Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif of Pakistan took the stage at COP27 on Tuesday, where he called for the global community to prioritize adaptation for vulnerable countries, including his own: After devastating floods over the summer, Pakistan has been cited as one of the clearest examples of climate loss and damage. “We struggled on as raging torrents from our melting glaciers in the north ripped out over 8,000 kilometers of [roads], damaged more than 3,000 kilometers of railway track and washed away standing crops on 4 million acres, and ravaged all the four corners of Pakistan,” Sharif told fellow world leaders. “How on earth can one expect from us that we will undertake this gigantic task on our own?”

Pakistan is ranked 146th out of 182 country tiers assessed by the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative for vulnerability and climate preparedness, and it is far from alone in its exposure to melting glaciers. The country is one of eight that occupies what is known as the Third Pole — 6,000 cubic kilometers of glacial ice, according to the Himalayan Climate and Water Atlas, the largest volume outside the North and South Poles. It’s a reservoir that also unites Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar and Nepal, as well as 10 of Asia’s greatest rivers, from the Indus to the Yangtze. The area is also known as the Hindu Kush Himalayas or Asia’s Water Tower, and it supplies freshwater to over a fifth of the global population.

With the world on track to surpass 1.5C of warming over pre-industrial levels, some two-thirds of Third Pole ice is set to melt away by the end of the century. And in recent years, a wave of natural disasters and climate predictions have pushed these diverse nations to the same table to address their changing water system. Now, a coalition of scientists and diplomats, including the research initiative Third Pole Environment and the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), the only intergovernmental platform in the region, are calling for more action from policymakers.

“The optimism is there,” said Pema Gyamtscho, director-general of ICIMOD. “The appetite for cooperation is growing now.”

There is some precedent for coordination between Third Pole countries. In 2018, a landslide crashed into the Yarlung Tsangpo river in southern Tibet, creating a temporary blockade and flood risk. Chinese authorities evacuated over 6,000 people as waters behind the barrier rose. They also notified their downstream counterparts, commissioners of East Siang in India, who told residents to clear the area as the river found natural outflows.

“Disaster knows no boundaries,” said Junyan Liu, program manager for climate and energy at Greenpeace East Asia in Beijing. Liu and her team would later attribute the landslide to the Dongpu glacier, which collapsed on the mountainside above.

Over the past decade, researchers have documented mounting evidence of climate change in the Third Pole region. In China, the rate of retreat for prominent glaciers in Qinghai and Xinjiang appears to have doubled in recent decades, according to a 2018 Greenpeace report. For Laohugou Glacier No. 12, the largest of the idyllic Qilian mountains, that rate jumped from 5.56 meters a year between 1959-1976 to 13.1 meters a year between 2006-2018. While glacier behavior varies across the Third Pole, a United Nations report published in April cites a clear and obvious trend of rising local temperatures, accelerated loss of mass and more frequent glacier-related disasters, such as flooding and debris flows that have proven fatal to shepherds and livestock.

Third Pole ice in these countries also anchors the water cycle, which includes southern monsoons and river runoff to Southeast and Central Asia. As the glaciers melt, lake levels rise to unprecedented heights in some areas, while shifting weather patterns lead to water shortages in others. In addition to the catastrophic floods in Pakistan, this year alone saw drought in southern China and cyclones in Bangladesh. And while more rainfall in some places may prove helpful in the short term — as many Third Pole residents rely on agriculture — scientists anticipate a turning point. Sometime between 2040 and 2070, the region will reach “top water,” when diminished glaciers and evaporating rivers peak in supply, after which river water will suddenly become scarce.

“The question is, are we prepared for this turning point?” asked Deliang Chen, professor and climatologist at the University of Gothenburg and a lead author of “A Scientific Assessment of the Third Pole Environment.”

Chen points to two priorities for multilateral cooperation: first, establishing monitoring and early-warning systems, so that mountain communities exposed to risks caused by extreme weather events can evacuate in time. Second, governments must be prepared for the consequences of top water, and upstream countries, including China and India, need to develop water-sharing programs with their riparian neighbors.

Thus far, however, coordination has been challenging. For one, climate adaptation is just one of multiple demands that these countries must juggle, competing with poverty alleviation, healthcare and economic growth, to name only a few. ICIMOD, the intergovernmental group, is also in a tricky position: To avoid conflict in what can be a geopolitically tense region, it prioritizes the intersection of science and policy, evangelizing resource- and technology-sharing to build trust.

India in particular has historically been skeptical of international environmental agreements due to national security concerns, said Lydia Powell, distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, which focuses on the country’s climate and energy diplomacy. Tensions between India and Pakistan, stemming from the 1947 partition, as well as India’s more recent rivalry with China, which has led to border disputes, also make diplomacy challenging, Powell said.

Hindu nationalist activists shout slogans during a protest outside the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi in June 2020, following a seven-week military standoff between India and China. Image: T Narayan/Bloomberg

The past few years have seen small signs of progress. In 2020, member states signed the HKH Call to Action, an agreement to work together to develop regional climate resilience, recognizing the urgent need for more public and private investment. The development of a multi-governmental platform across the Mekong River Basin to share data, cooperate on reducing water-related risks and ensure sufficient resources has also been hailed as an example of active discussion at the ministry level.

Beyond intraregional diplomacy, Third Pole countries, as well as six downstream countries — Cambodia, Laos, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan and Vietnam — share another common struggle. They are all members of the G77+China, a bloc of developing nations expected to seek more climate finance and reparations from rich countries at COP27. Led by Pakistan, all of these countries will need financial and technical support for climate adaptation. Like small island states, high mountain regions are seeking recognition for their extreme vulnerability to rising temperatures.

“If you’re concerned about sea-level rise, then we have to be concerned about the melting ice in the poles and the Third Pole as well,” ICIMOD’s Gyamtscho said. “What happens in the mountains affects everyone else.”

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