Pakistan and the melting glaciers

November 15, 2008











If Pakistan is to dig itself out of its current crisis it needs two things to happen.  It needs strong economic growth to tackle poverty and undercut the appeal of hardline Islamists; and it needs peace with India if it is to permanently cut its ties with militants it has traditionally seen as a reserve force to be used against its much bigger neighbour.  Or so goes the prevailing view.

This week’s United Nations report on pollution in Asia — and the melting of glaciers which feed the rivers of India and Pakistan — suggest there are serious risks to that scenario of an ultimately prosperous Pakistan at peace with its neighbours. In other words, can it achieve the economic growth it needs without worsening pollution further? And can it make peace with India if the two countries end up at loggerheads over dwindling supplies of water?

According to the U.N. report (see full pdf document here), thick clouds of brown soot and other pollutants are hanging over Asia, darkening cities, disrupting the monsoon and accelerating the melting of the mountain glaciers. These atmospheric brown clouds exacerbate the effect of global warming by depositing soot on the glaciers, which captures more solar heat than white snow and ice. “If the current rate of retreat continues unabated, these glaciers and snow packs are expected to shrink by as much as 75 percent before the year 2050, posing grave danger to the region’s water security,” it says.

Pakistan depends on the Indus river, which starts in Tibet and runs through Ladakh on the Indian side of Jammu and Kashmir, before reaching Pakistan, where, fed by numerous tributaries from the mountain glaciers, it swells out as it flows down towards the Arabian Sea. The U.N. report notes that more than three-quarters of Pakistanis live in the Indus basin and its water irrigates 80 percent of the nation’s cropland.

It is already struggling with food shortages, and the report says that the pollution may undermine Asian food security by reducing crop yields and increasing the risk of flooding. At the same time there are signs of strain between India and Pakistan over their shared use of rivers in Kashmir, regulated until now by the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, as I have discussed in posts here and here.

Another headache for the Pakistan government: Is worrying about pollution one step too far for a country that faces near economic collapse and frequent bombings in its cities?  And what happens to the scenario of peace and prosperity — a long-term game-plan that may take years to achieve — if the problem is not addressed?

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