7 September 2005

Water for Near Half of World's Population Under Threat at Roof of World

Conservation of Watersheds Urgently Needed to Reduce Increasing Floods, Human, Biodiversity Losses

(Reissued as received.)

NAIROBI/BANGKOK, 5 September (UNEP) -- The mountains of Asia, including the mighty Himalayas, are facing accelerating threats from a rapid rise in roads, settlements, overgrazing and deforestation, experts are warning in a new report.

There is concern that the region's water supplies, fed by glaciers and the monsoons and vital for around half the world's population, may be harmed alongside the area's abundant and rich wildlife.

The report is being released in advance of the 2005 World Summit in New York taking place in mid-September.  Here, heads of State will assess the status of implementation of the Millennium Development Goals, including the target of reducing by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.

The new report points to a critical gap in the security of the water to billions of people in Asia and the crucial role of sound environmental management for sustainable development.

It claims that unchecked and piecemeal development are likely to increase rates of forest loss triggering increased levels of erosion, pollution and other potentially harmful effects.

Conversion of pristine areas into farm and grazing land is aggravating the situation.

Indeed, satellite images reveal that deforestation and unsustainable land use practices may explain why the region's rivers now have the largest sediment loads in the world and why dissolved nutrients in the water are increasing more than in any other region.

This is one of the primary causes for the increasing human drought and flood-related disasters in the region, including the latest floods and resultant high number of casualties in China and India.

By combining a range of local studies with satellite images from 1960 up to today, the scientists have been able to reveal for the first time the scale of land-use changes in the region.

Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said:  "The Millennium Development Goals covering poverty eradication and the better supply of sufficient, safe, drinking water up to reversing the spread of disease cannot be met without economic growth.  But this needs to be carried out in a way that conserves the life-support systems and the ecosystem services they provide.  Otherwise, it cannot be sustainable for current or future generations."

"Mountain areas are especially important and particularly vulnerable.  These are the water towers of the world and often home to unique wildlife species upon which local people depend for food, medicines and other important materials.  They have often been saved from uncontrolled development by their remoteness.  But modern engineering methods mean this is no longer the case", he said.

Achim Steiner, the Director-General of IUCN-the World Conservation Union, said:  "The fragile mountain ecosystems across the world are facing unprecedented threats.  Some of these threats such as climate change are irreversible.  But it is in our power to put development of these regions on a sustainable path through integrated management which blends economic, social and environmental interests."

"By doing so we are investing in the future of our planet and, first of all, its people.  This study reveals that unsustainable land use practices, such as through logging of watersheds and agricultural expansion into wetlands, still remain among the primary threat to biodiversity and human security from floods", he added.

Researchers claim some countries, including China and Nepal, are now acting to develop parks and protected areas aimed at conserving the Asian region's water supplies and wildlife.

However, the scientists warn that far more effort is needed to extend protection right across the region in both lowland and mountain areas if the impacts are to be minimized.

Christian Nellemann of UNEP's GRID Centre in Norway said:  "The water from this region impacts over half of the world's population, but less than 3 per cent of the watersheds are protected.  Many have become deforested and overgrazed.  Impoverished people often have to settle in the most exposed flood-risk areas, and when the forest is gone further upstream, the floods will hit them severely.  This pattern will be repeated annually and will worsen with more extreme climate events unless care is taken to protect larger shares of the watersheds.  In fact, we can support development by doing so, as the floods have great economic and health consequences."

"Local indigenous people often see their vital resources exploited, while they benefit little from the development.  Further down river, impoverished people are also those that are the most severely exposed to the risk of floods and seasonal drought, as they often have to settle in flood-risk areas", he added.  "We have to speed up conservation efforts in these watersheds to ensure safe water resources."

The findings have come from a new report entitled "The Fall of Water" launched today by IUCN and UNEP.  It has been compiled and supported by a range of researchers from organizations including UNEP, IUCN, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

The study is based on a new way of assessing the direct and cumulative impacts of infrastructure development called "Global methodology for mapping human impacts on the Biosphere" or GLOBIO.  It has been developed by UNEP's GRID Arendal Centre in southern Norway, the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre in the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

Key Findings from Report

The report points out that many of the rivers in the region have already been affected by deforestation and increased use of water for irrigation, which has been fuelled by existing infrastructure developments.

Despite the importance of the rivers in the region, only the Tarim has highest levels of protection with around 21 per cent of its river basin in protected areas or covered by agreements.

This river, unfortunately, also has the greatest relative water consumption for irrigation.  Large areas of pristine wildlife habitats have been laid bare because the river has run dry as a result of demand for water for irrigation to support growing settlements.

The rest, including the Huang He or Yellow River, the Indus, the Amu Darya, the Ganges and Salween, have on average just 2.5 per cent of their basins protected.

While many of these rivers are critical to hundreds of millions of people, seasonal scarcity of water is an increasing problem as are floods as a result of land-use changes such as deforestation and intensive agriculture.

