The AB Cs of Governing the Himalayas in Response to Glacial Melt: Atmospheric Brown Clouds, Black Carbon, and Regional Cooperation

Author:Erwin Rose
Position:Senior Fellow at the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development ('IGSD')
33WINTER 2012
by Erwin Rose*
Despite their awesome grandeur, the Himalayas are
fragile. The melting of the glaciers as a result of
global climate change has emerged as an impending
crisis. How can governments in the Greater Himalayan Region
(“GHR”) respond most effectively to glacial melt (“GM”)? The
elementary principles (“ABCs”) of international environmental
law and policy (“IELP”) can provide guidance to those who seek
to reduce further loss, and adapt to the consequences of what
cannot be prevented.
The GHR, for the purpose of this study, includes the Himalayas,
Hindu Kush, Karakoram, Kunlun Shan, Pamir, Tian Shan and
Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and the river basins originating in these
mountains.1 Defined as such, the area encompasses parts
of sixteen countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan,
Cambodia, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos,
Myanmar, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Thailand,
and Vietnam.2 The size of the GHR and the influence of its
glaciers make it a system of global significance. Some refer
to the mountains as “the Third Pole” because they contain
the third largest glacial mass on Earth (after the polar
regions).3 Their high-altitude topography influences atmo-
spheric warming and circulation4 and the albedo (reflective
power of the snow and ice) of the mountains plays a role in
regulating regional climate and global climate.5
The mountains affect water availability in the region
not only directly through melt that feeds the rivers,
but also via precipitation, particularly seasonal mon-
soons.6 These glaciers supply the headwaters of the ten
largest Asian rivers including the Brahmaputra, Ganges,
Indus, Mekong, Yellow, and Yangtze, all of which cross
national boundaries.7 In this way, the glaciers function
as the “water tower of Asia” with roughly 500 million
to 1.3 billion people living in the GHR watersheds and
relying upon these rivers for drinking water, irrigation,
fisheries, hydropower and other services.8 While these
communities are separated by rugged physical landscapes
and national boundaries, they are united by their depen-
dence upon the glaciers.9
Due in part to rapid climate change, the fate of these
glaciers and the water resources they provide, are in peril. If
glacial loss continues at its present rate, the GHR would expe-
rience more floods and ultimately a reduced water supply.10
This article summarizes existing scientific research, revealing
the extent to which glacial melting—the reduction of ice,
snow and permafrost in the glaciers—is occurring, as well as
the subsequent causes and impacts. It considers the problem
from the perspective of international environmental law and
policy (“IELP”) and reviews existing international IELP tools
that could mitigate this dire issue.11 Specifically, the article
highlights the potential for implementing air quality initiatives
to slow melting and for regional cooperation to stimulate more
effective responses to this looming threat to the region’s people
and environment.
Map 1: Credit: Riccardo Pravettoni, UNEP/GRID-Arendal,
*Erwin Rose is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Governance and Sustainable
Development (“IGSD”). He served as the Regional Policy Advisor for East Asia
and the Pacific at the U.S. Department of State from 2008-2009 in the Bureau of
Oceans, Environment and Science, Office of Policy Coordination and Initiatives.
Mr. Rose served in the Bureau’s Office of Environmental Policy from 2001-2006,
where he led the negotiation of environmental cooperation agreements. He co-
edited Linking Trade, Climate Change and Energy for the International Center
for Trade and Sustainable Development in Geneva in 2006. The author thanks
Xiaopu Sun and Durwood Zaelke of IGSD for their review of this article.
