Shaji John K
A study says that the world has never faced such a predictably massive threat to food production as that posed by the melting glaciers of Asia.
Shrinking Himalayan glaciers are going to turn Chinese and Indian rivers like the Ganga and the Yangtze into seasonal rivers that dry up in summers and could eventually lead to "politically unmanageable food shortages" in the region, a leading environmental scientist has warned.
Climate-driven shrinkage of river-based irrigation water supplies has been on the environmental community's radar for some time, but the alarm put out by Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute, while invoking a "civilization-threatening scenario," is the starkest yet. "The world has never faced such a predictably massive threat to food production as that posed by the melting mountain glaciers of Asia," Brown said in his paper. "In a world where grain prices have recently climbed to record highs, with no relief in sight, any disruption of the wheat or rice harvests due to water shortages in these two leading grain producers will greatly affect not only people living there but consumers everywhere." Moreover, Brown said, in both of these countries, food prices will likely rise and grain consumption per person can be expected to fall. In India, where just over 40 per cent of all children under five years of age are underweight and undernourished, "hunger will intensify and child mortality will likely climb."
The projections were based partly on the fact that China and India are the world's leading producers of wheat and rice, humanity's food staples. China's wheat harvest is nearly double that of the United States, which ranks third after India. With rice, China and India are far and away the leading producers, together accounting for over half of the world harvest.
Mountain glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau are melting and could soon deprive the major rivers of India and China of the ice melt needed to sustain them during the dry season, Brown's paper said. In the Ganges, the Yellow River and the Yangtze River basins, where irrigated agriculture depends heavily on rivers, this loss of dry-season flow will shrink harvests. The paper referred to the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that Himalayan glaciers are receding rapidly and that many could melt entirely by 2035. If the giant Gangotri Glacier that supplies 70 per cent of the Ganges flow during the dry season disappears, it warned, the Ganges could become a seasonal river, flowing during the rainy season but not during the summer dry season when irrigation water needs are greatest. The Ganga is the largest source of surface water irrigation in India and the leading source of water for the 407 million people living in the Gangetic Basin, a population larger than any other single country other than China. The Yellow River and Yangtze basin hold a similar position in China.
Brown said that as food shortages unfold, China will try to hold down domestic food prices by using its massive dollar holdings to import grain, most of it from the United States, the world's leading grain exporter. As irrigation water supplies shrink, Chinese consumers will be competing with Americans for the US grain harvest. India too may try to import large quantities of grain, although it may lack the economic resources to do so, especially if grain prices keep climbing, the paper forecast. "Many Indians will be forced to tighten their belts further, including those who have no notches left," it predicted. Brown said since glaciologists have given a clear sense of how fast glaciers are shrinking, the challenge now is to translate their findings into national energy policies designed to save the glaciers.
"At issue is not just the future of mountain glaciers, but the future of world grain harvests," the paper said, urging that the "The alternative to this civilization-threatening scenario is to abandon business-as-usual energy policies and move to cut carbon emissions 80 per cent, not by 2050 as many political leaders suggest, because that will be too late, but by 2020." One route that the paper recommended is for China and India to shift energy investment from coal-fired power plants into energy efficient wind farms, solar thermal power plants, and geothermal power plants.