Tibet Environmental Forum

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
March 8, 2011

As prepared

I am delighted to be speaking at the first annual Tibet Environmental Forum. Thank you, Maria Otero, for your leadership and for inviting me to say a few words about the importance of the Tibetan Plateau, and how we in the SCA bureau are attempting to mitigate the impacts of glacier melt across the region. Let me also extend my thanks to all of you here today for your important work preserving Tibetan culture, religion and environment, as well as your assistance to Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal.

The Himalayan glaciers in the Tibetan plateau provide fresh water for over 1.5 billion people across Asia. The glaciers feed nine river basins, including the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra, which support thousands of communities, villages and cities across Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

But climate change and pollutants like black carbon, have put many Himalayan glaciers in retreat, and some will certainly be lost by the end of this century. Glacial retreat impacts water supplies to millions of people, increases the likelihood of outburst floods that destroy life and property, and contributes to rising sea levels, which threaten coastal communities.

As glaciers become smaller, water runoff decreases, which is especially important during the dry season when other water sources are limited. Climate change also brings warmer temperatures and earlier water runoff from glaciers. This combined with spring and summer rains can increase the chance of flooding.

Across South Asia water is critical to health and development. But the growing scarcity of water can also exacerbate existing border disputes, making proper management of this scarce resource even more critical.

My bureau, working together with Under Secretary Otero and the Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science, is developing programs and partnerships with governments in the region to promote the deployment of clean, low-carbon energy technology – which often reduces the consumption of water by the power sector – and to reduce emissions of black carbon from cement plants.

We are also working to foster transboundary cooperation and improve water management systems. Through our efforts we aim to conserve this important resource and improve the lives of millions of South Asians. Your work in the plateau is a vital piece of this effort.

Experts predict that by 2025 nearly two-thirds of the world’s countries will be water-stressed – which is defined as demand for water exceeding availability, or when poor quality water restricts its use. This problem is even more pressing in Asia. India, for example, is expected to be water stressed by 2020, just nine years from now, which could limit the growth of India’s economy and global standing. To address India’s growing water crisis, our embassy in New Delhi hosted a forum last week entitled “Water Issues in India: Opportunities and Challenges.” More than 110 government, NGO, academic and corporate representatives met to discuss and prioritize actions needed to advance practical solutions. Topics ranged from traditional methods of water harvesting to financing infrastructure and public private partnerships.

In January, our South Asia regional environment hub, based out of Embassy Kathmandu, partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to host the Eastern Himalayas Regional Workshop on Forests and Climate Change. Forests in the Eastern Himalayas provide livelihoods for millions of people. Participants from Nepal, Bhutan and India all affirmed that climate change impacts the entire region, and they stressed that information sharing on snowfall and glacial melt trends is crucial to managing the region’s forests. In Nepal, our USAID and NASA colleagues have also partnered to establish an earth observation monitoring and visualization system for the Himalayas. This system will provide a clearer picture of water supply and demand for the region and facilitate efforts to adapt to climate change.

Your work on preserving the culture and environment of the Tibetan Plateau is key to all of our efforts. I look forward to finding ways to coordinate and collaborate on our mutual efforts.