Article

Asia’s glaciers are a regionally important buffer against drought

  • Nature volume 545, pages 169174 (11 May 2017)
  • doi:10.1038/nature22062
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Abstract

The high mountains of Asia—encompassing the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, Pamir Alai, Kunlun Shan, and Tian Shan mountains—have the highest concentration of glaciers globally, and 800 million people depend in part on meltwater from them. Water stress makes this region vulnerable economically and socially to drought, but glaciers are a uniquely drought-resilient source of water. Here I show that these glaciers provide summer meltwater to rivers and aquifers that is sufficient for the basic needs of 136 million people, or most of the annual municipal and industrial needs of Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. During drought summers, meltwater dominates water inputs to the upper Indus and Aral river basins. Uncertainties in mountain precipitation are poorly known, but, given the magnitude of this water supply, predicted glacier loss would add considerably to drought-related water stress. Such additional water stress increases the risk of social instability, conflict and sudden, uncontrolled population migrations triggered by water scarcity, which is already associated with the large and rapidly growing populations and hydro-economies of these basins.

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Change history

  • Retracted online 14 February 2018

    Change history: Please see accompanying Retraction (http://doi.org/10.1038/nature25779). The author used mass imbalance data from table 2 in ref. 32 described as decadal averages (millimetres water equivalent) that are in fact annual values averaged over a decade (millimetres water equivalent per year). The loss components of total meltwater used are therefore too small and the summed meltwater volumes reported should be larger, affecting the conclusions of the Article.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to A. Sakai (ref. 15) and C. Zarfl (ref. 1) for providing data on glacier accumulation and dam locations.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. British Antarctic Survey, Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 0ET, UK

    • Hamish D. Pritchard

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Competing interests

The author declares no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Hamish D. Pritchard.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks A. Sakai, J. Arnold and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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