Climate change is putting an enormous strain on global water resources, and according to researchers, the Tibetan Plateau is suffering from a water imbalance so extreme that it could lead to an increase in international conflicts.
Nicknamed "The Third Pole," the Tibetan Plateau and neighboring Himalayas is home to the largest global store of frozen water outside of the North and South Polar Regions. This region, also known as the Asian water tower (AWT), functions as a complex water distribution system which delivers life-giving liquid to multiple countries, including parts of China, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Yet due to the rapid melting of snow and upstream glaciers, the area can't sustainably support the continued growth of the developing nations that rely on it.
"Populations are growing so rapidly, and so is the water demand," said Lonnie Thompson, distinguished university professor of earth sciences at The Ohio State University and senior research scientist at the Byrd Polar Research Center. "These problems can lead to increased risks of international and even intranational disputes, and in the past, they have."
Thompson, who has studied climate change for nearly five decades, is intimately familiar with the precarious nature of the region's hydrological situation. In 1984, Thompson became a member of the first Western team sent to investigate the glaciers in China and Tibet. Since then, he and a team of international colleagues have spent years investigating ice core-derived climate records and the area's rapidly receding ice along with the impact it's had on the local settlements that depend on the AWT for their freshwater needs.
The team's latest paper, of which Thompson is a co-author, was published in the journal Nature Reviews Earth and Environment. Using temperature change data from 1980 to 2018 to track regional warming, their findings revealed that the AWT's overall temperature has increased at about 0.42 degrees Celsius per decade, about twice the global average rate.
"This has huge implications for the glaciers, particularly those in the Himalayas," Thompson said. "Overall, we're losing water off the plateau, about 50% more water than we're gaining." This scarcity is causing an alarming water imbalance: Northern parts of Tibet often experience an overabundance of water resources as more precipitation occurs due to the strengthening westerlies, while southern river basins and water supplies shrink as drought and rising temperatures contribute to water loss downstream.
According to the study, because many vulnerable societies border these downstream basins, this worsening disparity could heighten conflicts or exacerbate already tense situations between countries that share these river basins, like the long-term irrigation and water struggles between India and Pakistan.
"The way that regional climate varies, there are winners and losers," Thompson said. "But we have to learn to work together in order to ensure adequate and equitable water supplies throughout this region." As local temperatures continue to rise and water resources become depleted, more people will end up facing ever diminishing water supplies, he said.
Still, overall increases in precipitation alone won't meet the increased water demands of downstream regions and countries.
To combat this, the study recommends using more comprehensive water monitoring systems in data-scarce areas, noting that better atmospheric and hydrologic models are needed to help predict what's happening to the region's water supply. Lawmakers should then use those observations to help develop actionable policies for sustainable water management, Thompson said. If policymakers do decide to listen to the scientists' counsel, these new policies could be used to develop adaptation measures for the AWT through collaboration between upstream and downstream countries.
After all, when things go awry in one area of the world, like the butterfly effect, they tend to have long-lasting effects on the rest of Earth's population. "Climate change is a global process," Thompson said. "It doesn't matter what country or what part of the world you come from. Sooner or later, you'll have a similar problem."
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