Mountain waters-Uneasy questions

Posted on | september 27, 2011 | No Comments

Water as a resource from management perspective needs to be managed in the mountains very differently as compared to plains. This requires handing few uneasy questions. This essay attempts to see water management of the HKH debunked from global culture.

If you live in Hindu Kush Himalayas, most likely you have grown stoic to difficulties pertaining to access, supply and distribution of water – the most basic and ubiquitous element of life. If you are from a given economic stratum of society, you have probably come to take it as your destiny and your enterprise is almost entirely spent in keeping your life functional in the backdrop of a fast urbanization, where buying a better mobile phone is a legitimate aspiration rather than having two more buckets of clean water for your biological needs. May be we are avoiding the questions because they are uneasy. But it’s a staggering truth that these questions and their answers determine the lives of 210 million people in HKH and 1.2 billion people downstream (ICIMOD, World Water Week 2011 document).

The Himalayas have a total glaciated area of 33,000 sq. km (Eriksson et. Al, 2009) storing about 12,000 cu. Km of freshwater. This gives it a name (rightly) the third pole and water tower of Asia. The HKH nourishes two of the world’s greatest basins namely the Indus in the west containing the Jhelum, the Chenab, the Ravi, the Beas, and the Sutlej rivers, among others and Ganga-Brahmaputra containing the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Yamuna, among others. If we exclude the Salween, Mekong, Yangtze and the Huang He as distinct from Himalayan Rivers (these rivers originate from Tibetan Plateau), the HKH rivers constitutes important parts of river resources of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. It is a very uneasy question why Himalayan people, sitting within such huge water store need to suffer water scarcity at the first place.

The water is mostly stored as glacial ice at 5000 m above sea level, where it is beyond access for greater population. When it melts and turns into water, the mountain courses of rivers have geological regimes of very short lengths and abrupt reduction of altitude – they are pretty sights but lack the broader expanse and land flanks for the popular extraction and use like that in the plains. From a purely engineering perspective, mountain cities can never expect to found traditional huge water extraction plants and long distribution networks for supply akin to those of the coastal plants. That is one practical constraint for urbanization of the mountains. I personally feel that it is nature’s own protection against denaturalization.

Secondly, the Himalayan watersheds are broadly of three types. The Glacier fed located between 4000 to 7000 m have run-offs generated from the melt of permanent snow and glaciers. The recent debate about glacial retreat concerns this region.

The glacial melt starts a river from high altitude but only with enough flow to curb out its path – its contribution to the total flux at the estuary is insubstantial. The snow and rain fed located between 2000 to 4000 m have runoffs generated from this year’s rain and previous years accumulated snow. This is where the river gets its girth and power but unfortunately by now it has almost descended the mountain heights. The rain fed located between 500 to 2000 m have runoffs almost entirely from rain. This is where the river is most noticeable but it’s hardly mountain territory anymore. So climatically and hydrologically, mountain people are not favored by nature to claim the huge bounty of freshwater.

Tower dwellers are not fated to enjoy tower resources.

Or, is it?

I would argue that it is not really true. For ages mountain societies preserved and maintained natural balance between supply and demand and developed traditional institutions and indigenous knowledge of water management. Over the past few decades mountain water needs had been largely ignored and a monoculture growth had been imposed on the mountains neglecting the scientific reality of hydrological cycles in mountains. I shall attempt to bring to discussion the lost art of water management in the mountains in my subsequent articles.

In passing, I shall mention, how apart from a developmental dysfunctionality, climatic variability has come to be a relevant and dangerous aspect of mountain water management. Availability of water in the HKH Mountains is not uniform throughout the year and depends on precipitation, which is highly characterized by seasonality. Precipitation sharply decrease from south (annual mean 1000 to 2000 mm) to north (<200 mm in trans-himalayan regions and large parts of Tibet). Seasonal variations in precipitation and stream-flow in Himalayan basins are very high. Mean monthly discharges of Himalayan rivers in the low flow months before June and after September are generally 10 – 20 times lower than the monsoon months (Chalise et. al., 2001).

The bulk of the people in the mountains have to cope with either ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ water. This has been further worsened by the increased climatic variability induced by Climate Change in recent times. In the higher altitudes, deglaciations are decreasing water availability during dry periods leading to decrease in agriculture and livestock in some parts of Tibet, Ladakh (India) and Mustang (Nepal) and increase in water conflicts. So there is no better time to rethink the water management of the mountains than now.

However, it is not a doomsday story for the mountains. At a time when clean energy with low or zero carbon footprints is emerging as a dire necessity, HKH region is emerging as the new power base for hydro power generation. For example the hydro power potential of Pakistan is estimated to be 20,779 MW and that of Ganga-Brahmaputra-Barak system to the order of 200,000 – 250,000 MW. Nepal alone has a theoretical potential of 83,000 MW which is largely untapped. These can be and should be an economic tread-off of the lost mountain waters for the Mountain States, if they can successfully pull of treaties and co-operation road maps with the lower riprapians and most importantly without getting into the quagmire of ultra-big ultra-ambitious projects. A part of the energy that causes the mountain waters to escape can be gainfully harnessed then.

First published in Climate Himalaya.

AUTHOR: Pabitra Mukhopadhyay
E-MAIL: mukhopadhyay.pabitra [at]


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