Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Importance of snow and glacier meltwater for agriculture on the Indo-Gangetic Plain

Abstract

Densely populated floodplains downstream of Asia’s mountain ranges depend heavily on mountain water resources, in particular for irrigation. An intensive and complex multi-cropping irrigated agricultural system has developed here to optimize the use of these mountain water resources in conjunction with monsoonal rainfall. Snow and glacier melt thereby modulate the seasonal pattern of river flows and, together with groundwater, provide water when rainfall is scarce. Climate change is expected to weaken this modulating effect, with potentially strong effects on food production in one of the world’s breadbaskets. Here we quantify the space-, time- and crop-specific dependence of agriculture in the Indo-Gangetic Plains on mountain water resources, using a coupled state-of-the-art, high-resolution, cryosphere–hydrology–crop model. We show that dependence varies strongly in space and time and is highest in the Indus basin, where in the pre-monsoon season up to 60% of the total irrigation withdrawals originate from mountain snow and glacier melt, and that it contributes an additional 11% to total crop production. Although dependence in the floodplains of the Ganges is comparatively lower, meltwater is still essential during the dry season, in particular for crops such as sugar cane. The dependency on meltwater in the Brahmaputra is negligible. In total, 129 million farmers in the Indus and Ganges substantially depend on snow and glacier melt for their livelihoods. Snow and glacier melt provides enough water to grow food crops to sustain a balanced diet for 38 million people. These findings provide important information for agricultural and climate change adaptation policies in a climate change hot spot where shifts in water availability and demand are projected as a result of climate change and socio-economic growth.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: The contribution of snow and glacier melt to downstream discharge and irrigation supply (1981–2010).
Fig. 2: The mean annual cycle of irrigation water applied per crop versus the annual cycle of irrigation withdrawal per origin of source in the IGB.
Fig. 3: The calendar for irrigated crops, with temporal mean annual relative contribution of meltwater, in the Indus and Ganges.
Fig. 4: The percentage of production attributable to upstream glacier and snowmelt for major crops.

Data availability

All SPHY and LPJmL output data generated in this study (discharge, irrigation water use by crops and crop yields), as well as the data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Code availability

The source codes of SPHY and the adjusted LPJmL version used in this study can be obtained from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

References

  1. 1.

    Godfray, H. C. J. et al. Food security: the challenge of feeding 9 billion people. Science 327, 812–818 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Kummu, M., Gerten, D., Heinke, J., Konzmann, M. & Varis, O. Climate-driven interannual variability of water scarcity in food production potential: a global analysis. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 18, 447–461 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Biemans, H. et al. Impact of reservoirs on river discharge and irrigation water supply during the 20th century. Water Resour. Res. https://doi.org/10.1029/2009wr008929 (2011).

  4. 4.

    Shah, T., Roy, A. D., Qureshi, A. S. & Wang, J. X. Sustaining Asia’s groundwater boom: an overview of issues and evidence. Nat. Resour. Forum 27, 130–141 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Scott, C. A. & Sharma, B. Energy supply and the expansion of groundwater irrigation in the Indus‐Ganges basin. Int. J. River Basin Manag. 7, 119–124 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Aggarwal, P. K., Joshi, P. K., Ingram, J. S. & Gupta, R. K. Adapting food systems of the Indo-Gangetic plains to global environmental change: key information needs to improve policy formulation. Environ. Sci. Policy 7, 487–498 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    De Souza, K. et al. Vulnerability to climate change in three hot spots in Africa and Asia: key issues for policy-relevant adaptation and resilience-building research. Reg. Environ. Change 15, 747–753 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    O’Brien, K. et al. Mapping vulnerability to multiple stressors: climate change and globalization in India. Glob. Environ. Change 14, 303–313 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Von Grebmer, K., Ringler, C., Rosegrant, M. W. & Olofinbiyi, T. Global Hunger Index. The Challenge of Hunger: Ensuring Sustainable Food Security Under Land, Water, and Energy Stresses (International Food Policy Rerearch Institute, 2012).

  10. 10.

