Global warming spells doom for Asia's rivers

June 10, 2010 by Robert Saiget
Yaks and sheep graze on grasslands in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, known as the "Roof of the World". One prominent US environmental campaigner has warned that the looming water crisis in the region could trigger a major regional food shortage, as the rivers help irrigate vast wheat fields and rice paddies in China and southeast Asia begin to dry up.

The livelihood of thousands of Tibetans living on China's highest plateau is under threat as global warming and environmental degradation dry up water sources for three mighty Asian rivers, experts say.

Dwindling glaciers and melting permafrost in the mountains surrounding the fragile Qinghai-Tibet plateau are leading to erosion of grasslands and wetlands, threatening the watershed of the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong rivers.

One prominent US environmental campaigner has even warned that the looming crisis could trigger a major regional food shortage, as the rivers help irrigate vast wheat fields and rice paddies in China and southeast Asia.

"The melting of the glaciers is a fairly serious phenomenon," Xin Yuanhong, a government scientist who headed a major environmental survey of the Yangtze source region, told AFP.

"We expect that under current conditions, up to 30 percent of the glaciers in this region could disappear within 10 years. If worsens, the glaciers will melt faster and the situation will worsen."

The region provides nearly half of the water volume of the Yellow River, 25 percent of the Yangtze's water and 15 percent of the Mekong, Southeast Asia's most important waterway.

Up to 580 million people live in the basins of the three -- all major grain-producing areas that have been hit by serious droughts and falling water levels in the last few months.

In 2005, China launched a 7.5 billion yuan (1.1-billion-dollar) programme to arrest erosion in the source area, in what was described as the nation's biggest-ever ecological conservation project.

"As the permafrost melts, the land loses its capacity to absorb water," Xin said. "As more water runs off, there is more erosion, while the drier conditions allow for a rise in the rodent population, which further decimates the soil."

As part of the conservation effort about 20,000 Tibetan herdsmen had migrated off the grasslands and been resettled in permanent villages by the start of this year, the state Xinhua news agency has said. Grazing has been restricted, while more and more herds are being raised in enclosures.

For many Tibetan herdsmen, resettlement in villages has meant an end to a traditional nomadic life that goes back centuries.

About half of the 270,000 people in Yushu prefecture -- which covers most of the source area -- rely on herding or the livestock industry to make their livings, according to government sources and media reports.

Officials at a Yushu environmental protection association refused to comment when contacted by AFP, apparently due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Besides desertification and grassland shrinkage, the region's lakes and wetlands are also drying up, experts say.

"From 1976 to 2008, grassland marshes and swamplands have shrunk by over 32 percent" in the three river source area, Wang Genxu, a water expert at Qinghai's Institute of Mountain Hazards and the Environment, told AFP.

"The area of lakes in the region has been reduced by 228 square kilometres (140 square miles), about 8.6 percent of the overall lakeland area," said Wang, whose institute is attached to the China Academy of Sciences.

At a regional summit in April, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva warned that the Mekong was "threatened by serious problems arising from both the unsustainable use of water and the effects of climate change".

The Mekong "will not survive" without good management, he said.

Earlier this year, water on the so-called "Mighty Mekong" dropped to its lowest level in 50 years in northern Thailand and Laos, alarming communities who depend on the river for food, transport, drinking water and irrigation.

At the summit in the Thai resort town of Hua Hin, China denied its policies in the upper Mekong -- including the construction of dams and massive water use -- were to blame for lower water levels.

But prominent US environmentalist Lester Brown warned last week on a trip to Beijing that the situation could provoke a serious food crisis in Asia, severely curtailing crop growth in China and elsewhere.

"The melting of these mountain glaciers in the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau represents the most massive projected threat to food security we have ever encountered," Brown said.

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2.7 / 5 (7) Jun 10, 2010
Well, at least this should make the more progressive posters on this board happy. I mean, if this region supplies food and water for 500 million people, then that would mean that half a billion are about to die, which is about 10% of FlyingButtressMan's (and others') goal of annihilation of population down to 1.5 billion.

Obama's cronies must be proud.
3.1 / 5 (8) Jun 10, 2010
Well, at least this should make the more progressive posters on this board happy. I mean, if this region supplies food and water for 500 million people, then that would mean that half a billion are about to die, which is about 10% of FlyingButtressMan's (and others') goal of annihilation of population down to 1.5 billion.

Obama's cronies must be proud.

I have seen a lot of bitter, hateful, and nasty comments on this and other boards, but this really stands out. Only an idiot would think that anyone would rather be right at the cost of 500 million lives.

The best possible outcome would be that all the climate change deniers are completely correct and worries about problems caused by climate change are unfounded. But denying that I have a mortgage due is certainly comforting in the short term... right up until the sheriff and movers arrive to escort me to my new bridge side tent dwelling.
4.3 / 5 (3) Jun 10, 2010
I trust China to come up with solutions. They are just too clever to stand by while the country dries up.

In the meantime, over 80% of Pakistan's population is without potable drinking water, while almost all of its glacial water sources run unimpeded and unutilised straight off the mountains into the sea. Pakistan, with its oodles of lush, fertile land, could be the breadbasket of Asia, but obviously those people have other priorities.
3.5 / 5 (2) Jun 10, 2010

This is some pretty scary stuff. If large drinking water supplies really to start to go dry there could be serious ramifications around the entire planet.
4.3 / 5 (7) Jun 10, 2010

I am merely pointing out that a significant portion of the people on this forum seem to actually WANT global catastrohes so as to reduce population, and in their minds, the wealth of the "elite" they hope to survive these "death by attrition" schemes.

To me, these issues about the water are not necessarily as bad as being presented. This can be fixed through the use of massive solar power plants and desalinization plants to pump in sea water which could be converted to drinking water and irrigation water.

I mean, if the U.S. built the Alaska pipeline, why can't China, India, Pakistan, Tibet, and others make these massive aqueducts? Water is neither explosive nor particularly corrosive.

Another option would be to construct massive catch basins in the valleys so that future rain and snowfall is quickly caught and stored for later use, even if it melts immediately.
Jun 10, 2010
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5 / 5 (2) Jun 10, 2010
I thought that the idea that the Himalayan glaciers were in any immediate danger of disappearance had been demonstrated to be an error. Now they are saying that it's back "on" again? What's going on here?

Is it any wonder that people are beginning to be skeptical about the periodic pronouncements of doom, if the 'experts" can't seem to make up their minds whether these glaciers are going to go away in 25 years or will still be around for the next 300+?
5 / 5 (2) Jun 11, 2010

This report is either based on that earlier misprint that mentioned 2035 instead of 2350 or else all the glaciers have moved down the mountains so that they will melt a lot quicker.
1 / 5 (1) Jun 11, 2010
Winter spells doom for my lawn this year...
not rated yet Jun 11, 2010

This article doesn't say anything about the glaciers disappearing. It seems to be saying that increasing melting of the glaciers is causing problems like soil erosion which in turn is leading to drought conditions downstream.

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