In January 2010, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (“IPCC”) retracted a statement discussing the disappear-
ance of Himalayan glaciers from a 2007 report that read: “the
likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps
sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current
rate.”12 Despite this retraction, the preponderance of evidence
shows that the glaciers are melting across the world. A study led
by glaciologist Shichang Kang and associates at the Institute of
Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences found:
“Since the 1990s the majority of glaciers have retreated rapidly
. . . Recent research showed that more than 80% of glaciers in
western China have retreated, losing 4.5% of their combined areal
coverage [over approximately the past 50 years] . . . .”13 Climate
and Atmosphere scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan concluded
that the glaciers feeding the Indus have retreated by 35-50 % since
the 1930s, the main glacier feeding the Ganges “is retreating more
than 35 m [meters] per year, nearly twice as fast as 20 years ago,
and the Tibetan glaciers “are melting at an accelerating rate and
two-thirds could be gone by 2060.14 Furthermore, according to the
U.S. National Aeronautic and Space Administration (“NASA”),
“since the early 1960s, the acreage covered by Himalayan glaciers
has declined by over 20 percent.15
Many analysts assume that GM is caused directly by global
warming from greenhouse gas emissions.16 However, recent
research paints a more nuanced picture. Ramanathan et al. con-
clude that “atmospheric brown clouds” (“ABCs”) consisting of
aerosols, particularly black carbon soot, may be as significant as
greenhouse gases (“GHGs”) as a cause of the decline in glacial
mass.17 As Kang et al. summarize the causation:
Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are generally
considered as the main cause of the climate warming in
the TP [Tibetan Plateau], and impacts there are prob-
ably more serious than the rest of the world. However,
other confounding factors, such as changes in cloud
cover, snow/ice-albedo feedback, the Asian brown
clouds and land use changes, also contribute to recent
climate dynamics in the TP . . . . 18
NASAs research also indicates “that soot and dust contribute
as much (or more) to atmospheric warming in the Himalayas as
greenhouse gases . . . The brisk melting coincides with the time
when concentrations of aerosols like soot and dust transported
from places like India and Nepal are most dense in the atmo-
sphere.”19 Further analysis reveals that two-thirds of the black
carbon particles in South Asia may come from burning biomass
(cookstoves, slash and burn agriculture and waste disposal),
with the remaining third resulting from fossil fuel combustion.20
The loss of ice and snow in the Himalayas is increasing
flooding (particularly glacial lake outburst floods) and landslides,
which could severely decrease the quality of and access to water
resources, agriculture, fisheries, energy, industry, migration,
and could further exacerbate global climate change.21 Kang
et al. point to “[h]ydrological changes resulting from glacial
retreat, such as increased discharge, rises in lake level, more
frequent glacial lake outbursts leading to flooding, enhanced
glacial debris flows, and changes in water resources . . . .22 Lester
Brown, founder of Worldwatch Institute and now President of the
Earth Policy Institute, emphasizes the impacts upon agriculture
and food security: “The world has never faced such a predictably
massive threat to food production as that posed by the melting
mountain glaciers of Asia.”23
There are significant variances in the extent to which each
river in the region depends upon the glaciers, and therefore there
are differences as to which regions will be hit hardest. The Indus
(44.8%) and the Tarim (40-42%) receive by far the greatest
percentage of their flow from melted glacial water.24 Figures for
the Ganges (9.1%), Yangtze (18.5%), and others are much lower;
only 1.3% of the Yellow River’s volume is from the glaciers.25
Given these disparate impacts, the GM consequences on weather
patterns, where effects are diffuse, though also substantial, are
much more difficult to assess.26
But GM is only one aspect of the changes underway in the
region’s water systems. The World Meteorological Organization
(“WMO”) finds that the devastating flooding in China and
Pakistan in summer 2010 was likely the result of climate change-
exacerbated monsoons.27 GHR water supplies face other threats,
particularly from population growth, unsustainable consumption
rates, pollution, hydropower, and dams.28 Climate change and
GM are not only threats to water resources but also exacerbate
the impacts of other threats to a stable regional water supply.29
The transboundary nature of the Himalayan ecosystem,
along with its remote and inaccessible terrains, accounts for
much of the lack of adequate investment in response to GM.30 In
order to resolve a transboundary issue, it is necessary to adopt a
governance approach that effectively captures the dynamic inter-
actions of norms and structures, including varied approaches to
law and government.31 The “New institutionalism” perspective
emphasizes the role of institutions in governance. Considering
institutions as “clusters of rights, rules, and decision-making
procedures” provides a framework on which organizations, as
parts of broader regimes, can foster multi-layered coordination
on problems such the collective action dilemma, tragedy of the
commons, and market failure that exacerbate transboundary
environmental problems.32 Under this new institutionalism
framework, various stakeholders can develop sophisticated
strategies to overcome cultural, physical, and political barriers to
confronting the shared threat of declining glaciers.
