6-12 December 2013 #684

Himalayan myth buster

When you cry wolf too often about a Himalayan catastrophe, people may tune out
Kunda Dixit

SEEING IS BELIEVING: Despite stark evidence of glacier retreat like Imja (below), scientists warn against raising undue alarm.
Jack Ives doesn’t suffer fools and he has encountered many during his colourful career pushing the mountain agenda at the Rio Summit in 1992, through the International Year of Mountains in 2002, right down to the present.

A British-born Canadian, Ives was part of the group of experts that oversaw in 1975 meetings that led to the establishment of the International Centre for Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu. In his 45 years of research in the Himalaya, Pamir, and Yunnan, Ives has relentlessly struggled against sloppy science, alarmist academics and a sensationalist media crying wolf.

Now, Ives has decided to put together a personalised account of the people and mountains he has been acquainted with and the sometimes epic struggle to get the sustainable development of fragile mountain areas of the world recognised by governments and international organisations. The book is an autobiographical travelogue and takes frequent detours to tell stories from places like Darjeeling, Lhasa, the Caucasus, Kathmandu or Khumbu.

Although at times quixotic, Ives uses a breezy story-telling style to communicate a serious message: don’t exaggerate, overdramatise, and spread confusion about what is happening to the mountains.

Among Ives’ revealing anecdotes is one about a fracas in 1975 between India and Pakistan over where ICIMOD should be located. India wanted Simla and Pakistan was gunning for Gilgit and since they couldn’t agree, Kathmandu got selected.

Getting the fact right is Ives’ main mantra, and it is applicable equally to scientists, journalists, policymakers, and donor agencies. Ives has spent a lifetime battling pseudo-science and alarmist mountain myths. The first was in the early 1980s at a conference in Mohonk in upstate New York where he helped debunk the myth of Himalayan degradation which had predicted that the mountains would turn into desert and the soil erosion would cause catastrophic floods downstream.

The theory became fashionable after the publication of Erik Eckholm’s 1976 book, Losing Ground. It was picked up by agencies like the World Bank, which predicted in 1979 that given the rate of deforestation there would be no accessible forests remaining in the Himalaya by 2000. Ives and other researchers went on to prove through empirical research in Kakani and Khumbu in Nepal that far from being washed down to the sea, Himalayan slopes were being carefully manicured and maintained by wise farmers.

However, in the past five years Ives has had to do battle all over again against alarmist science about climate warming and the threat of melting glaciers. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that Himalayan glaciers were melting so fast that ‘if present rates continue, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 … is very high’. This doomsday scenario was used by climate deniers to expose a fallacy in science and very nearly scuttled the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit.

Ives is not denying that climate warming is leading to permafrost melting, he is just arguing against exaggerating the danger by a sensationalist media or cash-hungry development agencies. In his book, Ives uses examples like the panic that spread about Tso Rolpa in the Rolwaling in 1995, the overblown threats of an imminent glacial lake outburst of Imja Lake in Khumbu, and the Germans exaggerating the dangers of glacial floods to pull out of the Arun III project in 1994.

‘The danger of glacial lake outbursts is real,’ Ives writes, ‘but misquotation and gross exaggeration are totally inappropriate, if not unethical.’ He cites data: the snout of the Khumbu Glacier has not retreated visibly between 1950 and 2008, although appreciable thinning has occurred; if all the glacial ice in Nepal melted all at once it would only add six per cent to the volume of water in the Ganges annually, and though the area of Imja Lake has extended rapidly, it has fallen by 37m since 1960.

The Himalayan degradation theory may have been proven wrong, but the rampant deforestation of the Siwalik range, subsequent landslides, and erosion have raised riverbeds causing flash floods in the Nepal Tarai. The Himalaya may be more stable than previously thought, Nepali farmers may not be ignorant about the value of forests, but population pressure in the Chure has resurrected fears of degradation on a Himalayan scale.

Sustainable Mountain Development

Getting the Facts Right Jack D Ives

Himalayan Association for the Advancement of Science, 2013

Hardcover 294 pages

Climate change is the flavour of the month for funding as just about everything is being blamed on global warming. But the dangers of multiple glacial lake outburst floods triggered by a seismic event cannot be taken lightly, just as the threats of a catastrophic earthquake in Kathmandu can’t be overstated.

Still, the main message in Ives’ book rings true: ‘The present situation requires planning and constant observation. It doesn’t justify excessive alarmism or false reporting …’