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Tibet shepherds live on climate frontier

Shrinking glaciers mean longer hikes to water flocks

(Page 2 of 2)

“With climate change, all these rivers will have greatly reduced flows,” says Carter Brandon, director of the World Bank’s China environment program in Beijing. “There will also be much more seasonal variation – when flow is more dependent on rainfall, as opposed to the steady inflow of snowmelt from glaciers.”

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The glacier system delivers water to more than 300 million people in China – and 1 billion across south Asia.

The region is among the globe’s most rapidly warming. Average annual temperatures on the “rooftop of the world” have climbed 2 degrees F. in two decades.

Chinese scientists expect the total area of the glaciers to halve every 10 years. By 2100, they predict, the glaciers may have largely vanished.

Those hit first and hardest by climate change, like Tenzin Dorje, tend to live in poor communities on the margins, on mountaintops or by the sea. Typically they have contributed little to global carbon emissions.

There is now a new push to address their concerns. In 2007, the Rockefeller Foundation established a five-year, $70 million “climate-change resilience initiative” to assist developing countries. In December 2007, during climate talks in Bali, Indonesia, United Nations negotiators drafted a framework for a new “adaptation fund” to aid poor countries and communities.

The critical issue of what practical measures can be taken remains. A team of scientists in Switzerland has begun to research the possibility of shielding glaciers from rising summer temperatures with blankets of insulating foam. But such investigations are only preliminary.

Other research on addressing global water shortages includes promising (if costly) ways to desalinize seawater and recycle wastewater. But such approaches will work better in coastal areas and cities, not landlocked villages like this.

Research into solutions is attracting more attention from scientists and policymakers today. “Now we’re beginning to focus more seriously on these issues,” says MacCracken, the climate scientist.

“I used to think adaptation subtracted from our efforts on prevention,” former vice president Al Gore recently told the Economist magazine. “But I’ve changed my mind. Poor countries are vulnerable and need our help.”

But who will foot the bill? According to the UN, by 2015 approximately $86 billion annually will be needed for adaptation efforts.

The small home of Zahxi Rangou is perched on a mountainside overlooking a snowy valley and a white pagoda temple. He is one of 15 lamas residing on the grounds of the Tibetan Midi Temple, tucked in the Qilian mountains in Gansu province. The young monk has two rooms: One is warmed by a stove for visitors. One is cold and full of books and a computer.

Here he spends his days in prayer and study. He has Internet access, and is well-read on climate science.

“The glacier is depleting,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s melting in the summer. And the weather is getting drier.” His knowledge is power, but there are limits on how he can use that power. Tibetans, an ethnic minority in China, are closely watched by the government. It is difficult for leaders of his community to organize around environmental or other issues in China.

He says he doesn’t use e-mail, because it can so easily be monitored. Many Internet news sites are blocked.

At nearby Zhuanlong Temple, no one answers a knock at the door. The lama there has left on a special mission this winter: He will spend two weeks praying at the source of each stream for its bountiful return.