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The 1950’s were known as the Great Acceleration which was marked by profound human transformation of the planet. Forests have declined rapidly since the Great Acceleration due to industrialisation, urbanisation and land degradation, particularly in South Asia. There are almost 16 different forest types in the region which vary from tropical rainforest to coastal mangroves. With the population of South Asia set to grow to 2 billion in 2050 from 1.8 billion today, how can South Asia ensure the survival of its forests?

The graph below shows forest area as a share of land in South Asia from 2000 to 2015, which excludes agricultural production systems. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are seeing a gradual decrease in forest cover while India has seen a gradual increase in forest cover. Only Bhutan has seen a small increase in overall forest cover.

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south asia forests
A graph showing various countries in South Asia and their forests as share of land area (Source: Our World in Data).

India

India is the 6th largest country in the world and has 4 types of forests: tropical forests, subtropical, temperate and alpine. Since the early 1950’s the country has been increasing its afforestation and reforestation efforts and consequently, the country has increased forest cover by 70.5% between 1950 and 2006; there are now more mangrove forests and forests in hill districts.

In 1952, the country set a target to have 33% of its land under forest cover, however this is currently at 21.54%. Ajay Narayan Jha, the secretary of the ministry of environment forest and climate change, wants to convert open, moderate and degraded forests into dense forests to improve the quality of existing forests. 

The overall increase in forestry in India is attributed to both conservation efforts and better satellite data, however a research paper states that the figures ‘ignore’ the ground realities of India’s situation – by including commercial plantations which are largely monoculture and should not be counted as an increase in India’s forest cover. This could mean that India’s actual forestry numbers are far less than the official counts. Additionally, within the country, there are massive differences in forestry among states with Andhra Pradesh and Kerala recording increases in forest cover while the North-Eastern states of India are recording India’s largest rates of forest cover decline. This is attributed to cultivation and development activities.

Bangladesh

Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries on Earth, with 163 million people living on a delta plain bordering the Bay of Bengal. As a consequence of this, only 6% of Bangladesh is forested, paling in comparison to the rest of South Asia. Over 50% of Bangladesh’s forests have been deforested in only the last 20 years, which can be mainly attributed to the massive increase in urbanisation and agriculture. Further, illegal sand mining is prevalent in the country, which is an extremely destructive process that has been linked to floods in Kerala. For Bangladesh this illegal practice has led to a sharp decline in river bodies and forests; when sand and minerals are illegally extracted, river banks become unstable and collapse during times of heavy rain or monsoons season, affecting water quality. The Sundarbans is a 10 000 sq km mangrove forest which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has been badly affected by sand mining and deforestation. 

This mangrove forest environment is crucial to protecting Bangladesh’s coastline from tropical storms. Additionally, conflict in Myanmar has led to the large-scale movement of refugees entering Bangladesh through Cox’s Bazaar. This mass migration has forced Bangladesh to build security outposts in the region, however, these have been built on protected forestry land. The government has also drained and filled wetlands to create settlements to relieve the overpopulation crisis which has hampered the country’s forest preservation efforts. Bangladesh is in a difficult position as the country will need to find a balance between relieving its overcrowding crisis in urban areas while conserving forests.

The rise of aquaculture in Bangladesh has also contributed to the decline in forests; in 2013, there was an estimated 8.3% loss in forest cover, partly because land was cleared to make way for shrimp farms.

Sri Lanka

Between 1990 and 2005, Sri Lanka had the world’s highest rate of deforestation. Deforestation is attributed mainly to the rise of the plantation sector, particularly for coconut production.  However, since the end of the country’s civil war in 2009, Sri Lanka has made significant progress in protecting and preserving its forests, with 22 national parks and a newly-added UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2015, the country declared all mangrove forests to be protected by law. The country also plans to quadruple the size of the Sinharaja Rainforest to 36 000 hectares, which is the country’s only UNESCO Heritage Site- listed rainforest with over 50% of the country’s endemic species and 60% of endemic trees  found in this rainforest. The country hopes to utilise the forest’s bufferzone and incorporate nearby defragmented forests into the rainforest

However, this progress was marred when the state built a second international airport inside a bird sanctuary in 2013 in the south of the country. This project, along with two expressways which run through many sensitive environmental areas, was seen as a major setback in the government’s promise towards environmental protection. Although the state has been paramount in setting out legislation, it has been the work of grassroot community action which has spearheaded Sri Lanka’s protection of forests. There are women-led initiatives that cultivate mangrove ecosystems which allow for the careful fishing of prawns which reside in mangrove ecosystems. Other citizen-led groups, such as Reforest Sri Lanka, have been planting trees in neglected areas such as abandoned tea estates. Despite the failings of the government to protect its forests, citizen-led groups have been educating, preserving and protecting Sri Lanka’s natural environments. 

Bhutan

Bhutan is the world’s only carbon negative country, which means it absorbs more carbon dioxide than it produces. This small mountainous country is 80.9% forested– the highest rate of forest cover in South Asia. Almost 51.4% of the country’s area is designated as natural parks and sanctuaries. The country enforces strict environmental policies such as ensuring that 60% of the country remains forested; this is also contained in the country’s constitution. Such policies fall under the country’s four pillars of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which has helped the country concentrate on conservation and forestry. GNH is the measure of economic and moral progress of Bhutan, which differs from the typical practice of focusing on economic indicators. However the country’s rigid environmental policy has been criticised as rural communities continue to lose livestock due to the protection of snow leopards (however, the government compensates farmers for killed livestock by). 

