A glacier in China is melting at an unprecedented rate — but it is India that may end up paying the price

  • The Baishui glaciers, which are known as the world’s Third Pole, are melting twice as fast as 2005.
  • The glaciers, situated between India and China, have lost 60% of their mass and shrunk by 250 meters since 1982.
  • The Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra rivers in the Indian subcontinent all originate from these glaciers, whose melting could have dire consequences for the respective river basins.
  • The rivers currently enable states like West Bengal, Assam and Uttar Pradesh to be the largest agricultural producers in the country.
A cluster of Chinese glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate — and could have disastrous consequences for India.

The Baishui glaciers are the world’s third-largest frozen area of water in the world, and are melting at double the rate since 2005.

The disappearance of 60% of its mass, according to a report published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, could have disastrous consequences for India.

Trouble for India

The shrinking of the world’s ‘ Third Pole’ has immediate consequences of India.

Temperatures in the region have increased by 1.5 degrees Celsius, as compared to pre-industrialisation levels, causing the glaciers to not only shrink by 250 meters but also lose 60% of their mass. More than 500 small glaciers in the area have also disappeared altogether.

The glaciers are also the source of 10 of Asia’s largest rivers – including the Ganges, Brahmaputra and the Indus. Their melting has huge implications for these rivers, and could affect the livelihood of over 1.3 billion people.

The most immediate effect will be on farmers, who depend on the melting waters of the glacier for the irrigation of water-intensive crops. In fact, rice, wheat and sugarcane account for 90% of India’s crop production are the most water consuming crops in India’s agricultural scene.

The problem isn’t that excessive water will flood the fields and destroy crops. These rivers are already picketted with dams and irrigation canals that can handle the excess water. The issue is that India’s agricultural water requirements are barely being met, despite the immoderate water supply. So once this water runs out, the river basins will exclusively depend on monsoon rains to replenish themselves.

The underwater aquifers that are in place within agricultural regions are already struggling with their water tables. The use of water is so extensive in these regions that water is being used faster than it can be replaced.

The fall in food production will, in turn, hurt India’s food security. The Ganges river basin, the largest in India, provides water to West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, the largest rice-producing states in the country. This isn’t good for a country whose population largely depends on rice as their staple diet.

Even the production of wheat, sugarcane, jute and basic vegetables is threatened, as the primary regions where they are produced overlap with the affected river basins. Tea plantations in the northeast Indian state of Assam will also be affected, as the Brahmaputra river irrigates them.

The effects transcend India. The Third Pole expands over the Himalaya-Hindu Kush mountain range and the Tibetan Plateau, spelling bad news of India’s neighbours as well. Even, Pakistan needs to be on its toes, since 60% of the country depends on the Indus river for its irrigation requirements.
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