Clean Tech

Allowing glaciers to retreat will be nothing less than a Himalayan blunder

Preeti Mehra | Updated on April 08, 2020 Published on April 08, 2020

A shrinking glacial mass could compromise our water and energy security, cautions a TERI study

Glaciers retreating is one of the key indicators of the impact of climate change and global warming. In India, the threat to the glacial mass on the Himalayas is very real and the retreat of some of the Himalayan glaciers, which began in the mid-19th century, has only persisted. In fact, recent satellite images have indicated that the East Rathong glacier, Gangotri glacier, Samudratapu glacier and the Dokriani glacier are shrinking.

It is the western Himalayan basin that is worst affected, both in terms of the number of retreating glaciers and the extent of retreat. This spells uncertainty for millions of people and other life forms who are dependent on the rivers fed by these glaciers. It also threatens our water and energy security.

Around 800 million people who live in the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra river basins depend on the Himalayan glaciers. The three rivers provide almost 50 per cent of the country’s surface water resources that can be utilised, with snow and ice melt from the glaciers contributing sharply to the total annual river discharge.

However, we are not far from a water-stressed situation in the country and this coincides with energy demand going up at the same time. It is this close interdependence between the Himalayan glaciers and the water and energy security of our country that made The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) choose to study Climate change impacts on Himalayan glaciers and implications on energy security of the country. TERI has run a Glacier Research Programme since 2008.

Authored by Dr Shresth Tayal, Fellow and Area Convenor, Water Resources Division, TERI, the study points out that around 33 per cent of the country’s thermal electricity and 52 per cent of hydropower is dependent on the water from rivers originating in the Himalayas, making the glaciers “an indispensable part of India’s energy security”. In its recently concluded report, TERI estimates that around one-third of the country’s electricity production capacity is located in these plains, and any variability in flow pattern of the rivers originating from the Himalayas “can have far-reaching consequences for the energy security of the country.”

TERI’s recommendations

To correlate the impacts of climate change on our energy security, TERI has looked at the amount of water we use to produce energy for the country and says the key to water and energy security is reducing our water footprint in a well-planned manner at the policy level as is being done for renewable energy. The policy “should have equal impetus on reducing the water footprint of electricity production,” says the report. And makes a slew of recommendations to help improve the existing scenario.

The recommendations include reducing the water footprint in a significant manner.

For this, it must be mandatory for power plants to attain water neutrality — they return the same amount of water to the hydrological system that they consume. In the agriculture sector, it would mean encouraging micro-irrigation systems, the use of efficient water fixtures and water harvesting, to help reduce water stress.

Water storage policy

Along with this, it recommends an integrated water storage policy, “which may consider water storage in its full continuum of physical water storage from groundwater, through soil moisture, small tanks and ponds to small and large reservoirs.” The report feels it is necessary to create a policy to provide ‘water reserve capacity’ similar to creation of the ‘oil reserve capacity’ policy in the country, with “provision for storage of water equivalent to the country’s minimal water requirement, for at least 90 days of a year”.

Besides this, the researchers feel it is important to develop “a comprehensive understanding about the status of Himalayan glaciers” by forming a committee of researchers and, at the same time, promoting studies on the Himalayan glaciers.

Equally, if not more important, is the need for a ‘Joint coordination committee for Water and Energy’ so that all decisions are inter-linked and departments don’t work in silos and at cross purposes.

Published on April 08, 2020

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