    Wheeler, T. & von Braun, J. Climate change impacts on global food security. Science 341, 508–513 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Andermann, C. et al. Impact of transient groundwater storage on the discharge of Himalayan rivers. Nat. Geosci. 5, 127–132 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Thayyen, R. J. & Gergan, J. T. Role of glaciers in watershed hydrology: a preliminary study of a “Himalayan catchment”. Cryosphere 4, 115–128 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Pritchard, H. D. Asia's shrinking glaciers protect large populations from drought stress. Nature 569, 649–654 (2019).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Immerzeel, W. W., Van Beek, L. P. & Bierkens, M. F. Climate change will affect the Asian water towers. Science 328, 1382–1385 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Lutz, A. F., Immerzeel, W. W., Shrestha, A. B. & Bierkens, M. F. P. Consistent increase in high Asia’s runoff due to increasing glacier melt and precipitation. Nat. Clim. Change 4, 587–592 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Huss, M. & Hock, R. Global-scale hydrological response to future glacier mass loss. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 135–140 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Bliss, A., Hock, R. & Radic, V. Global response of glacier runoff to twenty-first century climate change. J. Geophys. Res. Earth Surf. 119, 717–730 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Kraaijenbrink, P. D. A., Bierkens, M. F. P., Lutz, A. F. & Immerzeel, W. W. Impact of a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius on Asia's glaciers. Nature 549, 257–260 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Rodell, M., Velicogna, I. & Famiglietti, J. S. Satellite-based estimates of groundwater depletion in India. Nature 460, 999–1002 (2009).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Tiwari, V. M., Wahr, J. & Swenson, S. Dwindling groundwater resources in northern India, from satellite gravity observations. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L18401 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Kirby, M., Ahmad, M. U. D., Mainuddin, M., Khaliq, T. & Cheema, M. J. M. Agricultural production, water use and food availability in Pakistan: historical trends, and projections to 2050. Agric. Water Manag. 179, 34–46 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Wijngaard, R. R. et al. Climate change vs. socio-economic development: understanding the future south-Asian water gap. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 22, 6297–6321 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Knox, J., Hess, T., Daccache, A. & Wheeler, T. Climate change impacts on crop productivity in Africa and South Asia. Environ. Res. Lett. 7, 034032 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Cai, Y., Bandara, J. S. & Newth, D. A framework for integrated assessment of food production economics in South Asia under climate change. Environ. Model. Softw. 75, 459–497 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Siderius, C. et al. Snowmelt contributions to discharge of the Ganges. Sci. Total Environ. 468–469 (Suppl.), S93–S101 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Kaser, G., Großhauser, M. & Marzeion, B. Contribution potential of glaciers to water availability in different climate regimes. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 20223–20227 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Biemans, H., Siderius, C., Mishra, A. & Ahmad, B. Crop-specific seasonal estimates of irrigation-water demand in South Asia. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 20, 1971–1982 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Munia, H. A., Guillaume, J. H., Mirumachi, N., Wada, Y. & Kummu, M. How downstream sub-basins depend on upstream inflows to avoid scarcity: typology and global analysis of transboundary rivers. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 22, 2795–2809 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Cheema, M. & Bastiaanssen, W. G. Land use and land cover classification in the irrigated Indus basin using growth phenology information from satellite data to support water management analysis. Agric. Water Manag. 97, 1541–1552 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Portmann, F. T., Siebert, S. & Doll, P. MIRCA2000 – global monthly irrigated and rainfed crop areas around the year 2000: a new high-resolution data set for agricultural and hydrological modeling. Global Biogeochem. Cycles https://doi.org/10.1029/2008GB003435 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Agricultural Statistics at a Glance (Government of India, 2018); https://eands.dacnet.nic.in/

  32. 32.

    Gerten, D. et al. Global water availability and requirements for future food production. J. Hydrometeorol. 12, 885–899 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Rockstrom, J., Lannerstad, M. & Falkenmark, M. Assessing the water challenge of a new green revolution in developing countries. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 6253–6260 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations OECD–FAO Agricultural Outlook 2015–2024 (OECD, 2015).

  35. 35.

