Hindu Kush Himalayas Snow Melting- Reasons and Consequences- Explained Pointwise

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According to the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) report, the snow persistence of the Ganga, the Brahmaputra and the Indus basins in the Hindu Kush Himalayas have reached a historical low in 2024. The low snow persistence points to increased snow melting in the Hindu-Kush Himalayan Region. The accelerated melting is beyond scientists’ projections and causes huge challenges in one of the most populated regions of the world.

 Table of Content
Where is the Hindu Kush Himalayas? What is the status of snow persistence in the Hindu Kush Himalayas?
What are the major reasons behind the snow melting in Hindu Kush Himalayan regions?
Why is the conservation of Hindu Kush Himalayan Region significant?
What initiatives have been taken for the conservation of Hindu Kush Himalayan Region?
What Should be the way Forward?

Where is the Hindu Kush Himalayas? What is the status of snow persistence in the Hindu Kush Himalayas?

The HKH mountains extend around 3,500 km over eight countriesAfghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, Myanmar, and Pakistan. These mountains are also called the ‘water towers of Asia’ because they are the origins of 10 crucial river systems on the continent — Amu Darya, Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong, Yangtse, Yellow river, and Tarim.

Hindu Kush Himalayas

Snow Persistence- Snow persistence is the fraction of time, the snow is on the ground. When this snow melts, it provides water to people and ecosystems. In the river basins of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH), snowmelt is the biggest source of water in the streams. Overall, it contributes 23% of the runoff to the region’s 12 major river basins every year.

Snow persisting on the ground is important for the Ganga river basin because its melt contributes to 10.3% of Ganga’s water as compared to only 3.1% from glacier melts. In the Brahmaputra and the Indus basins, snowmelt brings 13.2% and around 40% of the water, respectively, versus 1.8% and 5% from glaciers.

About the Findings of the Report

a. 2024 HKH snow update analysed data from 2003 to 2024. It found significant fluctuations in snow persistence between November and April every year, when snow accumulates above ground.

b. Snow persistence in the Ganga, the Brahmaputra, and the Indus river basins has dropped significantly in 2024. The Ganga river basin noted its lowest snow persistence in 22 years, 17% below the long-term historical average. Snow persistence in the Brahmaputra basin was 14.6% below normal in 2024.

c. Outside India, the basin of the Amu Darya river– which flows through Central Asia-recorded its lowest snow persistence in 2024, which is 28.2% below normal. The Helmand river, an important source of drinking water for Iran and Afghanistan, was almost 32% below normal in 2024.

What are the major reasons behind the snow melting in Hindu Kush Himalayan regions?

1. Weakened  western disturbances- Western disturbances are low-pressure systems that originate over the Mediterranean Sea, the Caspian, and the Black Seas and bring rain and snow to the HKH region in winter. However, the region where these storms originate experienced persistently high sea-surface temperatures. This disruption weakened and delayed the arrival of the western disturbance, resulting in reduced winter precipitation and snowfall in the HKH region.

2. Global Warming- Global warming has exacerbated, prolonged and intensified La Niña–El Niño conditions. This has lowered the Hindu Kush Himalayan region’s snow persistence capacity.

3. Climate Change- The impacts of climate change are profoundly being felt in the Hindu Kush Himalayan Regions (HKH). The rising temperatures lead to glacier retreat and changes the snowfall patterns.

4. Growth of Invasive species- The growth of Invasive species in the Himalayan natural ecosystem has disrupted the delicate balance of ecosystem and threatened the survival of native species. For Ex- Clusters of purple flowers (Cirsium arvense), mats of white clover (Trifolium repens) are the threatening invasive species of the Himalayas.

5. Environmental Degradation- Deforestation, overgrazing, unsustainable land use practices, and infrastructure development are causing environmental degradation, including soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, and water pollution.

Why is the conservation of Hindu Kush Himalayan Region significant?

1. Water Security- Abundant rainfall, vast snow-fields and large glaciers in Himalayas are the feeding grounds of the mighty rivers of India like Ganga, Brahmaputra. These river basins provide water to almost one-fourth of the world’s population and are a significant freshwater source for 240 million people in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region.

2. Energy Security- Almost 33% of the country’s thermal electricity and 52% of its hydro power is dependent on river waters originating in the Hindu Kush Himalayan Regions.

3. Influence on Indian Climate- By virtue of their high altitude, length and direction, the Himalayas help in the sustenance of Indian monsoon. They also prevent the cold continental air masses of Central Asia from entering into India. It helps to maintain an ambient temperature in the Indian subcontinent which favours the flourishing of civilisation.

4. Forest Wealth- The Himalayan forests provide fuel wood and a large variety of raw materials for forest based industries. For Ex- Medicinal plant based pharmaceutical industry.

5. Cultural and Spiritual Significance- The Hindu Kush Himalayas are regarded as a sacred and spiritual centre by numerous cultures and religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

6. Biodiversity Hotspot- The Himalayan region is recognized as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots and contributes to global ecological balance. For Ex- Eastern Himalayan Biodiversity hotspot.

What initiatives have been taken for the conservation of Hindu Kush Himalayan Region?

Recognizing the importance and vulnerabilities of the HKH, several initiatives have been launched to promote conservation, sustainable development, and regional cooperation.

1. Regional Cooperation Framework- The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) has been facilitating regional cooperation through its transboundary conservation initiatives. This framework aims to enhance biodiversity and ecosystem services, reduce poverty through sustainable use of rich biodiversity and sociocultural resources, and promote transboundary cooperation for sustainable development.

2. Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment- This comprehensive assessment report, launched in 2019, emphasizes the need for sustainable development and climate resilience of the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region.

3. SECURE Himalaya Project- It is a part of “Global Partnership on Wildlife Conservation and Crime Prevention for Sustainable Development” (Global Wildlife Program) funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). It promotes sustainable management of alpine pastures and forests in the high range Himalayan ecosystems.

4. India’s National Mission on Sustaining Himalayan Ecosystem- It was launched in 2010 and covers 11 states (Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, all northeast states and West Bengal) and 2 UTs (J&K and Ladakh). It is one of the eight missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC).

Read More- Restoring the Ecological Health of the Himalayas- Explained Pointwise

What Should be the way Forward?

1. Reforestation- Reforestation with native tree species and removing the invasive species can help the ground retain more snow.

2. Preparation for Water Stress situation- Better weather forecasting and early warning systems can help local communities prepare for impending water stress.

3. Collaboration and community involvement- Communities’ involvement in local, national level decision-making and promoting regional cooperation are vital for comprehensive solutions for the sustainability of snow in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region.

4. Need to lower the emissions- There is a need to reduce emissions. This would help in mitigating increasing sea-surface and ground temperatures, both of which lower the persistence of snow. We need to build the political will for our government representatives and business leaders to cut the cord on dirty fossil energy consumption and production, especially among G-20 countries, which account for 81% of all emissions.

Read MoreThe Hindu
UPSC Syllabus– Conservation, Environmental Pollution and Degradation, Environmental Impact Assessment.
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