IN HIMALAYA,  NEPAL

                                              PROJECT LEADERS : DR. OLE R. VETAAS
                                                                                   PROF. RAM CHAUDHARY

                                            COLLABORATORS:   PROF. TERJE TVEDT
                                                                                 PROF.  TOR H. AASE
                                                                                 ASS. PROF. PETER ANDERSEN
                                                                                 PhD-student POLIT ØYVIND PAASCHE
                                                                                 PhD-student TERJE ØSTIGAARD
                                                                                 Ph D-student KHEM BHATTARAI

Fresh water is a finite and vulnerable resource, essential for sustaining life and development. The water resource in Himalaya  is  partly  stored as glacier ice, i.e. capital water. There are approximately 70 large glaciers in Himalaya covering about 166.12 km2 or 17 % of the  mountain area (1). This is the largest body of ice outside the Polar caps, and forms a unique reservoir which supports mighty perennial rivers such as the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra,  lifelines of millions of people.
        The dynamics of the 'ice-to-water'  transition are full of uncertainties and  hazards, such as glacier lake outbursts , floods  and  avalanches.  Glaciers may also expand into the cultivated landscape as happened during the Little Ice Age (see below 2,3 ). Societies located close to glaciated areas, which are dependent  on the meltwater for primary production, are very vulnerable to changes dynamics of the glacier. Most glaciers  expanded  during The Little Ice Age,  which was a global cooling period (c. AD 1350 to 1850) (2,3). Glaciers have been retreating since the Little Ice Age, and acceleration of the this retreat has been observed in Himalaya since c. 1970, probably due to the 'green-house- effect' (4,5). The International Commission for Snow and Ice (ICSI), claims that glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world. According to the Working Group on Himalayan Glaciology, the Himalayan glacier may disappear during  the next century if the present rate of retreating continues (4).

This dramatic projection is realistic due to the  positive  feedback mechanisms between rainfall and glacier size. Decreasing glacier may indirectly cause less rainfall since the amount of  summer rains is partly dependent  on the cooling effect from the glaciers. This will reduce the albedo from the ice which will  again lead to higher temperatures and more melting (i.e.) (6). The glaciers in central and east  Himalaya are only fed by summer precipitation,  thus the relationship  between size of the glacier and precipitation is stronger than glacier which also accumulate in the winter.
         The  consequences for the local populations  are  also  highest in the central and eastern Himalaya because, compared to the rest of the world, the population density near glaciers in this region is very high. It is assumed that most  people living in such areas are dependent on the meltwater for both agriculture and pasture land. The effect of increased glacier melt is both local and regional. However, to get an overview of the large-scale effect requires a large interdisciplinary project applying remote sensing (11), but this project will start to focus on the local effect on primary production (gross weight of above-ground standing  biomass). 


                         MANANG in NEPAL

The Gangapurna glacier lies face to face with the village of Manang
at 3700 m a.s.l. in central Himalaya,  Nepal (84.00' E, 28.41'N) .
This is north of the massive Annapurna range and lies in the rain
shadow, so that the monsoon only brings an annual rainfall of 400 mm
(estimated 7).

Photo by : Røthlishberger (3) 1980, see also picture from 1957 by Tony hagen (8) (click)

Old people in Manang village claim that the glacier has retreated more than 150 metres over their lifetime (cf. 8,1), and that the volume of water in the streams that descend from the glaciers has decreased arkedly.Water from the streams is used to irrigate  the village fields, but todaythere is a lack of water (9). This pessimistic view may be alleviated by the fact that glacier retreat may open new potential areas for  grazing, but relatively low temperatures and a short growing season at this elevation may slow down the development of vegetation in the deglaciated areas (i.e. slow succession)(10).

                             Goals and methods 
The effect of  glacier  retreat on the  agro-pastoral activity may be formulated in two  alternative working hypothesis:

(1) there will be increased meltwater runoff, and  an increased area for potential primary production

(2) there will be a reduction in available meltwater  to vegetated areas, and reduced primary production

The primary goal is to establish the relationships between primary production (natural and cultural) and the meltwater from the retreating glacier.

This will be achieved as follows:

1. The history of the glacier over the last 150-700 years, i.e.  the variation in glacier front and glacier equilibrium-line altitude (ELA) will be described. The terminal moraines that indicate stages in the retreat from the maximum expansion during the Little Ice Age (c. 1840) will be identified. Written information from monasteries will checked by Ph.D-student T. Østigaard.

2. The development of the vegetation on recently deglaciated areas (i.e. primary succession) will be identified, and checks will be made as to  whether the vegetation is too premature for grazing animals (yak, goat, and sheep)

3. The vegetation (biomass and  number of species )  that are (i) directly dependent on the meltwater from the glacier  and (ii)  not in contact with meltwater will be described and compared, and checks will be made to identify the vegetation types used for grazing. A Ph D -student from Nepal (Bhattarai, Khem) will participate in data collection for his thesis.

4. Observation will be made on  how dependent the agricultural production (wheat and buckwheat) is on meltwater from the retreating glaciers, i.e. the absence or presence of channels, and if channels are present, their maintenance will be assessed.


1.Hoelzle, M. and Haeberli, W. World Glacier Monitoring Service. World Glacier Inventory.1999. Digital data from the National Snow and Ice Data Centre. University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado
2. Grove, J.M. 1988. The Little Ice Age. Methuen, London
3. Røthlishberger, F. 1986. 10000 Jahre Gletschergeshichte Der Erde. Verlag Sauerlander, Aarau.
4. Hasnain, S.I. 1999. Glaciers beating retreat. Down to Earth 7(23): 1-6.
5. Mayewski, P.J. & Jeschke, P.A. 1979. Himalyan and Trans-Himalayan glacier fluctuation since AD 1812. Artic and Alpine Research 11: 267-287.
6. Shrestha, A.B. Wale, C.P., Mayewski, P.A. & Dibb, J.E. 1999. Maximum temperature trends in the Himalya and its vicinity: An analysis based on temperature records from Nepal for the period 1971-94. Journal of climate 12: 2775-27867.
7. ANONYMOUS. 1995. Iso-climatic map of mean annual precipitation. ICIMOD / MENRIS, Kathamndu, Nepal.
8. Hagen, T. 1969. Report on the Geological survey of Nepal. Denckschrift der Schweizerischen Naturforschenden Gesellschaft, Vol.  LXXXVI/I.
9. Gurung, G. 1996. Global warning  form the Himalayas. Himal South Asia. 9 (7).
10. Vetaas, O.R. 1997. Relationships between floristic gradients in a primary succession, Journal of Vegetation Science 8: 665-676
11. Young, G.J. (ed.) 1993. Snow and Glacier Hydrology. Proc.  Int. Symp. Kathmandu 1993. IAHS publ. 218. Florida USA.

If you have any questions concerning the project,  please contact Ole R. Vetaas,
Centre for  Development Studies, Nygaardsgaten 5, N - 5015 Bergen, Norway. TEL: +47 5558 9324
or by e-mail.

 If you have any questions concerning the project leader please download the
CV of O.R. Vetaas

Last updated 30.10.2K1