These successes are evidenced by findings that tragedy
of the commons and game theory experiments move toward
more positive outcomes when opportunities for dialogue are
provided.33 International relations scholar Robert Keohane and
35WINTER 2012
his associates argue that “effective environmental institutions”
influence policy in three main ways: “They can contribute to
more appropriate agendas . . . comprehensive and specific inter-
national policies . . . through intergovernmental bargaining; and
. . . national policy responses which directly control sources of
environmental degradation.”34 Another recent study on water-
related threats in the area emphasizes the need for more coherent,
region-wide, long-term systemic planning and coordination,
calling for a “cross-regional humanitarian policy-maker/science
dialogue” and “greater sharing of scientific information amongst
countries in the region.”35 It seems clear that regional cooperation
mechanisms provide the potential for tackling Himalayan GM.
The international nature of the causes and consequences
of glacial retreat fall squarely within the realm of existing
IELP, including a wide range of legal and policy instruments.
Commonly accepted core legal principles of environmental gov-
ernance can be useful in guiding national policy responses and
advancing domestic interests, even if governments do not place a
high priority on compliance with international law.
Examples of these core principles are ever-present in IELP.
The principle that nations have a responsibility to prevent harm
to others from transboundary pollution has become an estab-
lished principle of international law.36 IELP has also developed
standards of due diligence, including environmental assess-
ments, that guide sound environmental policy.37 The duty
to cooperate is also a fundamental principle of international
la w.38 The Stockholm Declaration of the UN Conference on the
Human Environment, the Rio UN Conference on Environment
Declaration, and Agenda 21, as well as other precise legal instru-
ments, all elaborate upon these concepts.39 Other generally
accepted principles inform policy on GM, such as sovereignty
over natural resources, common but differentiated responsibility,
the polluter pays, and the precautionary principles.40
There are also several binding multilateral environmental
agreements that apply to issues related to Himalayan GM including
the Convention on Biological Diversity, Convention and Statute
on the Regime of Navigable Waterways of International Concern,
and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.41
Further, there are a myriad of nonbinding instruments that could
provide guidance, such as the Stockholm and Rio statements,
Johannesburg World Summit for Sustainable Development Plan
of Implementation,42 World Charter for Nature,43 United Nations
Environment Programme (“UNEP”) Draft Shared Resources
Principles,44 and UNEP Goals and Principles of Environmental
Impact Assessment.45 And while the UN Convention on the Law
of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses is
not in force, it nonetheless reflects international consensus on
the protection and governance of transboundary freshwater
resources.46 Given the abundance of relevant IELP instruments,
regional, national, and local policies Governments and civil
society actors in the regions would benefit if they apply these
international instruments and principles to facilitate regional and
international cooperation to mitigate Himalayan GM and adapt
to the impacts that are already underway.
