Eminent mountain scientist makes a plea for science-based reporting, early warning systems, and regional data sharing to prepare for climate change

Echoing the sobering realisation, post-Copenhagen, that there is no compromising on the need for science and evidence-based reporting, internationally renowned mountain scientist and scholar, Professor Jack D. Ives, reflected in an ICIMOD Knowledge Forum on landmark instances in nearly four decades of his involvement in mountain research, when widely held beliefs and development paradigms, and dire forecasts of catastrophe, were not based on science and reality.

Documenting his assertions with repeat photographs he described the following:

  1. An extreme rainfall event in the Darjeeling Himalaya in 1968 (up to 100 cm in three days), which caused massive landslides (rough estimate of over 20,000 throughout the landscape, cutting the main road to Siliguri in 92 places) and flooding that were attributed to deforestation instead of the catastrophic rainfall event that had just taken place.

    It was ‘fashionable’ and widely agreed in development and academic circles during the 1970s and 1980s to attribute the prospect of Himalayan disasters to deforestation caused by unsustainable practices of mountain farmers
  2. A landslide in Kakani, Nepal, and the same spot completely rehabilitated two decades later through indigenous farming practices of mountain farmers, was one of many examples that debunked the myth of the ‘Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation’. Presenting pictures of beautifully terraced landscapes, he posed the question: how can such beauty, the result of generations of agricultural architecture and wonderful soil conservation, have been caused by unsustainable practices?
  3. Lake Sarez in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan, formed by a landslide dam after an earthquake in 1911, which had grown to 60 km long and up to 500 m deep and which was prophesied as a flood catastrophe of biblical proportions waiting to happen, that would put five million people at risk. A villager in 1999, talking of their own land management system and her intuitive sense, did not believe that this predicted disaster was going happen, which it did not.
  4. In 2002, a prominent British scientific journal predicted that the 21st century would witness the loss of hundreds of millions of lives and tens of billions of dollars in property damage as a result of outburst floods from Nepal’s newly forming glacial lakes. It is remarkable that such outrageous over-dramatisations are endorsed by ‘responsible’ news media.

These experiences have affected his outlook profoundly.

“Mountain farmers sometimes know more about landslides and how to rehabilitate the land than outsiders and so-called Western experts.”
He mentioned the ‘Himalayan meltdown’ as written up in some science publications and presented in Copenhagen, as also “grossly exaggerated.”
“The total volume of glacial ice in Nepal would contribute little more than 4% of the flow of the Ganges and is therefore insignificant in terms of total water volume; but there is pre and post-monsoon to account for, and a host of other factors that makes for a complex situation. It is dangerous to make generalisations.”

“We know that glaciers are thinning and retreating across the length and breadth of the Himalayan region; in the northwest some are thickening and advancing; in Nepal and elsewhere a number of small glaciers have entirely disappeared. But we should not generalise without much more precise and longer term glaciological, hydrological and meteorological data. This does not mean that we should not take steps to anticipate future problems, but exaggeration can lead to unfortunate contrary reactions.

In the Alps, Iceland, and the Canadian and American Rockies, there is a significant databank on glaciers, but nothing long-term in the Himalayas, and we cannot extrapolate based on a few years data and from a very small number of glaciers alone (although it might be tempting to do so).”

Professor Ives underscored the need to distinguish between probability, prediction, and perception, and urged monitoring of glaciers, early warning systems in the villages in the path of possible glacial lake outbursts, such as in the Nepalese valleys below Imja lake in the Khumbu, and Tsho Rolpa in the Rolwaling Himalaya, and sharing of rainfall and other data among countries. At least 1.5 billion people depend on the Himalayan waters; among others, there is a need to accelerate glacial research, to monitor and estimate rainfall, to increase documentation and repeat photographs, and to persuade countries to share data. There is also an urgent need to conserve water and repair inefficient irrigation systems.”

The reluctance to share hydrometeorological data is a real problem, he said. At the same time he expressed optimism that this is now being gradually resolved. (ICIMOD is initiating glacier risk monitoring and offering a platform for regional cooperation in data sharing and disaster risk management interventions.)
He acknowledged that the ‘catastrophe of Copenhagen’ at least woke up world awareness on the need to study glaciology.

Side Note:  Professor Ives, a Canadian geographer, and mountain scholar and researcher, has done work in the field in the Nepal Himalayas, Tibet, Tajikistan, the Ecuadorian Andes, Iceland, and the Arctic regions of Canada and is considered, along with Prof. Bruno Messerli, one of the leading authorities on mountain environments. Messerli and Ives, together with a small group of mountain colleagues, were largely responsible for bringing the conditions of the mountain communities and the mountain environment to world attention during the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. This led to inclusion of Chapter 13:  Managing Fragile Ecosystems, otherwise known as the mountain chapter, in Agenda 21 on Sustainable Development, and finally to the UN’s declaration of 2002 as the ‘International Year of Mountains’.

Professor Ives was in Kathmandu towards the end of 2009 and in the first quarter of 2010 to assist with preparations for a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) Risk Status Report for the region – a project, which ICIMOD leads. ICIMOD’s Integrated Knowledge Management Division took the opportunity to engage him as its first Knowledge Forum speaker for 2010.

- Joyce M. Mendez, 17 March 2010, jmendez@icimod.org