by Phillip Toyne
So focused were they on the politics and theatre of the ETS legislation, our Government leaders failed to notice the visit of an important, diffident, but remarkable man.
Pemba Dorji Sherpa is from Nepal and lives in the shadow of the mighty Himalaya. He is held in awe in mountaineering circles for his climb from Base Camp to the summit of Mt. Everest in eight hours – a trip more usually done in a minimum of three days. He has climbed Everest ten times.
But it is not to promote his climbing skill that brought him to Canberra. It is because global warming is having a devastating and rapidly deteriorating impact on his beloved mountain domain. Very few of us understand it is happening or comprehend the implications.
The glaciers and ice fields of the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau store the third greatest volume of fresh water after Antarctica and the Arctic.
The Greater Himalaya is warming two to four times the global average rate and the IPCC reported in 2007 that “Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world and if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate.” It goes on to point out “That the 15000 Himalayan glaciers form a unique reservoir which supports perennial rivers such as the Indus, Ganga and Bramaputra which, in turn are the lifeline of millions of people in South Asia…The Ganga Basin alone is home to 500 million people.”
The consequences of the glacial melt will be short term increases in run-off into the major river systems, followed by long term decreases with catastrophic impacts.
It is difficult to comprehend the humanitarian and ecological catastrophe entailed in the collapse of these mighty river systems and food production which depends on snow melt.
A more immediate and present danger is that posed by newly emerging glacial lakes forming at the tongue of the receding glaciers as melt water is caught behind the unstable debris left behind by the retreating ice. Disastrous failure of these moraine walls has and will release vast amounts of water, destroying villages, agriculture and infrastructure down-stream. There are at least twenty of these melt lakes in Pemba’s immediate area, all within the Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) National Park, which is on the World heritage List.
Most worrying is Glacial Lake Imja, which didn’t exist before 1960. Scientists have measured the lake’s growth at 74 meters per year. When this lake bursts, a massive wall of water will surge through the most densely populated Sherpa valley in Nepal, with lethal effect.
Above and beyond the need for international consensus on urgent action on Climate Change , there is a critical need to assist the Himalayan communities to safely release these perilous melt lakes. Australia has a compelling reason to support this work, which is a low cost, practical way of doing good for a people who contributed almost nothing to the global warming. Let’s start by providing the funds and expertise to safely release the waters of Lake Imja.
As Pemba Dorji Sherpa has said “My home is changing because of global warming. The glaciers around Everest are disappearing and our way of life is being threatened.” Sadly, he could not find a Minister with the time to hear his concern (although Opposition Front Benchers did). That must have been truly depressing. But not as depressing as hearing some of our elected representatives continuing to obfuscate on action, and continuing to cast doubt on the reality of climate change. Pemba Dorji knows better.
Phillip Toyne is one of Australia's best known environmentalists and is currently a director of EcoFutures, an Australian-based international policy firm developing sustainable strategies with business, government & civic leaders.
17 August, 2009