Instructive models can also be found via the intergovern-
mental mechanisms for other geographic regions, including the
Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization,47 Arctic Council,48
and UNEP’s Regional Seas Program.49 Europe has made progress
on air quality through the UN Economic Commission for Europe
(“UNECE”) Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air
Pollution.50 One scholar recommends that Himalayan countries
look at the UNECE Helsinki Convention (on the Baltic Sea)51
and the Zambezi River agreements52 as models that provide a
more concrete example of transboundary water management
that could inform arrangements in the GHR.53
The Alpine Mountain Convention is a noteworthy example
of cooperation within mountain regions. The Alpine Convention
(“AC”) commits parties to “a comprehensive policy for the pres-
ervation and protection of the Alps by applying the principles of
prevention, payment by the polluter . . . and cooperation . . . .54
The AC requires the parties to take “appropriate measures” in
twelve areas including regional planning, air pollution prevention,
water management, transportation, and energy.55 The AC also
contains commitments on “research and systematic monitor-
ing” and “legal, scientific, economic and technical cooperation”
and provides a structure for regular meetings to coordinate its
In addition to emphasizing a responsibility to prevent
pollution and to cooperate in the stewardship of shared natural
resources, the multilateral instruments and regional mechanisms
mentioned above provide a dedicated international forum for
governments, and sometimes even other stakeholders, to engage
in dialogue and collaborative activities, guideline assessment,
notification, consultation, and dispute resolution.57 These
existing regional structures can provide the guidance needed
for implementation of these international practices to prevent
Himalayan GM.
The organization that stands out as the best-designed to
support regional work on Himalayan GM is the International
Center for Integrated Mountain Development (“ICIMOD”).
ICIMOD’s principal objectives are to “help promote the devel-
opment of an economically sound mountain ecosystem and to
improve the living standards of the mountain populations of the
Hindu Kush-Himalayan region.58 It describes itself as “an inde-
pendent inter-governmental centre that is a regional facilitator
and broker with a mountain perspective.59 Eight governments
participate in ICIMOD: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan,
China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan.60 Its governing
board is composed of representatives of the eight “regional
member countries” and six additional, independent members
nominated by donors.61
ICIMOD’s budget, $11.7 million in 2009, mostly comes
from European governments and international organizations62
and enables the organization to foster scientific and technical
cooperation and raise awareness about a wide range of devel-
opment challenges, including GM.63 ICIMOD’s herculean task
was noted by an international meeting of GM scientists in 2008,
which described ICIMOD’s work as the “tricky scientific—and
diplomatic—task of mapping glacial retreat in the world’s
highest mountains.”64 With relatively low funding levels given
its wide scope, the ICIMOD is surprisingly influential yet still
very limited in its ability to make large-scale progress toward
accounting and mitigating Himalayan GM.65
Another intergovernmental organization, the South Asian
Association for Regional Cooperation (“SAARC”), comes
next closest to matching the set of countries in the GHR.66 The
SAARC member states are: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan,
India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.67 SAARC
granted China observer status in 2005, but news reports indicate
that India has blocked China’s pursuit of SAARC member-
ship.68 SAARC fosters primarily intergovernmental cooperation
on a wide range of issues including a number of areas related
to GM.69 For example, SAARC established a meteorological
research center in 199570 and supported UNEP’s South Asia
Environment Outlook 2009.71
Several international partnerships and organizations are
also working to prevent and reduce GM impacts. The Mountain
Partnership fosters links between existing mountain sustainable
development mechanisms, such as the Alpine Convention, and
has recently taken preliminary steps to work in the GHR.72 There
are partnerships to disseminate improved cookstoves among
the rural poor (e.g. Partnership for Clean Indoor Air, Global
Alliance for Clean Cookstoves) and to improve urban air quality
(e.g. Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities).73
While there are a few sustained regional processes on air
quality or climate change within the GHR, there are substantial
sub-regional water arrangements. The most comprehensive
watershed mechanism in the area is probably the Agreement for
the Cooperation on the Sustainable Development of the Mekong
