High stakes at high altitudes: glaciers and the case for integrated climate and water action

Posted on: March 20, 2020

Environmental Specialist


Panorama of Big Almaty Lake on Sunny summer day, Kazakhstan
Photo: Sergey Dzyuba/Shutterstock

Being from Denmark - a small, cold, and wet Nordic country that is barely above sea-level - I was sensitized early to the connections between climate conditions and water, from the power of coastal storms to the importance of flood controls. What I have learned since, as an international waters specialist, is just how interlinked water pressures and climate change are, and why we need to work together to respond to both.

On this year’s World Water Day (March 22), we have an opportunity to reflect on how water connects us all, through the economy and cultural heritage, as well as how good water management can help with climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resilience-building, a key message of the latest UN World Water Development Report.

One thing is certain: water is never a local issue. About 60 percent of the world’s surface water resources and 40 percent of the world’s population live in watersheds that are shared by two or more countries. Cooperation across borders is clearly essential, with urgency only increasing as climate change effects become more pronounced.

Vanishing glaciers are a dramatic example: over time, their disappearance directly results in less water for people, crops, and ecosystems. Glacial water sources represent the snows of centuries, which compressed over time can become up to 1,000 feet thick. It is impressive to ponder that in fact glaciers are not static, but instead are adding mass in the winter, while losing ice and providing crucial water during the summer months. This dynamic gets skewed as climate change increases, leading to a situation where the buildup of ice can’t keep up with the part which melts. Over time, this results in rivers and ecosystems changing, greatly affecting the organisms inhabiting them and undermining ways of life. When global warming harms the cryosphere – glaciers, snow fields, permafrost, and associated ecosystems – the losses and damage is severe and not easily reversible.

Most of my work at the Global Environment Facility focuses on transboundary cooperation in Europe and Central Asia – a region close to my heart, where glacial melting linked to climate change threatens to drain the very lifeblood of many countries’ water sources, which are vital to both agriculture and hydroelectricity. In the Aral Sea region, it is crucial that people start to prepare sooner rather than later, as glaciers, which are feeding the rivers in the region, constitute the very frontier of climate change.

Through our International Waters focal area, the GEF provides grant resources to help countries sharing river, lake, and groundwater systems work together to address shared needs and goals – from flood and drought early warning systems to integrated water management strategies. For example, the GEF Central Asian Glacial Project, managed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in cooperation with UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme (IHP), is helping Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan strengthen their collaboration in the Tien Shan and Pamir mountain ranges. The project aims to increase the resilience of countries and communities that depend on natural resources from glacierized regions or are affected by hazards related to climate change. The Tien Shan and Pamir ranges cover an array of habitats from sub-tropical to tundra and glaciers, including semi-arid, forest and mountain ecosystems, and the project provides crucial glue for countries to understand national and regional interlinkages of glacial–nival (snow melt) and permafrost systems, enabling them to formulate viable national and regional adaptation strategies. Such regional cooperation is a model to build on elsewhere in the world and an example of how powerful it can be to tackle water and climate change in an integrated way.

If there is one lesson I have learned, from the lowlands of Northern Europe to the highlands of Central Asia, it is that borders do not matter to big environmental challenges such as climate change and water scarcity. We are in this together and the more we can work across disciplines, countries, and regions, the more effective our efforts will be.

Through its International Waters focal area, the GEF has provided more than $700 million in grant financing for projects in close to 50 transboundary rivers, 13 aquifers, and 15 lakes straddling two or more developing countries. The GEF is also supporting an even larger portfolio of transboundary marine projects where the effects of climate change are similarly integrated into ecosystem management regimes, safeguarding nature, and protecting people. To learn more about this work, please visit IW:Learn – a knowledge management platform to help ensure government officials, civil society, and other partners learn lessons from the GEF’s projects in the International Waters area. 

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