"Asian tensions on water supply risk spilling over"
On the outskirts of Kathmandu, capital of Nepal, climate researchers twiddle with computers displaying maps of the Himalayas. At the press of a button, rivers and mountain passes change colour and watercourses expand to show villages swept away by simulated flood waters.Not all the researchers at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development are pondering the devastation that would result from the bursting of high-altitude glacial lakes, though. Some are considering what awaits millions of people when the ice and snow caps of the "water towers of Asia" - so called because of the 10 big rivers originating in the peaks - are depleted by global warming. Few are willing to guess when this will happen, but their charts and photographs of retreating snowlines and glaciers have the whiff of inevitability.Already mountain hydrologists can pinpoint where water stress will be greatest in the years to come. As the availability of water in Himalayan-fed river systems that support 1.3bn people drops, researchers expect the border between India and Bangladesh to be the first flashpoint of an intensifying battle across south Asia."If we don't address this [issue], it will further aggravate political conflict," warns Golam Rasul, senior economist at the research centre.
His comments came as India publicly displayed its sensitivity over upstream control of water, challenging Beijing over potential plans to build dams in Tibet on the Brahmaputra river and to finance dams in Pakistani Kashmir on the Indus river.Scientists warn that the nature of the monsoon, and precipitation over the Himalayas, has already changed for the worse. Sporadic, rather than sustained, torrential rain- fall removes topsoil and fails to revitalise the land.In some parts, they say, "severe and acute" local conflicts between communities are on the rise.The foothills of the Himalayas are one of the most intensely irrigated food-producing areas of the world. Scientists say that while glacier melt has caught the world's attention, a receding snow cap is more threatening to the livelihoods of farmers on the plains below.
The critical period for water availability is between February and June, when farmers rely particularly on melting snow for irrigation.The water treaties agreed in the region, some not updated since the 1960s, are viewed as inadequate. Trans-border dialogue is halting, with contact mainly at the technical level through scientific institutions rather than governments.
"The political situation is not mature enough to go into basin- wide agree- ments," says Andreas Schild, director general of the Kathmandu research centre. "The local population is starting to be worried. They are asking themselves: 'Why are all these foreigners coming up to look at our glaciers?' "
Disputes over river waters have dominated relations between India and Bangladesh for decades. About 54 rivers flow into Bangladesh from India and, with an agrarian economy dependent on rivers, Dhaka has raised concerns about the amount of water that flows into its territory, particularly along the Ganges.Mr Schild says not enough is known about the extent of the water resources in the Himalayas. But none of the scientists regrets the new focus their work is receiving. Fear over climate change, ahead of the intergovernmental summit in Copenhagen in December, is prompting broader issues about sustainability in the region to be addressed.Margareta Wahlstrom, assistant secretary general of the United Nations, said the debate about global warming was spurring governments in the region to review disaster prevention strategies. The shifting swirls of yellow, blue and mauve on the scientists' computer screens may yet avert catastrophe.
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