Opening Remarks at the Forum on Himalayan Glacier Melt: Global and Regional Challenges

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Marshall Center Auditorium
Washington, DC
January 9, 2012

Good morning, everyone. Welcome, and thank you very much for joining us for this Forum on Himalayan Glacier Melt.

As many of you know, Secretary Clinton has made water a priority for the Department and USAID. As she has said, water “represents one of the great development opportunities of our time. Perhaps no two issues are more important to human health, economic development, and peace and security than basic sanitation and access to sustainable supplies of water.” 

The Tibetan Plateau, the Himalayas, and the downstream basins are a region where water issues profoundly impact almost every aspect of life for the people living there -- from food and energy security, to health, livelihoods, and culture. 

In Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, China, India, and Nepal, large portions of populations live in poverty and face varying levels of water scarcity and food insecurity. 

The high Himalayan region – the source of many of Asia’s major rivers – is the freshwater tower of South Asia, and is one of the most dynamic, fragile, and complex mountain systems in the world. Often called the Third Pole, it has the highest concentration of snow and glaciers outside the polar regions.

Meltwater from the snow and glaciers feeds the ten largest river systems in Asia, which together support about 1.3 billion people in their downstream basin areas. But the glaciers in much of the region show signs of shrinking, thinning, and retreating.

As the United States Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, I have watched with particular concern this shifting landscape on the Tibetan Plateau--and the impact it is having on the people there. 

We are here today to discuss this important issue: the melting of Himalayan glaciers, the impact it will have on the lives of the people in the region, and the approaches that we in the global community can take to understand and address these challenges. 

We are fortunate to have a distinguished panel of speakers, which will be moderated by my colleague and friend Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. And I would like to thank Deputy Assistant Secretary Geoffrey Pyatt, UN Assistant Secretary General Dr. Ajay Chhibber, and Dr. Alton Byers of the Mountain Institute for joining our panel today.

Evidence shows that the retreat of glaciers in many locations of the world has accelerated in recent decades. In fact, glaciologists say that nearly sixty-five percent of Himalayan glaciers are receding. The region faces:

  • shifting weather patterns,
  • the potential for more frequent and intense droughts and floods,
  • and the threat of glacial lake outburst floods.

Such environmental threats are not confined to sovereign borders, making regional cooperation all the more important.

As communities and countries adapt to the changing environment, they are using a wide variety of tools, both simple and complex -- from fog-catching nets in Nepal to man-made glaciers in northern India.

Indeed, the manner in which the people and governments of Asia adapt is as diverse as the millions of people who inhabit the region. So we need to share information and work together to advance further research.

You will hear today about a number of examples of U.S. support to the region, including by strengthening information collection and sharing. In all of our work, we have tried to build the capacity of local organizations.

For example, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, a Nepal-based regional knowledge development and learning center, is partnering with NASA on the use of satellite-based products to better understand hydrologic processes in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya river basins. This Center also is working in collaboration with NASA and USAID on integrating satellite and other geospatial data for improved scientific knowledge and decision-making by governments, researchers, students, and the general public.

It’s important to remember that other regions of the world also are struggling with these same problems, and may have vital experience to share. In September of last year, the State Department, USAID, and the Adaptation Partnership worked in collaboration with partners including The Mountain Institute to host an innovative conference that increased opportunities for exchange and collaboration among Andean, Central Asian, and local scientists, graduate students, and policymakers. 

These are just a few of our efforts that show that the United States and the global community take the consequences of increased glacial melting in the Himalayan region seriously. We recognize that the communities in this region are facing increasing challenges, and we are determined to understand and help meet these challenges. That is why we are here today.

So please, enjoy the film, and what promises to be a most stimulating panel discussion. And let me thank you again for coming and for your dedication to this important work.