Four Himalayan nations, faced with erratic weather and the threat of melting glaciers and catastrophic floods, are hashing out a plan for preserving the vast mountain range and helping millions living in the foothills cope with climate change.
But as India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan set to work on a new 10-year management policy, three other major Himalayan nations will be conspicuously absent.
Organizers have downplayed the fact that Pakistan, China and Afghanistan are not attending the Climate Summit for a Living Himalayas, saying the talks Saturday in Bhutan's capital of Thimphu are focused on securing ecosystems, endangered species, forests and food and water sources for only the eastern part of the range.
The summit, to some extent, is the Himalayan answer to an urgent need for action amid the international community's inability to agree on limiting greenhouse gas emissions thought to cause global warming. Expectations are again low for a breakthrough at the next U.N. climate talks, beginning Nov. 28 in Durban, South Africa.
"Climate change is placing extraordinary pressure on the Eastern Himalayas _ its people, iconic landscapes and species are all being hit hard by changing weather patters," Bhutan's Agriculture Minister Pema Gyamtsho said in a statement. "The Eastern Himalayas is now in urgent need of a regional framework of cooperation that combines expertise from governments, NGOs and civil society. Himalayan nations must act now."
But the absence of three key players underscores the difficulty of reaching regional consensus on how best to protect the peaks, known as the "Water Towers of Asia," with snowmelts feeding into the continent's seven largest rivers.
Regional tensions have long prevented Himalayan cooperation, including basic research in the world's largest block of glaciers outside the polar regions, and accounting for 40 percent of the world's fresh water.
"The Himalayas present an opportunity where India and China, for example, could really work together to understand and preserve the glaciers, which are a very important ecosystem not just for the region, but for the global climate," said glaciologist Shakeel Romshoo, head of the geology department at the University of Kashmir.
A first step, scientists say, would be to establish a research framework for the region, where just a few dozen of the tens of thousands of glaciers have been studied.
"There is so much acrimony and mistrust, (the countries) are not able to think logically about what needs to be done," Romshoo said.
Many lower-altitude glaciers are melting faster, with thousands of new lakes appearing and threatening mountain villages and agricultural plateaus with catastrophic floods should they overflow. Weather patterns have changed, with some regions experiencing torrential monsoons and mudslides, and others suffering droughts. The flow of rivers carrying snow melt toward the seas is less predictable.
As populations grow, and economies need more water for agriculture and energy production, establishing and revising water treaties will become a key issue to the seven Himalayan-dependent nations as water is predicted to get more scarce.
But drafting such treaties, experts say, requires a better understanding of the glaciers themselves, how fast they are melting, and what exactly is causing it. Scientists are still unable to say how much of an impact rising world temperatures have versus other influences, including soot coming mainly from Indian and Chinese cities that colors the ice black.
Ramshoo's own study of the Indus glacier system, providing a lifeline downriver in the Pakistani plateaus, has been hobbled by India and Pakistan's rivalry. Ramshoo has access only to small ice caps on the Indian side. "We know they are melting, but we don't know what's happening on the Pakistan side" where reports indicate the larger glaciers at higher altitude are stable or growing, he said. For years, however, Romshoo has been unable even to get meteorological data from Pakistan.
Kashmir's Siachin Glacier, dubbed the world's highest battlefield with Indian and Pakistani troops facing off, remains a question mark for scientists. Despite several wars, the two countries have honored their 1960 Indus Water Treaty, but Pakistan recently has shown concern about its future allotment, twice bringing complaints about Indian hydropower dams to the World Bank for arbitration.
"There are issues, of course, there are areas to improve," Indian Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan said. "We are committed to cooperating with the Himalayan countries, but it will take time. On these issues, though, there is perhaps more understanding than on others."
China's neighbors, meanwhile, worry that Beijing's rapid program of damming major rivers flowing from the Tibetan plateau will trigger natural disasters, degrade fragile ecologies and divert vital water supplies. The worries might be lessened if China shared hydrological and other data, but China, along with Turkey, refuse to sign a key 1997 U.N. convention on transnational rivers.
Tiny Nepal, home to Mount Everest, is still recovering from a decade of civil war and the ensuing political instability.
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