Asia’s Water Crisis a Preview of Things to Come

August 17, 2022

India-based video report on China’s water crisis, above.

New research looks at the future of glacial melt in the Himalayas, the source for the Yangtze, and several other of the world’s most important rivers.

The source of the Yangtze is the Ulan Moron (Wulanmulun) River, which originates in glacial meltwaters on the slopes of the Tanggula Mountains in southern Qinghai province on the border with the Tibet Autonomous Region.

New Study in Nature sheds light on grim realities under mid-range climate scenarios.


Terrestrial water storage (TWS) over the Tibetan Plateau, a major global water tower, is crucial in determining water transport and availability to a large downstream Asian population. Climate change impacts on historical and future TWS changes, however, are not well quantified. Here we used bottom-up and top-down approaches to quantify a significant TWS decrease (10.2 Gt yr–1) over the Tibetan Plateau in recent decades (2002–2017), reflecting competing effects of glacier retreat, lake expansion and subsurface water loss. Despite the weakened trends in projected TWS, it shows large declines under a mid-range carbon emissions scenario by the mid-twenty-first century. Excess water-loss projections for the Amu Darya and Indus basins present a critical water resource threat, indicating declines of 119% and 79% in water-supply capacity, respectively. Our study highlights these two hotspots as being at risk from climate change, informing adaptation strategies for these highly vulnerable regions.

Most people would be surprised to learn the number of the world’s most critical rivers that originate in Himalayan glaciers.

Tibet Travel:

Tibet Autonomous Region in China is well known for being the roof of the world and the “Third Pole”, and it is the third largest source of freshwater in the world, right after the North and South Poles. With so much water in one region, it is little surprise that the rivers from Tibet feed more than 46 percent of the people of Southeast Asia.

Tibet is the location of the headwaters for six of the largest rivers on the Asian continent, and in total, these six rivers provide water needs to around 20 percent of the world’s population. However, it does not stop with just those six major rivers. In total, more than ten rivers that originate in Tibet run on into other Southeast Asian countries to supply them with fresh water.

A partial list would also include the Mekong, Yellow, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irawaddy, and Saraswati.

Daily Beast:

The impact of climate change is typically about extremes—and, sometimes, conflicting ones. On the one hand, upticks in global temperatures are expected to melt more glaciers and ice shelves and lead to a dangerous rise in sea levels. On the other hand, we can also expect more devastating droughts—particularly in some of the most populated regions of the world.

That’s the case in a new study published on August 15 in the journal Nature Climate Change that found that a large swath of Central Asia is at risk of a near total collapse of a major water source by 2060. The impact will be largely driven by weak climate policy and could result in the irreversible depletion of freshwater for several countries.

Specifically, the collapse will occur in the Tibetan Plateau, also known as the “water tower” of Asia. Roughly two billion people throughout the region depend on the Tibetan Plateau for their water needs. If bold action isn’t taken to reverse current global warming trends, we could witness the near-total collapse of water supply for Northern India, Kashmir, and Pakistan; and the total collapse of water for Central Asia and Afghanistan.

“The prognosis is not good,” Michael Mann, an atmospheric science researcher at Penn State and co-author of the study, said in a press release. “In a ‘business as usual’ scenario, where we fail to meaningfully curtail fossil fuel burning in the decades ahead, we can expect a near collapse—that is, nearly 100 percent loss—of water availability to downstream regions of the Tibetan Plateau.”

He added, “I was surprised at just how large the predicted decrease is even under a scenario of modest climate policy.”

The study’s authors said that the Tibetan Plateau’s terrestrial water storage (TWS)—a term to describe above and below ground freshwater—hasn’t been well researched despite servicing a large region of the world. So the team looked at satellite- and ground-based measurements of the area’s water supply and discovered that the TWS in the Plateau has drastically dropped by roughly 15.8 gigatons a year from 2002 to 2020.

The researchers then used this data to project future TWS with modeling that assumed a moderate amount of carbon emissions. They discovered that Central Asia and Afghanistan would experience 119 percent decline in freshwater, while North India, Kashmir, and Pakistan would see a 79 percent decline. This would result in catastrophic water insecurity for the billions of people who live in the region.

There is hope, however. Mann specifically pointed to the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, spearheaded by the Biden administration, as a way to “limit the additional warming and associated climate changes behind the predicted collapse of the Tibetan Plateau water towers.” However, more work ultimately needs to be done beyond it.

My 2016 video interview with Lonnie Thompson and the late Konrad Steffen perfectly captured this scenario. Dr. Thompson helpfully pointed out that the countries most affected, China, Pakistan, and India, all possess nuclear weapons.


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