melting also has a profound impact on the local communities the Himalayan glaciers serve, and has emerged as a primary bellwether of global climate change,” said the Asia Society.

The surface area of glaciers in these high altitude valleys is often covered by layers of debris or snow. To determine the full measure of loss in the ice mass in these photos, look not only at how far the glaciers have receded, but at the surrounding valley walls. In many cases, the loss in depth is upwards of 300 vertical feet.

Can you read this map Mr Ramesh?

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Surface temperature change map

This map shows the 10-year average (2000-2009) temperature anomaly relative to the 1951-1980 mean. The largest temperature increases are in the Arctic and the Antarctic Peninsula. (Image credit: NASA/GISS)

Scientific jingoism has reached a new peak with India’s minister for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, announcing that his ministry will provide new funding for climate research done by Indians for India, which in effect is a nationalistic science agenda. Ramesh – whose penchant for making sweeping and irresponsible statements is matched only by his ability to reckon all events as PR opportunities – seems to not realise or not care that climate change is not a region-specific phenomenon. His ministry’s carefully timed attacks on climate science has reached a new pitch with India’s mainstream english dailies now broadcasting a daily barrage of reports sceptical of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Fourth Assessment Report and on what Ramesh is now calling “western science”!

There has been evidence aplenty of the growing impacts of climate change throughout this decade of 2000-2009 and this evidence has been seen, and reported on, as affecting all sectors so important to our daily lives: agriculture, water resources and health. This month alone, there are two news reports on AlertNet Reuters that tell us so explicitly.

‘India’s northern nomads hit by changing weather’ tells us about how the nomads of the high Ladakh mountain ranges (in the state of Jammu and Kashmir) have been herding sheep, goats and yak for generations. But now hundreds are now being forced to abandon their traditional way of life as wide variations in winter snowfall threaten their livestock. Researchers in the region say that climate change is alternately bringing unusually heavy snow that prevents livestock from reaching fodder and, more often, very little snow, which leads to drought and changes in traditional pastures. A researcher with the World Wildlife Fund based in Leh said that grasses have started to die out due to less level of snowfall in the region, a continuing phenomenon for a decade or so, which now has become alarming.

Surface temperature change map India

Surface temperature change map India

‘Cold wave kills scores, destroys crops across South Asia’ tells us about a cold wave across parts of South Asia has killed scores of people – mostly children and the elderly – in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. The Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, both bordering Nepal, as well as New Delhi have been amongst the worst affected areas with temperatures falling as low as 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit). In Bangladesh, low temperatures coupled with fog and cold winds in northern and southwest parts of the country have killed over 40 people and resulted in over 3,400 being hospitalised, according to the United Nations. In Nepal, weather officials said the southern plains bordering India were reeling below normal temperatures for more than two weeks causing cold waves in the region.

Global land ocean temperature index

Earth's surface temperatures have increased since 1880. The last decade has brought the temperatures to the highest levels ever recorded. The graph shows global annual surface temperatures relative to 1951-1980 mean temperatures. As shown by the red line, long-term trends are more apparent when temperatures are averaged over a five year period. (Image credit: NASA/GISS)

Reports such as these only support what careful research has been saying loudly for all the last decade. 2009 was tied for the second warmest year in the modern record, a new NASA analysis of global surface temperature shows. The analysis, conducted by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), USA, also shows that in the Southern Hemisphere, 2009 was the warmest year since modern records began in 1880. January 2000 to December 2009 was the warmest decade on record. Throughout the last three decades, the GISS surface temperature record shows an upward trend of about 0.2°C (0.36°F) per decade. Since 1880, the year that modern scientific instrumentation became available to monitor temperatures precisely, a clear warming trend is present, though there was a leveling off between the 1940s and 1970s. What’s significant about the GISS method is that it builds in the importance of anomalies – such as the severe cold weather in South Asia – to arrive at its findings.

The image of a map with this post is one that can be generated by anyone visiting the GISS website. It shows the planet’s surface temperature change from 1959 to 2009. Where India is concerend, the two temperature change bands that cover the sub-continent are 0.5-1ºC and 1-2ºC. It’s plain to see that the Himalaya also lie across both these temperature change bands. The absurd, ill-timed, motivated and arrogant attack by Ramesh’s ministry (and its media servants) on the evidence that glaciers in the Himalaya are in danger of melting ignores the big picture that this map presents: climate change is taking place in the region. The question is: can they read this map?

India’s misplaced glacier row

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India’s central government is making triumphant noises about what it sees as a vindication of its stand concerning Himalayan glaciers. The central Ministry of Environment and Forests had refuted the widely held scientific view that the glaciers of the Himalaya were shrinking, posing a grave – if not catastrophic – threat to the water security of millions downstream.

The mainstream English press in India (a majority of whose readers are urban salaried, self-employed or professional) has been toeing the central government line on the matter and has placed on front pages the story: “IPCC admits ‘Himalayan’ blunder” said Business Standard; “IPCC expresses regret over glacier melting conclusion” said The Hindu; and “West uses ‘glacier theory’ to flog India on climate change” said The Times of India.

