South Asia

  • Snowfall shift threatens South Asia’s water supply

    Safya Khan-Ruf


Speed read

  • Global warming may reduce snowpacks in the Indus river basin and other places

  • Rural populations near mountains set to suffer most from snowfall variations

  • Governments must adapt to snowfall changes through tailored responses

The Indus river basin, which is shared among Afghanistan, China, India and Pakistan, is among areas considered sensitive to climate-induced changes to snowfall patterns and affect the water source of some two billion people, researchers say.
According to a study that the researchers published this month (November) in Environmental Research Letters, developing countries must work to protect citizens from these variations in snowfall.

Out of 421 drainage basins studied in the northern hemisphere 32, serving nearly 1.45 billion people, were most sensitive to these changes because of their high reliance on snowmelt. In these regions, precipitation falling as rain instead of snow due to climate change is likely to decrease the volume of snowpacks, which are natural reservoirs of freshwater.

“Both increases and decreases [in snowfall] are entirely consistent with global warming.”

Justin Mankin, Columbia University, United States

“Both increases and decreases [in snowfall] are entirely consistent with global warming,” says lead author Justin Mankin, a climatologist at Columbia University in the United States. “We have to be prepared for both.”
The study has identified areas where there is a high demand for water and a large role for snowmelt in the hydrological cycle, says Walter Immerzeel, a geoscientist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who has worked in developing countries.
Rural populations are likely to suffer most, particularly those living near mountains, according to Immerzeel. “The closer you are to the source, the more dependent you are on the snowmelt,” he says.
Protecting those vulnerable to changing snowfall patterns requires locally adapted responses, says Mankin. “Some areas will need changes in the legal institutions, others in infrastructure or technological access,” he adds.
For ease of modelling, the study assumed that water demand per person would remain the same over the next century, but growing populations and changing consumption patterns will put increasing pressure on water resources. “Humans are the largest source of uncertainty and that means we have a tremendous amount of agency in the outcome,” says Mankin. He adds that consumption patterns and conservation efforts will determine how vulnerable each nation is to the change.
But Mark Maslin, a climatologist at University College London in the United Kingdom, says current pressures could prevent conservation efforts. “Even if [governments] are aware of future, bigger problems, it’s difficult for them to plan for it when they are just trying to look after their people now” to cope with immediate conflict and natural disasters, he says.
This article was originally published on SciDev.Net’s Global Edition.