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Can Asia put aside its rivalries to deal with the Himalayan melt?

Second in a series. Click here for part one.

In the weeks before a major meeting of Indian and Pakistani ministers, disaster experts and youth leaders in Lahore to discuss Himalayan glacier melt, Malini Mehra avoided reporters.

The normally outspoken director of an Indian environmental organization that was helping to organize the conference, Mehra said she had seen too many exchanges between India and Pakistan on critical water issues disintegrate in a pool of visa denials and political acrimony. Too much attention, she worried, could doom her conference to the same fate.

"Before I started this, I was warned that it was impossible," Mehra said. "At the beginning, we were beset with fear and suspicion that it was going to be derailed by people who would prefer that Indians and Pakistanis didn't have a full, frank and healthy dialogue on water impacts and how to manage disasters effectively. I heard story after story of just absolute horror."

The conference went off without a hitch, but even those who hosted the exchange say it was just a drop in the bucket of badly needed scientific and policy cooperation on the Himalayas between the two nuclear-armed archrivals.

India and Pakistan share a fractious border, 60 years of enmity and the waters of the Indus River. Originating more than 17,000 feet above sea level in the Tibetan Plateau, the Indus crosses the hotly contested Himalayan Kashmir, fertilizing rich farmland in both India and Pakistan, before flowing into the Arabian Sea south of Karachi.

The river's flow has always been a source of tension, for a simple reason: Whoever controls the headwaters controls the river. Despite the Indus Water Treaty, which for more than 50 years has allowed the two countries to share the Indus and its five tributaries, control and access to water have remained a volatile issue. Disputes over hydroelectric dams, in particular, have made basic data sharing about the melting Himalayan glaciers a constant struggle, scientists from both countries say.

"When you talk about water data, it's very sensitive," said Pradeep Mool, a remote sensing specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu. "There's so many disputed points where there's a glacier located, and it's very difficult for countries to get the information to each other. It takes a diplomatic dialogue."

Where intrigue flows with the water

Syed Iqbal Hasnain, a leading Indian glaciologist and senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., added: "The issue is that nobody is sharing the low flows data, because if they share that data, they will be exposing their own intrigues into the water. If you look at the geopolitical implications of this glacier melt, there is so much potential for conflicts and accusations that 'You're stealing my water.' And all of these are nuclear power countries."

Yet the steady melting of low-elevation glaciers in the Himalayan mountain range makes cooperation critical. Without better sharing of real-time water flow information, Hasnain and others said, India and Pakistan will be ever more vulnerable to floods. In the long run, disputes can cripple national and local governments' abilities in both countries to manage what is expected to be a serious decrease in water availability.

"If they don't work together, both will suffer. Everybody will suffer, and there will be a situation that is beyond either's control," Hasnain said.

Dane McKinney, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Texas, Austin, noted that water conflicts and secrecy over flow are hardly unique to Asia.

"Everywhere in the world, streamflow data is very closely guarded," he said. "It's one thing to know how much rain is flowing, but it's another thing to know how much flow. That water is used for economic and strategic reasons, so countries then feel it's part of their national security."

Yet the intertwined dependence of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam on mutual river systems make South Asia uniquely fraught. Experts say the region is badly in need of of a new, holistic way of thinking on water resources management.

"Water is power in our countries," said Pravin Raj Maskey, a hydrologist with Nepal's Ministry of Irrigation. "From the India side, we find the hydrological data very secret, and that's in their national interest."

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Pakistan has been pressing for the release of data gathered by the Geological Survey of India on glacier melt, but much of it remains classified. According to the Indian media, the issue has been referred to the country's defense ministry, which is reviewing whether transparency of scientific research in the border area would compromise India's national security.

Meanwhile, India and Pakistan are hardly the only acrimonious players in the region. Meltwater from the Tibetan glaciers also supplies India and China, which fought a war over disputed Himalayan border territory in 1962. The search for water resources has been a persistent source of tension between the two countries, and both are exploring ways to harness the Himalayan melt for hydroelectric power projects.

"The source of the Indus is in China," Archana Chatterjee, regional program coordinator of the World Wildlife Fund in India, reminded participants at a mountain conference in Kathmandu recently who were criticizing Indian secrecy.

"It's undergoing a lot of mining activities and pressures," she said. "If the source is under so much pressure ... I think the three countries need to sit together, not just two countries."

Chinese scientists, meanwhile, turn the tables back on India. "Truly we are sharing," said Lizong Wu with the Chinese Academy of Science. "In this region, China was the first to complete a glacier inventory," he said, noting that it has been archived and is available for public download online. "India completed a glacier inventory, but where?"

Yet scientists and some policymakers in all of the Himalayan countries are working hard to end the cycle of hide-and-blame.

ICIMOD, based in Kathmandu, has made regional cooperation and the exchange of information among the eight countries in the Himalayan region a top priority. The common threat of climate change, some experts say, is actually starting to push parties to the table, making them more willing to cooperate.

Mandira Shrestha, a water resources specialist with ICIMOD, said the 2010 establishment of a regional flood information system in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region has the potential to make significant strides. Funded by the government of Finland, the partnership of Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan is designed to foster timely exchanges of flood data, focusing on the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna and Indus river basins.

Shrestha noted that most of the Himalayan glacier lakes are in Tibet, while the impacts of floods, landslides and glacier lake outburst floods are primarily felt downstream. Floods account for 30 percent of all natural disasters in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region.

Visa denial prolongs a lack of capacity

"Most of our river basins are transboundary rivers. There are no borders for rivers, and the impacts are shared between borders," she said. In addition to the need to encourage data sharing, Shrestha added, the lack of technical capacity in many of the affected countries poses an enormous problem. Without weather stations, for example, there is little data to share. "There's a lack of technical and human capacity, and the political will and regional cooperation is still emerging," she said.

Ghazanfar Ali, a glaciologist with Pakistan's Global Change Impact Study Center, noted that the country has over the past decade installed five glacier monitoring stations. But more are needed.

"If you can share data on a real-time basis, we may avoid a lot of damages due to floods," he said and called upon ICIMOD to help countries in the region develop their own technical skills.

Yet one of the biggest hurdles to cooperation, scientists in India and Pakistan say, is the not-so-simple act of getting into one another's countries. The denial of visas from both countries has become so routine that many now simply bypass both countries and organize conferences in neutral countries. Next month, ministers from the region will meet in Bhutan to lay out a blueprint for adapting to Himalayan glacier melt. Hasnain, meanwhile, is working to bring more than 100 scientists together in Nepal.

"If we bring 120 Indians to Pakistan or Pakistanis to India, we will have a visa issue, so we will do the workshop in Kathmandu," he said.

Yet with the climate threat looming, more and more activists are urging the two countries to deal with one another head-on. Saleem Ali, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont who along with Mehra helped organize the youth conference in Lahore this year, said they made a conscious decision that the meeting must be held in Pakistan.

"We insisted that we wouldn't do it in Dubai or Nepal. That makes it a sideshow. Access is in itself a touchy issue, and you can't get all those poor Pakistani students to get to Kathmandu," Ali said. He argued that if the countries don't cooperate to find regional water management solutions, they will be signing death warrants for millions of their own citizens.

"Lives are at stake," Ali said. "It's a very serious human security issue. This is very serious business."

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