Call for a Third Pole Council

At the recently concluded national Conclave of the Himalayan States, the Chief Ministers and representatives suggested to the government to set up a separate ministry for hill matters and consider Green Bonus for these states given their contributions to the eco-system through glaciers and river, providing clean air, and preserving forests. A Mussoorie Resolution was also adopted and hill states have made a number of pledges - take care of heritage and ethos, protect spiritual legacy, preserve folk art and crafts, cherish and conserve the history of hill societies, and nurture biodiversity, and craft strategies for the sustainable development of mountain areas.

Mountain, hills, glaciers and rivers are vital for the health of eco-system of any country and significant contributors to carbon sequestration as well as a perennial source of fresh water. For instance in the Terai Arc Landscape (TAL), the nine ecosystem services (water for agriculture, hydropower and drinking, nature and religious tourism, micro-climate regulation, carbon sequestration, firewood, and fodder) generate US$ 5.29 billion (2011-12).

Among the many climate related changes on the Himalayan mountain region, of particular concern is that the glaciers are melting rapidly and studies have found that more than 500 small glaciers have disappeared altogether. Another dangerous feature is the formation of glacial lakes that could spill over into flash floods and potentially wreak havoc and unimaginable destruction in the plains. In Assam, the fury of the recent floods has caused severe damage to the wildlife and their natural habitat has been destroyed. Likewise, the human induced changes manifest in the form of urban development, unrestrained tourism that necessitates additional construction and tourism associated services. Besides, there are numerous longer term adversarial impacts on the downstream ecosystem services and on the people who reside in lower riparian regions.

There is enormous climate related stress and strain in the Hindukush-Himalaya-Tibetan Plateau (HHTP) region which is home to some 46,000 glaciers that are spread over 100,000 square kilometers. These glaciers hold so much of ice that they are referred to as the ‘Third Pole’, the other two being the North and South Poles.  Similarly, these are also called the water towers of Asia and nearly 1.3 billion people are depended on these water bodies. At least 10 major Asian rivers begin here i.e. Yellow river and Yangtze River in China; Irrawaddy River in Myanmar; the Ganges and San So-Brahmaputra River, and the trans-boundary Lachang-Mekong River. The cascading effects of melting of glaciers are already visible and ‘one-third of the ice on the Hindu Kush Himalaya Mountains could melt by the end of the century.’ Mount Everest, once a massive glacier has already lost much of its ice.

There is now a call for establishing Third Pole Council (TPC) which could be an intergovernmental agency where issues related to Glacial melting in the HHTP region are discussed. The TPC could comprise of all the Himalaya-Terai countries i.e. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar Nepal and Pakistan as member countries and as equal partners. Other countries such as China and Southeast Asian lower riparian (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) could also be engaged in the initiative through suitable mechanisms.

Participation by specialist organizations engaged in research with focus on glacier- mountain-river domain would be critical to bring in professional opinions and research. For instance, the Third Pole Environment (TPE) is an international research program, launched in 2009, focuses on the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding mountain ranges. Likewise, the contributions made by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) are noteworthy particularly the recent assessment report ‘The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People’ showcases numerous challenges facing the mountain ecology, environment, people, livelihoods and governance.

Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan are planning to launch the Hindu Kush Himalaya Glaciers and Mountain Economy Network, to ‘boost their mountain economies and combat glacier and snow melt caused by climate change and air pollution across the region.’ However, Himalayan ecology issues cannot be addressed just by the South Asian states and absence of China in this network may not be a good idea. China can be invited as an observer but for that Beijing will have to infuse confidence among the grouping about its commitment to the issue of transparency with regard to glacier data and transparency in river water management.

Although India may be the largest among the HHTP countries, Bhutan whose geography is largely mountains and valleys perhaps is best positioned to lead the TPC. It is perhaps the most vulnerable to Glacial Lake Outbursts Floods (GLOF) and its small population of about 800,000 is at the highest risk. This year, the HHTP region witnessed sustained heat wave which melted huge volumes of ice and snow causing rise in water level by almost two meters in Thorthormi Tsho, Bhutan’s largest glacial lake. This caused the government to issue flood warnings amid fears that any rise in the lake can potentially result in a GLOF and result in loss of life and destruction of property and infrastructure.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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