River Basin.74 This agreement provides a broad framework for
information exchange, dialogue, and cooperation “in all fields of
sustainable development, utilization, management and conserva-
tion of the water and related resources of the Mekong River Basin
. . . .”75 Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam are both parties
to the agreement and members of the associated Mekong River
Commission (“MRC”).76 It is important to note that although the
Mekong originates in China and flows along the Myanmar border,
neither China nor Myanmar is party to the treaty.77 Despite this,
both countries do participate in annual meetings, and China has
been exchanging data with the commission.78
Additionally, China and India maintain agreements to share
data on the Brahmaputra and Sutlej/ Langquin-Zangbu Rivers.79
In 2006, they established a Joint Expert Level Mechanism
on Trans-Border Rivers.80 To date, the two governments have
discussed GM but have struggled to conduct even limited
academic information sharing regarding these rivers.81
India has other bilateral mechanisms for two of the most
populated river areas: the Agreement on Sharing the Ganges
Waters between Bangladesh and India and the Indus Treaty
binding India and Pakistan.82 However, nearly all the bilateral
river agreements in the region focus on dams, hydroelectricity,
and/or water diversion projects, and do not attempt integrated
water resources management or address broader sustainable
development objectives.83
Despite some preliminary regional and international discus-
sions and efforts to address Himalayan GM issues, opportunities
for cost-effective preventive action are being lost due to a lack
of investment in research and dissemination of analysis on the
complex causes of GM. Specifically, emerging research on the
role of regional air pollution, particularly black carbon, must be
further developed if regional actors are to take action to slow
glacial retreat.84
Black carbon abatement programs could have dramatic and
immediate effects upon reducing GM and respiratory disease,
while also contributing to global warming mitigation objec-
tives.85 In practice, this means reducing the burning of biomass
from slash and burn agriculture and cookstoves, as well as
reducing diesel and certain other types of fuel combustion.86
And while the countries that are most likely the leading sources
of emissions—China, India, and Nepal—do not necessarily need
other countries in the region to act on black carbon reduction,
they would nonetheless benefit from a concerted effort to coor-
dinate investments, conduct joint monitoring and assessments,
and exchanging best practices in black carbon abatement and
adaptation to GM.87
International efforts to address black carbon pollution have
recently emerged as UNEP, ICIMOD and the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency held a consultation on regional black carbon
mitigation in Kathmandu in March 2011.88 After three days of
consultation, the groups concluded that available, cost-effective
methods and technologies are available to reduce black carbon
In February 2012, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
announced the formation of a Climate and Clean Air Coalition
to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (“Climate and Clean
Air Coalition”).90 In the press release unveiling this initiative,
the State Department notes that “reducing black carbon is
particularly important to address climate change in snow- and
ice-covered regions such as the Arctic and the Himalayas.”91 At
the opening event, Bangladesh Minister of Environment Hasan
Mahmud highlighted the negative climatic impacts of black
carbon on crop yields, food security, and freshwater supply for
the Himalayan region.92 Currently Bangladesh is the only Asian
country among the six governments that joined the new Climate
and Clean Air Coalition, but it is possible that other GHR coun-
tries will become involved in this initiative in the future.93
A complex problem such as GM requires integration of
hybrid mechanisms and a polycentric approach that links global,
national, and local policy.94 Networks must be mobilized among
the private and public sectors, starting with the crucial “science-
policy interface — interaction that facilitates public policy
37WINTER 2012
development based upon sound and current scientific understand-
ing.”95 Regional cooperation is essential to accomplish the most
pressing initial task: the rapid development of an authoritative
region-wide assessment.96
ICIMOD can provide the forum needed to accomplish this
task. ICIMOD’s sustainable development focus enables it to draw
connections between GM and related concerns. ICIMOD also
provides a bridge for science-policy exchanges and has played
a pioneering role in sounding the alarm on GM and dissemi-
nating information.97 However, the modest amount of financial
resources and low level of political commitment it has received
