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Water Security in the Himalayas: A Brief Overview

When the smog clears and we have a reprieve from the monsoon, life in Kathmandu can provide an unexpected wonder.  A simple text message saying, “The mountains are out!” and I know to head to a balcony to catch a glimpse of the imposing Himalayas.  You can see their snowy peaks poking over the lowland “hills”, which are actually considered “mountains” most other places in the world.  The sheer size of the Himalaya is incomparable, and it is impossible to shake the sense of awe while the 8000m+ mountains are in view and, even more so, while you are trekking among their alpine peaks and valleys.

It is no surprise that the Himalayan Mountains are considered the most vital resource in Asia and that water security in the Himalaya is an omnipresent issue for locals, nations, and the international community alike.   If we look at any angle of water security – human, food, economic, energy, political, or climate security – the Himalayas provide the perfect example of an emerging threat that must be addressed hastily.

As the water faucet for all of Asia, the rivers that find their headwaters in the Himalayan Mountains are the source of water that is tapped and exploited across the continent. The rivers meet the vital domestic water needs of over 4 billion people (human security, anyone?).  It supplies water for irrigation and agricultural demand in the productive breadbaskets in China, India, and the Mekong Basin (food security).  The water is needed to support the rapid development and industrial growth plans throughout the region (economic security).  Emerging risks and hazards, such as increasing floods in the lowlands and new dangerous glacial lakes in the high altitudes, are recent risks that must be addressed as climate continues to change (climate security).  And, there is increasing focus on the Himalayas to satisfy swelling electricity demand by developing new hydropower projects (energy security).

This immense demand on the water that flows from the Himalayan Mountains has and will continue to be a source of international competition.  There is a finite amount of water to go around, and as that availability changes due to fluxes in climate, the future of water for the region is uncertain.  Political security due to tension over the limited water supply may emerge as a major challenge for Asia in the near future.

Water security in the Himalayas will be (and maybe already is) the hot topic for Asia.  How the Asian continent copes with and adapts to increasing demand for its variable and declining water resources will dictate its internal human, food, economic, climate, energy, and political stability.  This grand challenge is not limited to Asia.  No, the Himalaya are simply a case study of the emerging water security paradigm that is emerging.  These trends and tensions are occurring everywhere and evolving in different ways.  And the impacts in one location inevitably affect other places in our globalized and interconnected society.

So maybe the real challenge is: how will the world adapt to and cope with water security?

About Katalyn Voss

Kate Voss is the Water Policy Fellow at the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling (UCCHM), a UC systemwide center that focuses on water issues in California and the western United States. She currently splits her time between Nepal, Peru, and California.

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Design professional Richard Vijgen's rendering of GRACE and USGS groundwater depletion data displayed on Times Square beginning on World Water Day, March 22, 2012.

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