A study recently published in Nature found that glacier-based freshwater systems are highly threatened by climate change. Called “mountain water towers,” they supply water to communities in the downstream basin by generating and storing vast quantities of water from their high-elevation rain and snow. Unfortunately, ice melt is becoming more pronounced and precipitation patterns are disrupted, in turn placing these water towers’ storage capacity at critical risk.
The study warns that the depletion of freshwater supplies and severe water shortages will become more evident, especially as “water stress, governance, hydropolitical tension and future climatic and socio-economic changes” put these natural water towers at risk. Narratives on climate change must shift to include discussions on mountain ice melt and loss and not just revolve around sea level rise.
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The research, authored by 32 scientists across the globe, recognized 78 mountainous regions as crucial water towers primarily found in Asia, Europe and the Americas. Based on the study, Asian water towers were the most vulnerable, particularly the Indus water system.
“The study quantified for the first time both the natural water supply from the mountains as well as the water demand by society and also provided projections for the future based on climatic and socioeconomic scenarios,” said Tobias Bolch of the University of St. Andrews’ School of Geography and Sustainable Development. “The projected loss of ice and snow and increasing water needs makes specific densely populated basins located in arid regions, like the Indus basin in South Asia or the Amu Darya basin in Central Asia, highly vulnerable in the future.”
Reliance on these water towers means these mountain ecosystems must be safeguarded. Jonathan Baillie, executive vice president and chief scientist at National Geographic Society, explained, “This research will help decision-makers, on global and local levels, prioritize where action should be taken to protect mountain systems, the resources they provide and the people who depend on them.”
Image via Ashish Verma