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Glaciers in the Himalayas melting at rapid rate

Nations debate cuts in 'greenhouse' gases this week, while pace of icemelt increases.

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The 1,000-year-old Hemis Buddhist monastery in Ladakh is one of the world's oldest and most famous. Yet in August, amid rain, floods, mudslides, and spillover from the Indus River, three walls of the monastery in the north India mountains began to crumble.

Why all the water - since this region has always been arid and desert-like, with an average annual rainfall of four inches?

If you are one of a group of concerned climatologists and environmentalists, one reason is a rapid rise in the melting rate of the Himalayan glaciers.

Those glaciers, some 15,000 of them, constitute the largest body of ice in the world, apart from the two polar caps. Their runoff feeds two of the oldest rivers in the world, the Indus and the Ganges - whose tributaries carry precious water for 500 million people on the northern Indian plains.

Crops, drinking water, sacred rites, village life - the organizing elements of an agricultural society - would be turned upside down if the rivers didn't flow or are reduced to a trickle.

For years now, glaciers from Patagonia to the Swiss Alps have been watched for melt because of "greenhouse" gases and the reputed global warming effect. But in South Asia, the question is not if the ice is melting - but how fast.

While many ill-effects of global warming may become acute late next century, the meltwater in Nepal, India, Pakistan, China, and Bhutan could bring problems much sooner.

"Glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world," according to a study by the International Commission for Snow and Ice (ICSI). "If the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 is very high."

"Even if the waters dry up over 60 to 100 years, that is an eco-disaster of stunning proportions," says Syed Iqbal Hasnain, the head of ICSI, and a leading professor of environment at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

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