    Klein Goldewijk, K., Beusen, A. & Janssen, P. Long-term dynamic modeling of global population and built-up area in a spatially explicit way: HYDE 3.1. Holocene 20, 565–573 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Lutz, A. F., Immerzeel, W., Kraaijenbrink, P., Shrestha, A. B. & Bierkens, M. F. Climate change impacts on the upper Indus hydrology: sources, shifts and extremes. PloS ONE 11, e0165630 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Smith, T. & Bookhagen, B. Changes in seasonal snow water equivalent distribution in high mountain Asia (1987 to 2009). Sci. Adv. 4, e1701550 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Loo, Y. Y., Billa, L. & Singh, A. Effect of climate change on seasonal monsoon in Asia and its impact on the variability of monsoon rainfall in Southeast Asia. Geosci. Front. 6, 817–823 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Bagla, P. India plans the grandest of canal networks. Science 345, 128–128 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Van Vliet, M. et al. Multi-model assessment of global hydropower and cooling water discharge potential under climate change. Glob. Environ. Change 40, 156–170 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Rasul, G. Food Water, and energy security in South Asia: a nexus perspective from the Hindu Kush Himalayan region. Environ. Sci. Policy 39, 35–48 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Pastor, A. V., Ludwig, F., Biemans, H., Hoff, H. & Kabat, P. Accounting for environmental flow requirements in global water assessments. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 18, 5041–5059 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Hanasz, P. Muddy waters: international actors and transboundary water cooperation in the Ganges-Brahmaputra problemshed. Water Alternatives 10, 459–474 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    The Indus Waters Treaty 1960 (Worldbank, 1960); https://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTSOUTHASIA/Resources/223497-1105737253588/IndusWatersTreaty1960.pdf

  45. 45.

    Terink, W., Lutz, A. F., Simons, G. W. H., Immerzeel, W. W. & Droogers, P. SPHY v2.0: spatial processes in HYdrology. Geosci. Model Dev. 8, 2009–2034 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Schaphoff, S. et al. LPJmL4 0 a dynamic global vegetation model with managed land: Part I – model description. Geosci. Model Dev. 11,1343–1375 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Jägermeyr, J. et al. Water savings potentials of irrigation systems: global simulation of processes and linkages. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 19, 3073–3091 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Bondeau, A. et al. Modelling the role of agriculture for the 20th century global terrestrial carbon balance. Glob. Change Biol. 13, 679–706 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Fader, M., Rost, S., Müller, C., Bondeau, A. & Gerten, D. Virtual water content of temperate cereals and maize: present and potential future patterns. J. Hydrol. 384, 218–231 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Lutz, A. F. & Immerzeel, W. W. HI-AWARE research component 1. Reference Climate Dataset for the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra River Basins (FutureWater, 2015).

  51. 51.

    Immerzeel, W., Wanders, N., Lutz, A., Shea, J. & Bierkens, M. Reconciling high-altitude precipitation in the upper Indus basin with glacier mass balances and runoff. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 19, 4673–4687 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Immerzeel, W. W., Pellicciotti, F. & Shrestha, A. B. Glaciers as a proxy to quantify the spatial distribution of precipitation in the Hunza basin. Mt. Res. Dev. 32, 30–38 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

This work was carried out by the Himalayan Adaptation, Water and Resilience consortium under the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia with financial support from the UK Government’s Department for International Development and the International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada.

This work was also partially supported by core funds from ICIMOD contributed by the governments of Afghanistan, Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Norway, Pakistan, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. W.W.I. has been supported by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 676819) and by the research programme VIDI (project no. 016.161.308), which is financed by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.

The views expressed in this work are those of the creators and do not necessarily represent those of the UK Government’s Department for International Development, the International Development Research Centre, Canada or its Board of Governors, and are not necessarily attributable to their organizations.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

H.B., C.S., A.F.L. and W.W.I. designed the study. H.B. developed the downstream model with help from C.S. and W.v.B. R.R.W. and A.F.L. developed and ran the upstream model. H.B., A.F.L. and T.H. analysed the data and prepared the Figures. H.B. wrote the article with major contributions from C.S., A.F.L., W.I., S.N., B.A., P.W. and A.B.S.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to H. Biemans.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary methods, Supplementary Figs. 1–6, Supplementary Tables 1 and 2, Supplementary references 1–36

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Biemans, H., Siderius, C., Lutz, A.F. et al. Importance of snow and glacier meltwater for agriculture on the Indo-Gangetic Plain. Nat Sustain 2, 594–601 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0305-3

Download citation

Further reading

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing