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WWF: Water Crisis Looms as Glaciers Retreat

The Himalayan glaciers are among the fastest retreating glaciers in the world, shrinking because of the effects of global warming, warns the global conservation organization WWF in a report released this week. The eventual result will be severe water shortages for hundreds of millions of people who rely on glacier-dependent rivers in China, India and Nepal.


The report -- An Overview of Glaciers, Glacier Retreat and Subsequent Impacts in Nepal, India and China -- states that glaciers in the region are now receding at an average rate of 10 to 15 meters per year. The Gangotri glacier in India, which supports one of that country's largest river basins, is receding at an average rate of 23 meters per year.


The report was released on Monday, the eve of a two-day ministerial roundtable of the 20 largest energy-using economies in the world, including China and India, followed by a G8 meeting of development and environment ministers focusing on climate change and on Africa. The British government is hosting both meetings in London.


The WWF website quoted Jennifer Morgan, director of the organization's Global Climate Change Program, as saying, "Ministers should realize now that the world faces an economic and development catastrophe if the rate of global warming isn't reduced. They need to work together on reducing CO2 emissions, increasing the use of renewable energy and implementing energy efficiency measures."


The Himalayan glaciers feed into seven of Asia’s greatest rivers, including the Yangtze, Yellow, Lancang (Mekong) and Nujiang (Salween) in China. Together, these rivers provide a year-round water supply to hundreds of millions of people on the Indian subcontinent and in China.


"The rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers will first increase the volume of water in rivers, causing widespread flooding. But in a few decades this situation will change and the water level in rivers will decline, meaning massive economic and environmental problems for people in western China, Nepal and northern India," said Morgan.


As glacier water flows dwindle, the report notes, the energy potential of hydroelectric power will decrease, causing problems for industry. Reduced water for irrigation also means lower crop production.


The report indicates that on China's Qinghai Plateau, lake water levels are already declining, water flow in rivers and streams has dropped and conditions are worsening in swamp wetlands.


National Development and Reform Commission Vice Chairman Liu Jiang said in his keynote speech on Tuesday in London that as a rapidly developing country, China has been challenged by climate change and energy scarcity. 


China is among a few nations in the world that rely on coal as a major energy source. Liu stated that with coal providing 67 percent of the country's primary energy, it is difficult for China to slow the increase in carbon emission.


The government has formulated an energy development strategy with priorities on energy efficiency, diversification, renewable energy and related technology, Liu said.


China promulgated its Law on Renewable Energy last month, and the government is supporting the development and utilization such alternative energy sources as biogas, solar energy, wind power and geothermal energy. Liu added that nuclear power would be another priority as a clean energy source in the next 20 years.


Liu emphasized the importance of global collaboration to tackle climate change, with technology development and transfer as the ultimate solution.


"At present, large-scale infrastructure construction is underway in the developing countries. Should obsolete technologies instead of advanced and climate-friendly technologies be applied on these projects, we would expect high emission of greenhouse gases in the decades to come."


(WWF, Xinhua News Agency March 16, 2005)

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