[At a roundtable in the Rivers of Hope initiative at the Stimson Center, Washington, DC on April 15, 2011 Geoffrey Pyatt, Principal Deputy Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs commented at length as follows about the role of the Himalayan watersheds in U.S. approach to South and Central Asia.]
Why are Himalayan Glaciers Important? Across Asia, fresh water from the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau are critical to the health, economic development, and security of 1.5 billion people. These glaciers feed nine river basins including the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra, which support thousands of communities, villages and cities across Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and into South East Asia. These glaciers however are shrinking faster than elsewhere in the world. Economic development has led to increased pollutants, such as black carbon, or soot, which is released from cook stoves, automobiles, and the industrial sector. This has accelerated the melting of Himalayan glaciers, and some will certainly be lost by the end of this century. Glacial retreat not only impacts freshwater supplies to millions of people, but also increases the likelihood of outburst floods that destroy life and property, and increases the vulnerability of coastal communities to coastal erosion and sea-level rise. Climate change will also impact the variability of water flow – warmer temperatures and earlier water runoff from glaciers will affect agricultural growing seasons and regional food security. Such warmer temperatures, combined with spring and summer rains, can increase the chance of flooding, which does not respect national boundaries. Experts predict that by 2025 nearly two-thirds of the world’s population will be living with water stress – conditions where water has become an impediment to socio-economic development. This problem is even more pressing in Asia where water stress could limit the expansion of rapidly growing economies such as India, the impacts of which would be felt around the globe.
Our colleagues at USAID have undertaken an important series of studies on the future of Asia’s glaciers. They assess that the melting of glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau and adjoining mountain ranges is among the greatest environmental security threats in the region. USAID will be key to directing future U.S. assistance programs in the areas of adaptation and mitigation. Technical assistance programs and partnerships with the United States are critical to help these countries manage the impacts of Himalayan glacier melt. In January, our South Asia regional environment hub, based out of Embassy Kathmandu, partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to host the Eastern Himalayas Regional Workshop on Forests and Climate Change. Forests in the Eastern Himalayas provide livelihoods for millions of people. Participants from Nepal, Bhutan and India all affirmed that climate change impacts the entire region, and they stressed that information sharing on snowfall and glacial melt trends is crucial to managing the region’s forests. Currently, our colleagues in our embassies in the region are working with host country contacts to develop follow-on activities and programs in this area. In Nepal, our USAID and NASA colleagues have also partnered to establish an earth observation monitoring and visualization system for the Himalayas. This system will provide a clearer picture of the impacts of climate change on water within the region.
Regional cooperation is a vital component of a lasting solution. Cooperation among countries in the region is even more important to find lasting solutions. At its core, the impact of Himalayan glacier melt is multi-sectored and regional in nature. Strong regional organizations and the advancement of ‘hydro-diplomacy’ are key to promoting cooperation within South Asia and with East Asia, which is also dependent on watersheds originating in the Himalayas. India, as both the largest economy and largest water user in South Asia, must to lead in finding solutions.
South and Central Asia however is one of the least integrated regions in the world. Improved economic cooperation and people-to-people ties clearly can have far reaching benefits in a region which accounts for more than 20% of the world’s total population but has less than 3 percent of Global GDP. Increased intraregional trade will create more jobs and undercut the appeal of terrorism. Hydro-electricity trade from the mountainous states of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Nepal and Bhutan to energy hungry India, Pakistan and Afghanistan can support economic growth and improve how governments deliver services to their citizens. And India, with a middle class of 300 million people, growing at 10% per year, can also serve as an engine of regional prosperity and a leader in cross-cutting issues such improving access to higher education.
Secretary Clinton has renewed our efforts to foster regional cooperation, and to elevate collaboration with regional organizations as an integral part of the U.S. strategy for global engagement. This effort is an outcome of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR).
In South Asia the leading regional organization is the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The U.S. has been an official SAARC observer since 2006, a role we pursued not only to bolster our bilateral relationships in the region, but also to encourage greater cooperation among the countries of South Asia. Over time, we hope that SAARC will accelerate the movement of people, goods and ideas throughout the subcontinent, and offer points of connection to neighboring Southeast Asia and beyond. Regional organizations, such as SAARC and the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), are among the best venues to promote and sustain cooperation on the issue of Himalayan glacier melt. The theme of SAARC’s 2010 Summit in Thimpu, Bhutan was climate change, and we are coordinating regional assistance programs through our regional environment Hub, based out of Embassy Kathmandu. We expect climate issues to remain prominent as Maldives assumes SAARC leadership. An emerging and important area for regional cooperation is disaster preparedness. Our embassy in Kathmandu has led the charge to raise awareness of the need for local, regional and global planning in earthquake response. A recent conference in Kathmandu organized by the U.S. with representation from SAARC member countries, the United Nations, Red Cross and others concluded that there was a need for more regional cooperation to tackle Disaster Risk Reeducation (DDR) and recommended follow-up events such as a conference being held here in Washington today, in conjunction with the World Bank and USAID, to continue to raise awareness on this important issue.
Potential for Hydro-Diplomacy
Bangladesh and India have prioritized cooperation on water issues in their bilateral relationship, although much of this cooperation is still in the planning stages, we take this as a positive sign. During a June 2010 visit to Washington, Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary Quayes referred to water-sharing as a key issue for Bangladesh in its relations with India.
While India and Pakistan have had disagreements around the waters of the Indus river, which flows from India into Pakistan, the two countries have one of the world’s longest standing treaties on shared waters. The Indus Waters Treaty was signed in 1960 and continues to be a model of how countries can work together to address shared water challenges.
To address India’s growing internal water crisis, our embassy in New Delhi hosted a forum last month entitled “Water Issues in India: Opportunities and Challenges.” More than 110 government, NGO, academic and corporate representatives met to discuss and prioritize actions needed to advance practical solutions. Topics ranged from traditional methods of water harvesting to financing infrastructure and public private partnerships. Following President Obama’s visit to India last November, NOAA and Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences entered into a “Monsoon Agreement” to collaborate on improving India’s monsoon forecasting.
For Pakistan, internal management of water resources is a critical component of the country’s overall water strategy, as the country depends heavily on the Indus River for its irrigation and energy needs. We’ve successfully established a working group within our U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue exclusively focused on Pakistan’s water-related issues, including water and infrastructure management, economic sustainability, climate change, and capacity building, among others. This Working Group also addresses Pakistan’s recovery from last summer’s floods. In addition, we’ve brought two groups of Pakistani water managers to the U.S. to study our models of water management in cities like New Orleans, Sacramento, and others.
Bridging such an engagement between the U.S. and Pakistan with the rest of Central Asia is also important. The mountains of Afghanistan supply water to several neighboring Central Asian countries and Pakistan. We believe all these countries need to work together to ensure the water security of the region. As you can see, the issues stemming from Himalayan glacier melt are complex, regional and multi-sectored. However, the potential for creating new regional synergies is there. ■