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Shrinking glaciers mean longer hikes to water flocks

February 2, 2009

By Christina Larson | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor/
January 21, 2009 edition

Lanzhou, China

For Tenzin Dorje, the road home keeps getting longer. Each year the
Tibetan shepherd must walk farther to find streams where his sheep can

“I am an old man,” he says, clutching the neck of his cane. Sometimes he
trudges six hours a day, twice his old route. He has contemplated
learning to ride a motorbike like his grandson, but fears it might be
too discomfiting for an 80-year-old man.

The problem is that streams in the province of western China where he
lives are drying up, receding into the mountains.

As recent years have brought higher temperatures and altered how
snowmelt trickles down from glaciers on the Tibetan-Qinghai plateau,
water is becoming scarce.

Mr. Tenzin lives in a small village nestled amid dramatic mountains
peaks. Strings of Tibetan prayer flags flap against a still-brilliant
blue sky. Yet this apparent purity and timelessness masks another
reality: He is living on the frontier of climate change.

Tenzin’s village is on the slopes of the rugged Qilian mountains in
western Gansu province. Glaciers on the mountains are the primary source
of water for humans, farms, and industry in his village of Baijiaowan
and for others north and south of the range.

The streams distinguish the landscape, including a string of oasis towns
along the Old Silk Road, from the abutting Gobi Desert. Today, the
desert is expanding.

“The climate is changing,” says Zhang Mingquan, a professor of earth and
environmental sciences at Lanzhou University, in the provincial capital.
“Snow is the source of the stream water, and now the stream water is
less than before.”

Recent years have seen higher temperatures and less precipitation. As a
result, mountaintop ice is receding.

The Chinese Academy of Social Sci?ences estimates that the glacial area
on the Tibetan-Qinghai plateau, the world’s largest ice sheets outside
the poles, is shrinking about 7 percent each year.

It might seem that melting glaciers would bring more water in the short
term. But that isn’t necessarily the case, says Michael MacCracken of
the Climate Institute in Washington.

“Glaciers and snow on mountains serve as a storage mechanism for water,
holding it for later,” he says. “The area of the glaciers is an
indication for how well that system is working.” Think of glaciers as a
bowl, and snowfall as rice – a shrinking bowl holds less rice. Receding
glaciers capture less annual snowfall.

“Without the glaciers, snow and rainfall tend to seep into the soil –
usually mountain soil is quite porous – and then it later evaporates,”
says Dr. MacCracken.

In nearby Minqing county, instead of walking farther for water, farmers
dig deeper. Fifty years ago, wells tapped groundwater at 50 feet. Now
they must drill 100 feet or more. With less snowmelt, groundwater is not
fully replenished.

Glaciers stretching across the towering Tibetan-Qinghai plateau sustain
all the great rivers of Asia – the Yang??tze and Yellow Rivers in China;
the Ganges, Indus, and Brahmaputra in India; the Mekong and Salween in
Southeast Asia.

“With climate change, all these rivers will have greatly reduced flows,”
says Carter Brandon, director of the World Bank’s China environment
program in Beijing. “There will also be much more seasonal variation –
when flow is more dependent on rainfall, as opposed to the steady inflow
of snowmelt from glaciers.”

The glacier system delivers water to more than 300 million people in
China – and 1 billion across south Asia.

The region is among the globe’s most rapidly warming. Average annual
temperatures on the “rooftop of the world” have climbed 2 degrees F. in
two decades.

Chinese scientists expect the total area of the glaciers to halve every
10 years. By 2100, they predict, the glaciers may have largely vanished.

Those hit first and hardest by climate change, like Tenzin Dorje, tend
to live in poor communities on the margins, on mountaintops or by the
sea. Typically they have contributed little to global carbon emissions.

There is now a new push to address their concerns. In 2007, the
Rockefeller Foundation established a five-year, $70 million
“climate-change resilience initiative” to assist developing countries.
In December 2007, during climate talks in Bali, Indonesia, United
Nations negotiators drafted a framework for a new “adaptation fund” to
aid poor countries and communities.

The critical issue of what practical measures can be taken remains. A
team of scientists in Switzerland has begun to research the possibility
of shielding glaciers from rising summer temperatures with blankets of
insulating foam. But such investigations are only preliminary.

Other research on addressing global water shortages includes promising
(if costly) ways to desalinize seawater and recycle wastewater. But such
approaches will work better in coastal areas and cities, not landlocked
villages like this.

Research into solutions is attracting more attention from scientists and
policymakers today. “Now we’re beginning to focus more seriously on
these issues,” says MacCracken, the climate scientist.

“I used to think adaptation subtracted from our efforts on prevention,”
former vice president Al Gore recently told the Economist magazine. “But
I’ve changed my mind. Poor countries are vulnerable and need our help.”

But who will foot the bill? According to the UN, by 2015 approximately
$86 billion annually will be needed for adaptation efforts.

The small home of Zahxi Rangou is perched on a mountainside overlooking
a snowy valley and a white pagoda temple. He is one of 15 lamas residing
on the grounds of the Tibetan Midi Temple, tucked in the Qilian
mountains in Gansu province. The young monk has two rooms: One is warmed
by a stove for visitors. One is cold and full of books and a computer.

Here he spends his days in prayer and study. He has Internet access, and
is well-read on climate science.

“The glacier is depleting,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s melting in
the summer. And the weather is getting drier.” His knowledge is power,
but there are limits on how he can use that power. Tibetans, an ethnic
minority in China, are closely watched by the government. It is
difficult for leaders of his community to organize around environmental
or other issues in China.

He says he doesn’t use e-mail, because it can so easily be monitored.
Many Internet news sites are blocked.

At nearby Zhuanlong Temple, no one answers a knock at the door. The lama
there has left on a special mission this winter: He will spend two weeks
praying at the source of each stream for its bountiful return.
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