Climate Change and Conflict By Robert Mizo  |  15 March, 2024

Leaky Roof: Melting Himalayas in the ‘Asian Century’

Image: pawarit_s/

The roof of the world is leaking; melting to be more precise. The fragile Himalayan ecosphere is facing an imminent threat from warming temperatures induced by climate change. This will not only have ecological consequences but will alter, if not destroy, the lives of millions living downstream across political boundaries and cultures. China and India, touted to be the next big global powers, who are also the two competing protagonists of the so called ‘Asian century’, are immensely indebted to the well-being of the Himalayas for their economic and political security. However, the Asian century seems uncertain at best due to the impending doom that climate change portends for the region, some of which is already being witnessed.

The Himalayan region is crucial not only to the people and other life forms living there but it also supports the lives of billions of people in several adjoining countries, namely Afghanistan, India, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and even Myanmar. Also known as the ‘third pole’, as it is the largest frozen water concentration after the north and the south pole, the Himalayas is the source of major life-bearing river systems such as the Ganges, Indus, Yellow, Mekong and Irrawaddy. In these river basins are located the major hubs of Asian civilisation and they directly or indirectly supply billions of people with food, energy, livelihood. One can say that it is in these river basins that the so-called Asian century is rooted. Further, geopolitically, the Himalayan region contains at least two of the most militarised borders in the world (India-Pakistan and India-China), thereby subjecting it to increased military-infrastructural footprints. This adds to its overall ecological vulnerability.

That the Himalayan glaciers are melting has been a known fact for some time. Scientists have been warning of this melt, sometimes stirring ‘controversy’, since more than a decade ago. However, recent scientific studies confirm a more worrying fact – that the melt is occurring at a pace much faster than initially recorded or anticipated. The Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) reported in its 2023 study that the Himalayan glaciers melted at a rate 65 per cent faster between 2011-2020 as compared to the decade earlier. The report concluded that even if global warming was to be limited to 1.5°C to 2°C as prescribed by the Paris agreement, the Himalayas would still lose a third to half of their volume by 2100. This however is the best-case scenario yet.

A major research programme at the University of East Anglia studied how risks to human and natural systems increase as the level of global warming increases. The study, published in Climatic Change, predicts that about 90 per cent of the Himalayan region will experience drought lasting over a year if global temperature increases by 3°C, and over 4 years at a projected 4°C rise. The authors of the report reiterate the need for sustained policies to keep global warming within the Paris Agreement limits of 1.5°C to avoid catastrophic climate events.

The disastrous implications of melting Himalayas are beginning to be felt. In October 2023, the South Lhonak Lake in India’s north-eastern state of Sikkim burst, claiming 30 lives and uprooting hundreds more in the villages downstream as it destroyed homes, buildings, highways, and the 1,200 MW Urja Hydroelectric Chungthang dam. Initial reports claimed it was caused by a cloud burst but as per the satellite images of the lake’s growth by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), it became evident that it was triggered by a combination of glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) and excess rainfall. This incident was already foretold in 2013 when India’s National Remote Sensing Centre predicted that there was a 42% chance that the lake could burst. Before this, the Himalayan region on the Indian side had witnessed several cloud bursts leading to flash floods and GLOFs.

GLOFs pose a serious threat to Himalayan communities across Bhutan, India, China, Nepal, and Pakistan. In 2020, a UNDP-ICIMOD report on critical glacial lakes in the Himalayas identified 47 of them as critically dangerous; they could burst, flooding areas downstream in China, India and Nepal. Further, a 2023 study on glacial outbursts published in Nature showed that more than 50 percent of the total global population vulnerable to GLOFs live in India, Pakistan, China and Peru.

In the face of such ecological precarity and uncertain future, one can imagine how fragile the projected Asian dominance is. The Asian century seems to be already stymied before it has reached maturity. Economic growth is rooted in the ecological base in which all economic activities occur directly or indirectly. The very source of water, material, and livelihood, if threatened, will ultimately impede endeavour, enterprise, and innovation. Climate-induced glacial melt and lake bursts will continue to have devastating impacts on countries sharing the Himalayan regions, thereby watering down the enthusiasm over Asia’s rise. What is to be done is a question the region needs to ask together, and collectively find measures to help protect their communities from impending doom.

In the recent times, civil society has rallied voices to call the attention of governments to the concerns over the Himalayan region. In February 2024, dozens of social and environmental organisations based in India’s Himalayan regions signed the ‘People for Himalaya’ declaration to highlight the vulnerability of the regions to climate change. They argue that climate disasters are not merely ecological but are political, economic, and social, while calling for developmental projects to be sustainably designed and mindful of the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayas. The declaration has blamed various agencies from international financial institutions to national and state governments of capitalist greed which has led to the growing commodification of the Himalayas – all of which have contributed to the increased vulnerabilities of the region and its communities. Similarly, Sonam Wangchuk, a climate activist and innovator from India’s Ladakh region, is presently undertaking a ‘climate fast unto death’ demanding that the Ladakh region be brought under the special provisions of the 6th Schedule of the Indian constitution which guarantees safeguards for vulnerable indigenous communities and regions.

While major growing economies such as India and China are eagerly scripting their respective stories of rise and dominance, often in competition with each other, the threats they face from climate-induced changes stand to severely cripple their ambition. As two neighbours who have immense stake in the wellbeing of the Himalayas, it is in their collective interest to lead the countries sharing the Himalayan region in concert towards the goal of safeguarding it from impending disasters and finding means to protect vulnerable communities across boundaries. However, geopolitical considerations of border issues and territorial integrity unfortunately still rank higher on their respective agendas. The sooner a reordering of priorities take place, the better for the region.

Related articles by this author:

Riding the heatwave: India's sweltering exposure to climate change (3-minute read)

India's G20 Presidency: Can it reshape international climate politics? (3-minute read)


Robert Mizo is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi, India. He holds a PhD in Climate Policy studies. His research interests include Climate Change and Security, Climate Politics, Environmental Security, and International Environmental Politics. He has published and presented on the above topics at both national and international platforms.