have prevented it from attaining the scale required to generate
large-scale results.98 Water, climate, and environmental law
researcher Katak Malla suggests that ICIMOD might play a role
in developing a more holistic regime, including support for the
negotiation of “a comprehensive hydro-climate treaty.”99 While
engaging ICIMOD in negotiations risks diverting the organiza-
tion’s attention away from the technical and capacity-building
work through which it has been most productive, increasing
commitments to ICIMOD as a communication forum may be the
best investment for responding to GM.100
While eight nations within the GHR watersheds and are
affected by GM are not included in the ICIMOD, the fact that
the Center’s membership includes India, China., and the other
mountain nations, combined with its proven track record on GM
research and awareness-raising, makes it far more applicable
as the core structure for cooperation on GM than the alterna-
tives.101 For example, SAARC also has a very broad scope,
which touches upon climate change and water but generally
emphasizes economic integration and trade.102 Unlike ICIMOD,
SAARC is used as a forum for ministerial-level gatherings and
thus offers the potential for India and its neighbors to engage in
high-profile joint efforts.103 However, the lack of full participa-
tion by China is a major weakness of SAARC as an instrument
for comprehensive collaboration on GM.104 Efforts by the
India-based Strategic Foresight Group and the World Bank’s
South Asia Water Initiative, including the informal Abu Dhabi
Dialogue Group, complement ICIMOD in building regional
Progress is most likely to occur within a forum that focuses
directly on GM, that brings together China, India, and as many
of the other GHR countries as possible, and receives substantial
political support and funding. If this is not possible under the
ICIMOD, creating a new “Himalayan Glacier Commission”
that includes as many GHR countries as possible and convenes
high-level leadership could move GM up the policy agenda,
develop more targeted programs, and inform national and local
responses. Given the synergies with other development issues, a
new GM initiative might be more likely to receive support, and
be more effective, if situated under a “Himalayan Cooperation
Council” with a broader mandate. New efforts, then, should
build strategically upon ongoing projects through ICIMOD and
SAARC and complement them as necessary.
Proposing a high-level regional initiative on what has been a
relatively obscure and technical issue may seem unrealistic con-
sidering the intense political tension in the area and competition
for attention to issues that are deemed more pressing. Yet as the
glaciers retreat, the cost of inaction increases.106 Spurring col-
laboration between India and China may be politically difficult,
but cooperation between the two major powers could achieve
results that would substantially benefit themselves as well as oth-
ers.107 Furthermore, the creation of a new regional mechanism
could begin to pinpoint the sources of harmful emissions and
the areas most vulnerable to the changes in hydrology. It would
raise GM’s profile and provide a forum for concerned stakehold-
ers, including non-state actors who can catalyze further political
momentum and provide practical efficiencies to the advantage of
all affected countries.
IELP provides a framework for policy-makers who take
the threat of GM seriously, whether or not they are concerned
about compliance with international law. The duty to prevent
pollution that causes transboundary damage and the importance
of conducting environmental assessments points toward the
potential for regional black carbon reduction to slow the melting.
But there is a current incongruence between GHR ecosystem,
national jurisdiction, and regional mechanisms. Enhanced coop-
eration through existing regional entities, or even establishing a
new body to focus on Himalayan GM, could produce effective
mitigation and adaptation efforts.
The principles and laws discussed in this article can provide
the fundamental basis for regional cooperation. International
and regional frameworks cannot substitute for political will,
but they can stimulate and facilitate engagement by interested
private and public individuals and organizations. Science also
calls for more focus on the ABCs in the Himalayas as the
atmospheric brown clouds have emerged as a significant cause
of GM and the affected countries have much more capacity
to reduce their regional air pollution than they do to control
global warming.
Applying basic principles of IELP could generate positive
economic, environmental, and social outcomes in a situation that
seems to be deteriorating faster than what used to be known as
“a glacial pace.” More detailed research that explores implemen-
tation of the approaches proposed here could prove valuable.
Given the mounting evidence about the causes and severity of
glacial decline, the time is ripe for decisive action.
Endnotes on page 65