Envisioning the Future of the Third Pole and the Eastern Himalayas


Towering over the world, the Third Pole – encompassing the vast Tibetan Plateau and the Hindu Kush Himalayan region – plays a vital role in shaping the ecological destiny of the Eastern Himalayas. This fragile and magnificent tapestry of mountains, glaciers, and river systems serves as the lifeblood for millions downstream, but now faces a multitude of challenges due to climate change. Water security, agricultural productivity, and ecosystem health are all intricately linked in this region, demanding innovative solutions from all quarters and a rejuvenated focus on restoration.

The Eastern Himalayas, cradled within the Third Pole, stands at the forefront of climate change vulnerability. Rising temperatures are causing an alarming retreat of glaciers, the primary source of freshwater for major river systems like the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra. This translates to a looming threat of water scarcity, impacting not just irrigation but hydropower generation and overall river health. As the snow and ice melt at an accelerated pace, the predictable flow patterns are disrupted, leading to erratic rainfall, such as intense downpours, followed by landslides, glacial lake bursts, floods and even prolonged droughts.

The Third Pole – The lifeline 

The Eastern Himalayas rely heavily on the Third Pole, and the surrounding mountain ranges including the Himalayas, for their very survival. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has projected a 20-30% decline in Himalayan glacier volume by 2100. This translates to a looming threat of water scarcity for over 1.9 billion people living in the river basins below  – a region with already precariously low per capita water availability (around 1,500 cubic meters per person per year, compared to the global average of 6,000 cubic meters).  This scarcity impacts not just irrigation but hydropower generation and overall river health.

Just in the case of its rivers, ythe Third Pole holds the greatest reserves of freshwater outside the polar regions, feeding major rivers like the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra. These rivers are the lifeline for nearly 2 billion people downstream in South and Southeast Asia, providing water for drinking, irrigation, and hydropower generation. However, there is a constant threat of shrinking water security. A report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) warns that with a business-as-usual approach to climate change, at least one-third of the Hindu Kush Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2100. This translates to a significant decrease in freshwater availability, which will severely jeopardise food security and the livelihood of millions. 

This inevitably has a cascading effect. The growing problem in the Eastern Himalayas – the diminishing forest cover –  exacerbates the issue. It has been reported that India alone lost 668,400 ha of forests in 5 years, the 2nd highest globally. Forests act like sponges, storing water and regulating its release. With less forest cover and emerging desertification of large tracts of land, the meltwater runs off quickly, leading to floods during the peak melts and water scarcity during dry seasons. This disrupts agricultural cycles, alters land use patterns that have previously been followed for centuries and increases the risk of desertification, further impacting agricultural productivity that is fraught with seasonal fluctuations and the incomes of the people.

Such an erratic water cycle again poses a severe threat to food security in the region. Highly dependent on agriculture which is predominantly small scale and rain-fed, the communities within the Eastern Himalayas face the brunt of changing weather patterns. The severe droughts cripple crop yields, while the floods devastate farmland and infrastructure. The resulting food insecurity fuels poverty, malnutrition, and social unrest even into the deep recesses of the region, leading further to the vulnerability of communities dependent on subsistence farming and traditional ways of life. These communities often lack the resources to adapt to changing weather patterns and water scarcity. Loss of income due to declining agricultural productivity would have the effect of pushing them into poverty and food insecurity.

The human cost mirrors the ecological devastation. The future of the Eastern Himalayas and its people is intricately linked, and both face a precarious future if the ecological costs of climate change continue to rise. Yet, amidst these daunting challenges lies an opportunity for building resilience and ecological restoration. By collaboratively focusing on restoring degraded lands, reforestation initiatives, and improved water management practices, the vast geographic region of the Third Pole within which reside the Eastern Himalayas can adapt and mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

Mitigation Strategies

The World Bank estimates that climate change could push over 100 million people within the particularly vulnerable South Asian countries into poverty by 2030 – without climate-smart interventions. The region has already lost over 20% of its forest cover, with some countries like Nepal having just 40% forest cover per capita, significantly below the recommended minimum of 50%. 

The international community is starting to recognise the importance of ecosystem restoration as a nature-based solution for climate change adaptation.  The Bonn Challenge, a global effort to restore 350 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2030, has specifically recognised the Himalayas as a high-priority region for restoration. Restoring of degraded land that encompasses practices like soil and water conservation techniques, promoting sustainable grazing, reducing overexploitation and regulating extractive industrial expansion are measures not only improve land fertility for agriculture but can also enhance groundwater reserves within the Eastern Himalayan expanse. Reforestation efforts, particularly focusing on native indigenous tree species, play a crucial role in carbon capture, reducing soil erosion, and regulating local climate patterns. Promoting climate-smart agriculture that uses water efficiently, improves soil health, and utilises drought-resistant crop varieties can significantly boost resilience. Forestry programs that promote sustainable logging practices, community-managed forest models, and financial incentives for forest conservation, while developing measures that tackle the growing deforestation and illegal trade, can contribute significantly. These initiatives not only support ecosystem health and water security but also provide livelihood opportunities through sustainable timber harvesting, ecotourism, and benefits from non-timber forest products, such as medicinal herbs.

The Ramsar Convention Secretariat reports that South Asia has lost over 50% of its wetland area in the last century.  Restoring and protecting wetlands of the Eastern Himalayas can significantly reduce flood risks in downstream areas. Sustainable water management practices are critical. Rainwater harvesting, improved irrigation techniques and promoting water-efficient crops can significantly reduce water usage and improve agricultural productivity. Additionally, the building of small dams and community reservoirs can store excess water during monsoons to buffer against droughts. The Asian Development Bank estimates that South Asia needs to invest over $30 billion annually in its water and sanitation sector by 2030 to meet growing demand. Investing in water storage infrastructure like dams and rainwater harvesting systems can help store excess water during peak melt and distribute it efficiently during dry seasons.  

Eastern Himalayan countries are increasingly recognising the value of nature-based solutions for climate adaptation. These solutions leverage natural ecosystems to enhance resilience. A global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is crucial. South Asia, though a developing region, is a significant emitter. India alone, for instance, is the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA),  India’s growing economy will increase the energy demand, projected to double by 2040.  A significant shift towards renewable and clean energy sources like solar and wind is essential. Continued international cooperation, technological advancements, and increased public awareness are all crucial in this fight. By prioritising these adaptation strategies, the Eastern Himalayas can build resilience and safeguard the future of its people.

Aligning with global and national climate goals such as the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is crucial for the Eastern Himalayas. These frameworks provide a roadmap for sustainable development, fostering international cooperation and resource mobilisation for climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies.

The future of the Eastern Himalayas is intricately tied to the health of the Third Pole. Forestry, in particular, presents a strategic opportunity for building a shared future for the Eastern Himalayas. By prioritising ecological restoration, sustainable water management, and aligning with global agendas, the region can build resilience against climate change. Collaborative efforts between transboundary governments, local communities that share resources across borders, research institutions, and NGOs are crucial for achieving this vision. Building a shared future for the Eastern Himalayas hinges on securing its natural capital – its majestic mountains, pristine forests, and life-sustaining rivers. Only through collective action and a commitment to ecological preservation can the Third Pole, the crown jewel of the continent, adapt and thrive in the face of an escalating climate crisis.

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