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Glaciers high up in the Himalayan mountains that are the source of many of Asia’s great rivers are in “drastic retreat” due to the effects of climate change, a recent study looking at 111 weather stations in the Himalayas of southwestern China has found.
Data collected between 1961 and 2008 showed that 77 percent of the weather stations had seen a marked increase in temperatures, with an average of 1.73 C for those above 4,000 metres, well above the global mean. This led to 999 glaciers in one basin losing some 130 square-kilometres of surface area between 1981 and 2001.
“The implications of these changes are far more serious than simply altering the landscape,” an author of a report on the study, which appeared inBritain’s Environmental Research Letters, told AFP. The study was headed Li Zhongxing of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Burma and neighbouring Thailand have been in the grip of deadly flooding this year. In central Burma’s Magwe division, more than 200 people are confirmed dead after a flash flood on 20 October on the Irrawaddy River, which runs the length of Burma.
Along with the Ganges and Mekong, the Irrawaddy river rises in the Tibetan plateau, which has earned the nickname of the world’s largest water tower. The three rivers sustain hundreds of millions across Asia – as these glaciers melt, lakes and rivers will naturally experience greater flow, but once the glaciers are gone, drought will likely replace flood.
These waterways also feed the key crop for the region, rice. Thailand and Vietnam are the world’s leading rice exporters, but flooding this year in Thailand has caused the destruction of some 12.5 percent of rice crops, causing prices to surge on the Chicago commodities exchange by the maximum permitted rate of 11 percent in two weeks, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
China and India, the region’s most important economies, are also likely to feel the brunt of a rise in food prices induced more broadly by flooding across much of Asia, which is emerging from an uncharacteristically long monsoon season.
“Higher prices for this staple food will be keenly unwelcome in Asia, which is struggling to contain inflation,” Soozhana Choi, from Deutsche Bank, was quoted in Bloomberg.
This trend will likely continue however, with one of the report’s researchers noting to AFP: “Glaciers are an integral part of thousands of ecosystems and play a crucial role in sustaining human populations.”
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) warned of the risks of migration linked to climate change in the region in a February report, which said that nations heavily reliant on agriculture, such as Burma, were at risk of large migrations to cities as people are no longer able to sustain themselves through farming. Around 70 percent of Burma’s population is employed in agriculture, primarily rice.
China acquires some 80 percent of its electricity from coal, making it the world’s single biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, and India is similarly reliant. China’s dependence on low cost, carbon intensive manufacturing, largely for exports, suggests that it is set to play a big part in fuelling climate change and the resultant effects on the region’s environment, although its per capita tonnage of carbon emissions, currently at 5.3, pales in comparison to the United States’ 20.