Hundreds of millions of people across South and Southeast Asia depend on waters that originate in the long-frozen reaches of the Tibetan plateau. Yet, a sobering study shows that the melting of Himalayan glaciers has doubled in the last decade. The glaciers have been losing the equivalent of more than 1.5 vertical foot of ice each year since 2000 — double the amount of prior decades and the latest signal that climate change is causing rapid ice loss. The world’s latest warning sign of our changing climate is a destabilizing force that can amplify existing development and security challenges.
Often referred to as the Earth’s “Third Pole,” the Himalayas hold approximately 600 billion tons of ice, making them the third largest deposit of ice and snow in the world. Rapid melting could have devastating reverberations from origins in China to downstream communities from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, some of which will face the double challenge of flooding in the near-term and water scarcity in the decades to come.
Climate-induced melting is beginning to converge with acute water management challenges already vexing the region. Dry season flows are already struggling to meet demand in many downstream communities, leading to saltwater intrusion, erosion, declining fisheries and impeded transportation and commerce. Upstream damming, water diversions and overuse on transboundary rivers like the Mekong and Ganges make these dry season scarcities more pronounced. As glaciers recede, the margins for finding enough water to go around during dry seasons is shrinking along with them.
Water scarcity begets national and international security challenges in insidious ways. Diminishing resources that lead to declining agricultural and fishery production could accelerate friction — often among different identity groups domestically or across borders — over a shrinking pool of both life’s necessities and economic prospects. It can likewise push people from rural to urban spaces in ways that exhaust the infrastructure and services of receiving communities, creating new frictions along the way. We already see such unwieldy urbanization in cities like Dhaka, where water-related challenges in southern Bangladesh have added millions of users to the city’s fraying systems.
Such challenges stand to amplify risks of conflict and violence, often in ways that mask the underlying environmental factors fueling discord. Downstream from the Himalayas, countries have struggled with violence and human insecurity that can be partially tied to failures in shared river management. However, they are more often viewed in the context of more proximate causes. Discord in Assam and West Bengal since the 1990s can be traced in part to transboundary water issues, for example, but has been traditionally understood along cultural and group identity lines. Dry season water declines in Laos and Cambodia are impacting agriculture and fish catches, fueling human insecurity and driving animosity toward upstream neighbors — often viewed as a function of globalization and development deficits. These explanations are not wrong — environmental stresses always interact with social contexts to cause impact — but they are incomplete, and as water stresses in South and Southeast Asia become more pronounced so too will their ramifications.
Growing discord in communities that depend on the Himalayan waters is not predetermined. Enhanced water sharing diplomacy that considers basin level concerns even when pursued bilaterally or on project bases is essential. The vulnerable country’s leaders should prioritize more efficient water use in agricultural and industry and ensure their partners and benefactors invest accordingly. Movements away from water intensive crop cultivation are urgently needed in places that will face growing water scarcity, some of which will need to increase reliance on food imports. Energy systems, from hydro-plants that directly alter water systems to power stations with large water-use footprints, must reckon with the water availability of the future rather than the past.
There is also a role to play for the United States, which counts many South and Southeast Asian countries as key geopolitical allies ripe for growing economic partnerships. U.S. agencies have bolstered multilateral water negotiations in the past, and materially supported institutions that seek to facilitate such cooperation. Such efforts should be redoubled, along with investment into infrastructure projects that can help the regions address their growing water challenges, rather than those that will accelerate them.
In the longer-term, only aggressive greenhouse gas mitigation can save the icy foundations of Asia’s major rivers. For now, the imperative is to work within the shrinking boundaries that are undoubtedly on their way.
Jackson Ewing is a senior fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute of Environmental Policy Solutions.