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Global water crisis: Seen from the first Himalayan glacial trickle

Global water crisis: Reporter William Wheeler talks about water stress from the effects of climate change high in the Himalayas where India and Pakistan's great rivers start to Haiti's fresh-water pollution.

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Global water crisis: This reporter's notebook feature is part of the cover story package for the Dec. 3 issue of The Christian Science Monitor Weekly magazine. Here reporter William Wheeler's photographer and two trekking guides hike into the glacial valleys of the Nepalese Himalayas, near the Tibetan border.

William Wheeler

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In the Nepalese Himalayas in 2009, I trekked into the Langtang Valley, just short of the Tibetan border, and to a village of empty plywood cabins. The arrival of the summer monsoon season had chased the trekkers away.

Just uphill was a Buddhist temple and, behind it, a wrinkled sea of gray ice reached up the steep mountain walls into the clouds – the Langtang Lirung glacier, one of thousands that make up the largest body of ice outside the poles. In the winter, these glaciers capture precipitation that melts off in warmer months to feed the Ganges, Indus, and Brahmaputra rivers – and 1.5 billion people in eight countries who depend on them.

At night I could hear the thunderous crackling of distant avalanches on peaks above. By day, I saw shepherds, whose yaks couldn't withstand the summer heat, chanting a prayer for safe passage to higher, cooler climes.

The monsoon, seasonal rain that sweeps across the Indian subcontinent before crashing into the world's tallest mountains, was late, causing the worst drought in 30 years in Mumbai (Bombay), a thousand miles south.

Villagers talked of the arrival of mosquitoes – heralds of warmer summers and milder winters. The accelerated glacial melt is expected to increase floods in countries downstream over coming decades; earlier melts can reduce water when it's needed most.

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