Tibetan glaciers at risk of melting by 2100, UN says

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 November, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 November, 2006, 12:00am

Report warns water shortages will affect 300 million farmers

China's glaciers are melting faster due to global warming, with those in Tibet - which act as the country's main water reservoirs - at risk of disappearing during the next century, a UN report warned.

Shrinking glaciers were likely to pose grave threats to Beijing's efforts to redistribute water across the country by building massive water diversion and hydropower projects, along with affecting millions of farmers in arid northern and western regions, said the UN Development Programme's 2006 Human Development Report.

'Glacial retreat in Tibet has been described as an ecological catastrophe, and most glaciers could disappear by 2100,' said the report, of which the Chinese-language version was released yesterday in Beijing. 'The 300 million farmers in China's arid western region are likely to see a decline in the volume of water flowing from the glaciers.'

The international body's findings confirmed an earlier Xinhua report that said glaciers on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau were shrinking at an unprecedented rate of 7 per cent a year.

The UN report disputed the argument that melting glaciers could help overcome water shortages by releasing new flows for water-diversion projects to arid regions.

'[This] is an illusory benefit,' it said, adding higher temperatures would lead to greater evaporation.

The melting of glaciers in the Himalayas and Tibet, where the Yangtze, Yellow, Yarlung Zangbo (Brahmaputra), Lancang (Mekong) and Nu (Salween) rivers rise, would increase the risks of droughts, desertification and sandstorms.

The report also said China's rapid economic growth had failed to secure a sustainable supply of clean water for the poor, and the mounting ecological overdraft had resulted in a looming water crisis in the country's north.

Quoting the State Environmental Protection Administration, it said more than 70 per cent of water in the Huai, Hai and Yellow rivers - covering an area where nearly half of the country's population live - was 'too polluted for human use'.

Speaking at the launch of the report, UN and mainland officials agreed that China faced serious challenges in fighting pollution and providing safe drinking water to its people in rural areas despite 'steady progress in improving life for its citizens'.

Alessandra Tisot, senior deputy resident representative of the UNDP in China, said: 'Pollution of water sources is widespread and increasingly serious. Meanwhile, more water is being used than is being replenished, which shows in falling groundwater tables and drying rivers.

'As the needs of consumers, agricultural and industrial production are pitted against one another in a booming economy, these problems can be expected to grow worse, not better.'

The mainland faces mounting challenges to meet its pledge to provide safe drinking water for more than 300 million rural residents over the next 10 years despite unprecedented attention to the clean-water issue among top leaders.

Senior water and environmental officials said yesterday that although Beijing had taken unusual steps to raise investment in fresh-water facilities in rural areas this year, the efforts could be impaired by stalled government reforms.

Li Yuanhua , deputy director-general of the department of rural water management under the Ministry of Water Resources, said the central government had increased its investment from 2 billion yuan last year to 6 billion yuan this year.

'We planned to take 15 years to provide fresh water supplies to rural areas. But at a State Council meeting in August, Premier Wen Jiabao said our efforts had not been bold enough and ordered that we finish the task within 10 years,' said Mr Li.

'That means we will provide safe drinking water to 160 million rural residents by 2010, and therefore the annual budget for this year has been adjusted to 6 billion yuan from 4 billion yuan early this year.'

Nearly 380 million people did not have access to fresh water in 2000 and the figure was reduced to 312 million by the end of last year.

'With such attention and spending, there should be no problem to complete the goal,' he said. 'But since there is no legal basis for such bolstered government investment, who knows if we can get another 6 billion yuan next year?'

The lack of co-ordination between government agencies and public involvement had also hindered Beijing's efforts to meet its commitment, the official said.

'Despite the campaign to increase the awareness of water conservation, consumers of fresh water, especially those in the rural areas, do not feel the economic benefit of saving water,' he noted.

Meanwhile, Mr Li dismissed concerns over the South-North Water Diversion Project's impact on the Yangtze River, saying the transfer of more than 40 billion cubic metres of water a year from the river to Beijing and other northern cities amounted to only 2 per cent of its total flow.