The report argues that climate change as a result of the burning of oil, coal and other fossil fuels is likely to aggravate problems with water supplies.

Previous studies, carried out by UNEP, ICIMOD and others, have pinpointed some 50 lakes that have formed in Nepal and Bhutan in recent years as a result of melting glaciers.

Experts are concerned that these lakes, held back by soil and stones, could burst their banks sending torrential floods down valleys threatening villages and homes.

New calculations by experts with the Chinese Academy of Sciences indicate that China's highland glaciers are shrinking by an amount equivalent to all the water in the Yellow River each year.

The Academy, members of whom have contributed to the "Fall of Water" report, says 7 per cent of the country's glaciers are vanishing annually and that, by 2050, as many as 64 per cent of China's glaciers will have disappeared.

An estimated 300 million Chinese live in the country's arid west and depend on water from glaciers for their survival.

The report calculates that currently close to half of the Asia's mountain region is affected by infrastructure development and that, by 2030, this could rise to over 70 per cent if trends continue unchecked.

It claims that the biggest impacts will be on river catchments and wildlife along the Karakoram highway, Pakistan, the Indian and southern side of the Himalayas and in south-eastern Tibet and the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of south western China.  A huge problem is also overgrazing along road corridors in dry regions of Pakistan and China, that results in erosion and landslides, as well as dust storms.

All countries in the region are likely to see a decline in the abundance of wildlife over the next three decades on current trends of infrastructure development.

Lowland areas may see a decline of up to 80 per cent in their historic abundance of wildlife, with perhaps as much as a 50 per cent decline compared to today for some areas, depending on the measures taken to steer development in more environment-friendly ways.

Mountain and upland areas could witness a 20 per cent to 40 per cent decline in wildlife abundance, with the report expressing particular concern for the remaining fragile populations of species like the snow leopard, the black necked crane and Przewalski's gazelle.

The whooper swan has been greatly threatened by overgrazing in wetlands by domestic animals.  The mountains are characterized by very scattered smaller productive patches, that become the primary targets for settlements and development, but at great costs to wildlife and with increased risk of organized poaching.

Some countries and their wildlife will be more affected than others. Kazakhstan and Bhutan currently have wildlife on 20 per cent of their land affected by infrastructure.  This could rise to 30 per cent by 2030 and 40 per cent by 2060.

Surendra Shrestha, Director of UNEP's Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, said:  "Most serious is the situation in parts of Pakistan, northern India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and South-East Asia, where human population pressures together with unchecked piecemeal development to facilitate activities such as logging can have great impacts on biodiversity and the ability of watersheds to handle monsoon floods."

In these countries, up to 80 per cent of the productive land area may become severely impacted by development in 2030.  While this figure is only 42 per cent for China by 2030, this represents a similar impact, because western China is dominated by uninhabited deserts.

Ben ten Brink, of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, says that the new model integrates many different pressures such as climate change, development, land use and pollution, so as to better help identify policy gaps for politicians and managers.

"The scenario results help us visualize the possible outcomes of different policies.  Progress has been shown to be possible, but we need much stronger investment in protecting the watersheds and biodiversity if we are to break the tide and the growing risk to so many people of unchecked piecemeal development", he added.  "Most importantly, we can now begin to assist policymakers and the industry in evaluating cost-benefits of alternative investments in environmental protection.  This is a giant leap forward in scientific based management."

Notes to Editors

"The Fall of Water:  Emerging threats to the water resources and biodiversity at the roof of the world to Asia's lowland from changes associated with large-scale settlement and piecemeal development" is available at www.globio.info  and www.grida.no  and www.unep.org  together with graphics and maps

For more information, please contact:  Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson, Office of the Executive Director, in Nairobi, on tel: +254-20-623084, mobile: +254-733-632755 or +41-79-596-5737, e-mail: nick.nuttall@unep.org ; or Elisabeth Waechter, UNEP Associate Media Officer, on tel: +254- 20-623088, mobile: +254-720-173968, e-mail: elisabeth.waechter@unep.org .

Additionally: Ablimit Abdukadir, Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography (XJIEG); Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), China, tels: +86-991-7885-366, +86-991-385-0911, Mobile:+86-0-13999199442; Fax: +86-991-7885-320; e-mail: ablmt@ms.xjb.ac.cn .

For IUCN:  Denise Jeanmonod, Asia Communications Coordinator; The World Conservation Union (IUCN), Asia Regional Office, 63, Sukhumvit Soi 39 (Prompong), 10110 Bangkok, Thailand, tel. +66-2-662-4061, ext. 108; mobile: +66-01-925-0726; e-mail: denise@iucnt.org , Internet: www.iucn.org .

For ICIMOD:  Madhav Karki, Acting Director-General and Deputy Director-General, Programmes, of ICIMOD ( www.icimod.org ), tel: +977-1-5525318, 5525313, mobile: +9851025873, e-mail: mkarki@icimod.org .

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