Glaciers are retreating because of climate change. What does that mean for water flow in the streams and rivers downhill?

The effect is very varied, said Arthur Lutz of the Netherlands-based think tank Future Water. To start with, the importance of glacier meltwater to the rivers below is not the same everywhere, he said at a session on glaciers and hydropower at the World Water Week in Stockholm. It is far more important for rivers in the Indus basin than for those in the Ganga and Brahmaputra basins.

The effect of this glacier retreat also varies from catchment to catchment, he added.

By Arthur Lutz from Ragettli et al., 2016. RCP refers to the various climate change scenarios forecast in the latest assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The higher the RCP, the more the warming
By Arthur Lutz from Ragettli et al., 2016. RCP refers to the various climate change scenarios forecast in the latest assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The higher the RCP, the more the warming

At the session organised by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Lutz presented the results of two studies, one in Nepal and the other in Chile.

At the Upper Langtang catchment in the Nepal Himalayas, the rain, ice melt and snow melt change in a medium-level warming scenario (RCP 4.5) forecast by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but the overall water runoff does not change very significantly from the present situation. However, in a much-warmed world [an RCP 8.5 scenario], the study forecasts higher runoff by 2050 and much more by 2100. This will increase the risk of flash floods manifold.

But the situation is forecast to be quite different in the Juncal catchment of the Chilean Andes. There, a medium warming scenario leads to more water runoff than a high warming scenario.

David Molden, Director General, ICIMOD [image by Udayan Mishra / ICIMOD]
David Molden, Director General, ICIMOD [image by Udayan Mishra / ICIMOD]

It all points to the urgent need for more studies at both the micro and macro levels, said David Molden, director general of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development.

What is far more certain is that most glaciers in the high mountain regions of the world are in retreat. The exceptions are glaciers in the Karakoram range of the Hindu Kush Himalayas. Lutz said the reason for this well-known “Karakoram Anomaly” was still “very poorly understood”. At present, most scientists think it is largely because of winds from the Caspian Sea bringing more snow and rain to this region.

Leaving the one exception aside, it is clear that glaciers are retreating very quickly because mountain areas are far more sensitive to climate change – a temperature rise of four degrees Celsius at sea level becomes 5 degrees Celsius-6 degrees Celsius at an elevation above 5,000 metres, Lutz said, adding that this trend was likely to continue.

By Arthur Lutz from Pepin et al., 2015
By Arthur Lutz from Pepin et al., 2015

What this will mean for water flow downhill of the glaciers will depend on the contribution of meltwater to total discharge, seasonal differences in a future characterised by climate change, future precipitation [rainfall and snowfall] amounts and intensity, the researcher concluded.

Effect on hydropower plants

What will all this mean for the many hydropower projects planned in the Himalayas? That is still not known with any degree of certainty, according to Martin Honsberg of the Norwegian hydropower firm Statkraft.

As a result, Honsberg said, hydropower developers are still planning and building their projects without taking into account the possibility of changing water flow. With Statkraft running projects in India and Nepal, he felt that such uncertainties would be reduced if developers were allowed to build water reservoirs instead of run-of-the-river projects.

Water reservoirs behind dams are a controversial subject in the Himalayas, with considerable popular opposition to such projects.

But whatever the form of the project, if it were to be built, it should have a better way of sharing the benefits with local residents, said Aditi Mukherji of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development.

Image by Aditi Mukherji
Image by Aditi Mukherji

Pointing out that the hydropower potential in countries that share the Hindu Kush Himalayas and the rivers that flow down this range totalled 500 GW, Mukherji focused on one problem – that the electricity flows from the mountains to the plains without providing commensurate benefits to the people who live in the mountains.

“These benefits have to go beyond compensation [for displacement] and mitigation,” she said. In a study done in Uttarakhand in India and in Nepal, Mukherji and her colleagues found that though there are laws that compel hydropower developers to pay compensation for any damage, this money usually ends up in the government treasury rather than benefiting the affected population. The situation is better in Nepal, she said, because village development committees negotiate most of the benefits with the project developers, and the Central government does not enter the picture.

“Our experience is that in Nepal, communities feel far more empowered. In India, communities feel powerless,” Mukherji said. Part of the study carried out by her and her colleagues is now in the report Benefit sharing and sustainable hydropower: Lessons from Nepal. Mukherji welcomed the new Uttarakhand law that says the compensation paid by hydropower developers should go directly to panchayats.

Between “wrong use of technology, changing social patterns, outmigration, the situation is already very complicated", said Dipak Gyawali of the Nepal Water Conservation Foundation. “Climate change will make it ten times worse.”

Eklabya Sharma, director of programmes at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, concluded the session by reiterating that it all pointed to the need for more research and more monitoring stations all over the Hindu Kush Himalayas.

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.