What has the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) actually said?

Here is the full statement (dated 20 January 2010) made by the Chair and Vice-Chairs of the IPCC, and the Co-Chairs of the IPCC Working Groups.

“The Synthesis Report, the concluding document of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (page 49) stated: ‘Climate change is expected to exacerbate current stresses on water resources from population growth and economic and land-use change, including urbanisation. On a regional scale, mountain snow pack, glaciers and small ice caps play a crucial role in freshwater availability. Widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century, reducing water availability, hydropower potential, and changing seasonality of flows in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges (e.g. Hindu-Kush, Himalaya, Andes), where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives.’ ”

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)“This conclusion is robust, appropriate, and entirely consistent with the underlying science and the broader IPCC assessment.”

“It has, however, recently come to our attention that a paragraph in the 938-page Working Group II contribution to the underlying assessment refers to poorly substantiated estimates of rate of recession and date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers. In drafting the paragraph in question, the clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly.”

“The Chair, Vice-Chairs, and Co-chairs of the IPCC regret the poor application of well-established IPCC procedures in this instance. This episode demonstrates that the quality of the assessment depends on absolute adherence to the IPCC standards, including thorough review of ‘the quality and validity of each source before incorporating results from the source into an IPCC Report’. We reaffirm our strong commitment to ensuring this level of performance.”

The text in question is the second paragraph in section 10.6.2 of the Working Group II contribution and a repeat of part of the paragraph in Box TS.6. of the Working Group II Technical Summary of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report. The quoted text in the fourth para is verbatim from Annex 2 of Appendix A to the Principles Governing IPCC Work.

What makes the episode ugly is that this is a central government, and a ministry, which has right through 2008 and 2009 worked extra hard to push all aspects of economic growth measured by GDP. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has steadily diluted legislation protecting environment and natural resources, given opportunities to industry to sidetrack checks and balances relating to clearances (especially in forest areas) and which has gone to great lengths to cobble together a scientific-cum-economic consensus to show that GDP growth at 9% a year for the next generation will not harm the global environment nor add very much to global emissions. The hypocrisies in pressurising the IPCC into this corner are staggering. The pity is that India’s scientific community – in which true independence is rare – will do little to help the citizen understand more.

Monsoon as ‘tipping point’

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A hugely important report has been released by Allianz, a leading global financial service provider, and WWF, a leading global environmental NGO. Both do work (commercial and conservation respectively) in India. The report is titled: ‘Major Tipping Points in the Earth’s Climate System and Consequences for the Insurance Sector‘.

Monsoon tipping point reportWhat is a ‘tipping point’ and how does it apply to India and our agriculture? The phrase ‘tipping point’ means that a small change can make a big difference for some systems – which for our project is the agro-ecological systems inhabited by our farming households. In addition, the term ‘tipping element’ has been introduced to describe those large-scale components of the Earth system that could be forced past a ‘tipping point’ and would then undergo a transition to a quite different state. That’s the context in which the drought of 2009 can be examined.

You can find the report and more information here. I’m quoting the short summary of the report’s chapter on the Indian monsoon:

Indian Summer Monsoon – shifts in hydrological systems in Asia as a result of hydrological disturbance of monsoon hydrological regimes (particularly Indian Summer Monsoon) combined with disturbance of fluvial systems fed from the Hindu-Kush-Himalaya-Tibetan glaciers (HKHT)

Overview – The impacts on hydrological systems in India under a ‘tipping’ scenario are expected to approximately double the drought frequency (2) and effects from the melting of the Himalayan glaciers and reduced river flow will aggravate impacts.

Drought costs – Extrapolating from the 2002 drought using a simple calculation would suggest that the future costs (in today’s prices) might be expected to double from around $US 21 billion to $US 42 billion per decade in the first half of the century. However, a range of other factors are likely to act to increase these costs and consequences in the same period. The most significant of these are likely to be the combined effects of:

• decreasing probability of consecutive ‘non-drought’ years from which to accumulate surpluses (the probability of two consecutive ‘non-drought’ years is halved from 64% to 36% and for three consecutive years reduced from 51% to 22%);
• the pressures of increasing population on food and food surpluses (identified as equal to an increase in production by >40% by 2020 and continuing thereafter); and
• impacts of climate change on irrigation (with up to a 60% reduction in dry season river flows).

The effect of all of the variables is to increase the likelihood, severity and exposure of populations and the economy to potentially devastating conditions within the first half of this century with implications for water resources, health, and food security, and major economic implications not only for India but for economies regionally and worldwide.

Insurance aspects – The potential scale of drought losses could abort the initiatives to extend insurance more widely into the rural sector. The wider repercussions of drought through an economic slow-down and deterioration in public finances would impact insurers strongly, through the liquidation of private savings and the impairment of investments in public sector securities.

Written by makanaka

November 29, 2009 at 04:07