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SOUTH ASIA: Disunity Hovers over a Region Battling Climate Change

September 21, 2009

By Athar Parvaiz

KATHMANDU, Sep 20 (IPS) - As the Copenhagen Conference on climate change
draws nearer, South Asia, which appears poised for severe threats from the
impacts of climate change, faces a stiff challenge on two fronts.

For one, South Asia's member states - home to half the world's poor - need
to convince the developed world to take steps toward the mitigation of
future climate-related risks in the region.

For another, divergence of ideas among these countries over some crucial
issues arising from the impact of this global concern on the region is a
potential stumbling block to training some of the global climate change
spotlight on South Asia.

The region will need to lobby hard during the Copenhagen summit in December
to get the support they need, given the potential threats confronting the
region as a result of climate change impacts, experts say.

World leaders will assemble in Denmark's capital to hammer out a fresh
agreement on this global challenge. The expected agreement will replace the
1997 Kyoto Protocol, which is set to expire in 2012.

The international agreement adopted in Kyoto, Japan on Dec. 11, 1997
establishes legally binding commitment to reduce greenhouse gases and two
groups of gases. When its first commitment period ends in 2012, a new
international framework should have been negotiated and ratified.

Over the years, South Asian states "have not been able to discuss even
matters of mutual interest seriously," said a top-ranking official in one of
the countries in the region, who requested anonymity.

For instance, during the United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development,
held in Johannesburg, South Africa on Aug. 26 to Sep. 4, 2002, no regional
session for South Asia could take place, since the region had failed to
submit a position paper "before the stipulated three months while all other
regions had submitted it right in time." This despite the region "being
environmentally so vulnerable," he said.

This apparent lack of cohesion and collective concern was evident anew in a
regional conference on climate change held in late August in this capital.

"Out of the eight participating countries from the region, only three sent
their environment ministers while the rest sent only their representatives
such as their secretaries deputy secretaries and undersecretaries," said the
South Asian official.

The South Asia Regional Climate Change Conference - which revolved around
the theme, 'From Kathmandu to Copenhagen: A Vision for Addressing Climate
Change Risks and Opportunities in the Himalaya Region' - described the
region as a "climate change hot spot that influences the lives of half of
the world's population."

The climate of "non-cooperation" hovering over South Asia is likely to
hamper collaborative efforts and thus derail the formulation of a common
policy that will address climate change issues in South Asia, regional
observers note.

Within the Hindu Kush-Himalayan mountain range - said to be the world's
greatest repositories of snow and ice outside of the polar region - the
glaciers are retreating at a rapid pace, experts say.

"A majority of the glaciers are reported to be shrinking in mass at low and
mid-altitudes in the Himalayan region, but only a few of them are being
scientifically monitored," Pradeep K. Mool, a remote-sensing specialist with
the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), told

The Kathmandu-based ICIMOD assists mountain people in the eight regional
member countries of the Hindu Kush-Himalayas - Afghanistan, Bangladesh,
Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan - in understanding how
"(g)lobalisation and climate change have an increasing influence on the
stability of fragile mountain ecosystems and (their) livelihoods."

The International Commission on Snow and Ice in Kathmandu - which promotes
the scientific study of snow, permafrost and ice and their dynamics with the
ecosystems - said the Himalayan glaciers are retreating faster than anywhere
else in the world, and could be gone by 2035.

"Glacial melt, coupled with more variable precipitation, could severely
compromise livelihoods and the future prospects of agriculture" in the Hindu
Kush-Himalayan mountain range - the source of the nine largest rivers of
Asia, said a World Bank (WB) report.

Researchers working on climate change say that the temperature rise, due to
the changing climatic conditions, has attracted insects to the high
altitudes of the Himalayas, which were heretofore unknown in these places.

"For example, people in Lhasa (the administrative capital of the Tibet
Autonomous Region) are now using mosquito nets in summers," said Mool. The
presence of mosquitoes has also been observed at Mount Everest's base camp,
and this has the potential of spreading diseases like malaria and dengue
fever, he added.

In landlocked Nepal, several areas are exposed to threats like glacial lake
outburst floods (GLOF) - a sudden discharge of huge volumes of water due to
glaciers melting at rapid rate. This phenomenon can destroy life and
property along the downstream.

"Nepal's glacial lakes have grown both in number and in volume, and some
village communities now live in constant threat of glacial outbursts," said
World Bank lead economist Claudia Sadoff during the climate change regional
conference here.

"There have been more than 13 reported cases of glacial (lake) outburst
floods in the Nepal Himalayas since 1964, causing substantial damage to
human beings, livestock, land environmental resources and infrastructure,"
said Nepal's environment minister Thakur Prasad Sharma in an interview with
IPS. About 20 lakes in Nepal Himalayas "are considered most threatened," he

Based on World Bank's projections, GLOF and varying agricultural yields are
going to be the greatest threats to another Himalayan nation, Bhutan, in the

In Afghanistan, the WB report, 'Projected Climate Change impacts in South
Asia', states that the already extreme climate variability will increase and
would compound social and economic risks.

A massive climate out-migration in Bangladesh is likely to happen, given the
exceptional scale of impacts including sea-level rise directly affecting at
least 30 percent of the population, coupled with intensified monsoons and
changes in rainfall patterns yielding floods, drought and cyclones.

In India, frequency of storm surges, cyclones, floods and droughts is
expected to increase and intensify while climate change would negatively
impact agricultural yields, decrease river flows, cause sea level rise
thereby impacting coastal livelihoods. "The magnitude of every climate
change impact is likely to be among the world's highest, but this massive
challenge is crowded out by mitigation concerns," says the WB report.

The WB's projections about Pakistan indicate that the Indus River, which is
50 percent glacier-fed, will witness huge reductions in flow due to rapid
glacier melt while intensified droughts and sea-level rise in that country
"will require major livelihood transitions and economic transformation, with
consequent risks of social upheaval if unplanned."

These potential threats looming over the region are enough reason why
countries need to lobby hard for appropriate action during the Copenhagen

Unless climate change becomes a policy issue in the South Asian states'
elections, "it will not be taken seriously," a miffed Maldivian environment
minister, Mohammed Aslam, said during one of the sessions in the Kathmandu

"I am not seeing anything serious happening here," said a delegate from
Bangladesh, which is regarded as one of the countries extremely exposed to
the climatic threats.

Philippine senator Loren Legarda, the United Nation's Champion for Disaster
Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation for the Asia Pacific region,
said the Maldives is on the brink of destruction, noting that "a one-meter
rise in sea level could submerge 80 percent of (its) 1,192 islands." Legarda
led a U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction delegation in July
as part of an advocacy mission to the island state.

Experts say that the Maldives faces a serious threat due to the probable
sea-level rise spawned by climate change. Not a single part of the Maldives
lies more than 2.5 metres above sea level even as dozens of islands of this
nation are undergoing erosion, experts say.

While other countries have expressed deep concern about the impacts of
climate change, whether in the South Asia or elsewhere in the world, India
appears to be downplaying them.

"India is rather keen to collaborate with another Asian giant, China, since
both China and India are under pressure from the developed countries to
reduce their carbon emissions," said Syed Iqbal Hasnain, a prominent Indian
glaciologist. Apart from being major contributors of black carbon emissions
in Asia, the two countries together account for 25 to 35 percent of global
carbon emissions.

South Asian countries have to collaborate with each other in order to come
out with a joint policy, said Hasnain. "Apart from complaining, the
countries of the region have to make local efforts to reduce the risks of
climate change."
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