Water is a good servant but a bad master

The floods in northwest Pakistan could be a taste of things to come. A recent report warns that in the next two decades factors like climate change could worsen water-related humanitarian crises.

The waters of the Third Pole, produced by the Humanitarian Futures Programme at King's College, London, said the region was not prepared to deal with such crises.

The flooded part of Pakistan lies in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan (HKH) region, billed as the most disaster-prone in the world, according to the Nepal-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), which serves as a regional policy think-tank for its eight member countries.

The HKH region is sometimes referred to as the Third Pole because it has the largest expanse of frozen water outside the Polar Regions.

"The supply and quality of water in this region are under extreme threat, both from the effects of human activity, and from natural processes and [climate] variation," said the report. The 10 rivers originating in the region provide water to 20 percent of the world's population, and flow across countries "fraught with cross-border tensions", often prompted by water sharing and dam construction.

Conflict, mass migration and food insecurity could make water-related crises even more daunting and politically sensitive; defusing these crises would require a more proactive role by regional humanitarian aid players said Randolph Kent, director the Humanitarian Futures programme.

Traditional humanitarian organisations would "have to be less intrusive, and more able to support local and regional prevention, preparedness and response capacities," he suggested.

''The supply and quality of water in this region are under extreme threat, both from the effects of human activity, and from natural processes and [climate] variation''

Climate change, one of the main natural drivers, is expected to exacerbate "flooding and its virulence in the region in the months and years to come", ICIMOD noted on its website.

But "perhaps nowhere else on earth" will the impact of climate change be "more significant" than in the HKH region, "with huge volumes of water moving from mountains to sea [caused by glacial melt in the Hindu Kush and Himalayan ranges]," the report said.

The 10 large Asian river systems – the Amu Darya, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra (or Yarlungtsanpo), Irrawaddy, Salween (or Nu), Mekong or Lancang, Yangtse (or Jinsha), Yellow River (or Huanghe), and Tarim (or Dayan) - provide water to more than a billion people and support more than 210 million directly.

Besides meeting the demands of a rapidly expanding population in an area with considerable human conflict, the region is a highly active geologic zone, making it "one of the world's most dynamic, complex and intensive risk hotspots", Kent commented.

The HKH region covers the whole of Bhutan and Nepal, about half the territories of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Myanmar, China has a foothold of about 17 percent, India has 14 percent and Bangladesh eight percent, according to ICIMOD.

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How prepared are so many countries, with most of the world's population sharing the same resources, to act in concert? "How, in other words, would regional actors, working in cooperation, deal with the impact of a major flood affecting the India-Pakistan borders, at the same time a cyclone hits the coastline of Bangladesh?"

The region would have to come up with a new way of planning its response to crises while reducing its vulnerability. "Vulnerability will need to be the main focus," said Kent. Countries would have to map vulnerable populations and areas regionally, and construct future scenarios to help prepare for disasters.

Too negative?

ICIMOD's Arun Shreshtha was more cautious. "Presenting a very negative scenario of conflicts across the region will not help, and a growing number of opinions suggest that the type of conflict, as postulated, will not happen," he told IRIN. Nevertheless, there was "certainly a lack of cooperation in scientific cooperation and knowledge sharing across the region".

This is changing. ICIMOD has initiated a programme of regional cooperation in sharing flood information. "We are in discussion with national stakeholders regarding a long-term regional collaboration in the Indus," Shreshtha said. "A similar initiative is proposed for the Kosi [River] Basin," which flows through Nepal and India.

Photo: International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development
The Hindu Kush-Himalayan region with its major river basins (See larger version of map)

The response from the "scientific community has been quite positive, and we are optimistic of a 'trickle-up effect'", he said, but there were gaps in information on the impact of climate change on glacial melt, and how this would affect water supply. Melt rates varied regionally, and in monsoon areas the rainfall regime rather than glacial melt would determine the impact on water supply.

"We do not have good handle on these issues, and unless these basic scientific questions are answered we cannot expect to be prepared for the consequences. In my opinion, the emphasis should be on the improvement of the knowledge base."

This is one of the points made in the Third Pole report. "The region has to set up an essential futures-oriented analysis to narrow knowledge gaps, where possible, to help them respond better," Kent said.

Shreshtha pointed out that "The people of the region have been facing these problems for ever, and have developed some amount of resilience. Certainly, the magnitude of risk has increased, and additional adaptation interventions are necessary, but it is not practical to picture the community as helpless."