Bhutan’s efforts should be commended both in South Asia and globally. The country’s stern environmental laws have allowed it to protect and maintain its forests, setting a precedent for the rest of the world.

South Asia is fast developing economically and is experiencing rapid population growth. If countries in South Asia are to combat global warming, they will have to work together to protect forests which transcend national boundaries such as the Sundurbans and forests on the Himalayas. Although environmental progress has been slow, concern for the environment is becoming an important macroeconomic objective of South Asian governments and with the rise of citizen-led groups and the involvement of communities, the fight for South Asia’s forests remains far from over. 

Cold War-era US reconnaissance satellites have gone out of orbit. But they have left images that reveal the horrifying realities of climate change. A new study based on declassified satellite imagery revealed that the melting of Himalayan glaciers has doubled since the turn of the 21st century, compared to the previous 25 years.

A team of researchers led by doctoral student Joshua Maurer, from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, analysed Cold War-era spy imagery combining it with modern satellite data and found that 8bn tonnes of ice are being lost every year. Over 650 of the largest glaciers across India, China, Nepal, and Bhutan, which together represent 55% of the region’s total ice volume, have lost the equivalent of a vertical foot and a half of ice each year this century due to global heating caused by human activities.

Earlier, scientists had documented the rate at which the Himalayas had lost ice mass in the course of this century using more sophisticated satellite imagery. But this is the first comprehensive look at the melting rates of the Himalayan glaciers over a 40-year time span.

The Once-Secret Source

During the 1970s and 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, a US spy programme–Hexagon–had launched 20 satellites into orbit to secretly photograph the Earth.  The satellite missions, run by the National Reconnaissance Office, sought to capture wide-ranging views of what transpired around the globe. Each satellite was the size of a truck and weighed over 15,000 kilograms. In all, they photographed some 877 million square miles of Earth.

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One of the satellites KH-9 Hexagon, commonly known as Big Bird, before the launch

The covert images were taken on rolls of film that were then dropped by the satellites into the atmosphere to be collected by military planes. The films were contained in metal canisters, which deployed their parachutes before being captured by high-flying spy planes. The materials were declassified in 2011, and have been digitised by the US Geological Survey for scientists to use.

Among the spy photographs are the Himalayas–an area for which historical data is scarce.

The photos had lain unused in archives for several years. The Columbia University team developed a computer software to turn these old photos into 3D maps allowing them to digitally explore the Himalayan surfaces as they appeared in 1975. They looked at 650 glaciers and compared them with modern satellite data from Nasa and the Japanese space agency (Jaxa) to create the first detailed, four-decade record of ice along the 2,000km mountain chain.

How fast are glaciers melting?

Researchers found that between 1975 and 2000, the average loss of glacial ice was about 25 cm per year, but this doubled to 50 cm in the 21st century. These are average figures, spread out across the region, and in the worst-hit areas, that ice loss is as much as 5 metres a year.

Warming air temperatures have accelerated ice loss. Inferring data from local weather stations, the team found temperatures in the Himalayas have risen one degree Celsius higher than those from 1975 to 2000.  The rising temperatures are consistent with the observed melting. Further calculations also confirmed that one degree was indeed enough to produce such a massive loss of glacier ice.

The Himalayas contain many different types of glaciers — such as those covered in debris or located near bodies of liquid water lakes — in many different environments.

The study concluded that the rate of melt was consistent across all the glaciers they studied.  “All of the glaciers have lost similar amounts of ice. It indicates there is one overarching factor causing this,” said lead researcher Josh Maurer. “Global temperature rise is the only one that makes sense.”

Map of glacier locations and geodetic mass balances for the 650 glaciers.
Circle sizes are proportional to glacier areas, and colors delineate clean-ice, debris-covered, and lake-terminating categories. Insets indicate ice loss, quantified as geodetic mass balances plotted for individual glaciers along a longitudinal transect during 1975–2000 and 2000–2016. Both inset plots are horizontally aligned with the map view. Gray error bars are 1σ uncertainty, and the yellow trend is the (area-weighted) moving-window mean, using a window size of 30 glaciers.

Why are glaciers important?

Glacier loss at this rate points to an impending threat that might devastate an entire region of South Asia in the near future. Glaciers are a key source of fresh water for both natural ecosystems and nearby human communities, helping to feed mountain streams as they melt during the summer months. More than 800 million people from China, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh rely on seasonal Himalayan runoff for irrigation, hydropower, and drinking water. The ice and snow in the region are the source for Asia’s mighty rivers including the Indus, the Yangtze, and the Ganga-Brahmaputra. As these glaciers shrink, they could alter the local hydrology and disrupt the water supplies. As a result, densely populated areas in South Asia would face more severe water crisis than ever before.

Melting glaciers pose another unpredictable danger: disastrous floods. Glacial water gets blocked by piles of rubble and forms glacial lakes that can burst and flood villages and cities downstream. These lake outburst floods have killed thousands of people in the Andes, Himalayas, and Alps in the past. In May 2012, one such flood killed over 60 people in villages near Pokhara, Nepal; it also destroyed houses and infrastructure.

Another study published last February projected that, even in the best-case scenario, if the world rapidly decarbonised and was carbon neutral by 2050, limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the Himalayan glaciers are still melting rapidly and stand to lose a third of their total ice, because the peaks are warming at a faster rate than the global average.

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