Climatic warming poses a threat to much of the freshwater reserves trapped in glaciers worldwide. In the glacier-capped regions of the Himalayas, the shift in water resource availability could be dramatic. Known as the ‘abode of snow’, the Himalayas are home to thousands of glaciers that form the largest freshwater reserve after the polar ice caps. The runoff generated by these glaciers feeds seven of Asia’s greatest rivers, providing water and supporting the production of food for over 1.5 billion people. Waters from the Himalayan glaciers also feed a ‘hotspot’ region of biodiversity with some 10,000 plant species, an estimated 300 mammals, and almost 1,000 types of birds (Conservation International 2008). Disturbingly in an area of such importance, the Himalayan glaciers are receding. While the timeline for glacial melt here is a subject of debate and even some controversy, a wealth of scientific data indicates that we can expect extensive climatic transformations within generations (IPCC 2007; UNEP 2009). Global temperature increases, shifts in precipitation patterns, and increased deposits of dust and black carbon that reduce light deflection from glaciers will drive the anticipated changes (UNEP 2009). If the glaciers deteriorate, on the one hand, and monsoon trends shift, on the other, many Asian countries will likely face a diminished capacity for surface water recharge and a significant shift in freshwater availability. These changes will wreak havoc on agriculture, industries, and domestic livelihoods downstream. If glaciers continue to decline, a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report warns that the water and food security of developing nations in Asia will be threatened by the middle of the twenty-first century, signaling the ‘reversal of hard won development gains’ (Khoday 2007: 8).
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