Scientists from around the world have assessed the planet’s 78 mountain glacier–based water systems and, for the first time, ranked them in order of their importance to adjacent lowland communities, as well as their vulnerability to future environmental and socioeconomic changes. These systems, known as mountain water towers, store and transport water via glaciers, snow packs, lakes and streams, thereby supplying invaluable water resources to 1.9 billion people globally—roughly a quarter of the world’s population.
The research, published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, provides evidence that global water towers are at risk, in many cases critically, due to the threats of climate change, growing populations, mismanagement of water resources, and other geopolitical factors. Further, the authors conclude that it is essential to develop international, mountain-specific conservation and climate change adaptation policies and strategies to safeguard both ecosystems and people downstream.
Globally, the most relied-upon mountain system is the Indus water tower in Asia, according to their research. The Indus water tower—made up of vast areas of the Himalayan mountain range and covering portions of Afghanistan, China, India and Pakistan—is also one of the most vulnerable. High-ranking water tower systems on other continents are the southern Andes, the Rocky Mountains and the European Alps.
To determine the importance of these 78 water towers, researchers analyzed the various factors that determine how reliant downstream communities are upon the supplies of water from these systems. They also assessed each water tower to determine the vulnerability of the water resources, as well as the people and ecosystems that depend on them, based on predictions of future climate and socioeconomic changes.
Of the 78 global water towers identified, the following are the five most relied-upon systems by continent:
- Asia: Indus, Tarim, Amu Darya, Syr Darya, Ganges-Brahmaputra
- Europe: Rhône, Po, Rhine, Black Sea North Coast, Caspian Sea Coast
- North America: Fraser, Columbia and Northwest United States, Pacific and Arctic Coast, Saskatchewan-Nelson, North America-Colorado
- South America: South Chile, South Argentina, Negro, La Puna region, North Chile
The study, which was authored by 32 scientists from around the world, was led by Prof. Walter Immerzeel (Utrecht University) and Dr. Arthur Lutz (Utrecht University and FutureWater), longtime researchers of water and climate change in high mountain Asia.