Asia’s shrinking glaciers protect large populations from drought stress
About 800 million people depend in part on meltwater from the thousands of glaciers in the high mountains of Asia. Water stress makes this region vulnerable to drought, but glaciers are a uniquely drought-resilient source of water. Here I show that seasonal glacier meltwater is equivalent to the basic needs of 221 ± 59 million people, or most of the annual municipal and industrial needs of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. During drought summers, meltwater dominates water inputs to the upper Indus, Aral and Chu/Issyk-Kul river basins. This reduces the risk of social instability, conflict and sudden migrations triggered by water scarcity, which is already associated with the large, rapidly growing populations and hydro-economies of these basins. Regional meltwater production is, however, unsustainably high—at 1.6 times the balance rate—and is expected to increase in future decades before ultimately declining. These results update and reinforce a previous publication in Nature on this topic, which was retracted after an inadvertent error was discovered.