Glaciers Largest Freshwater Reservoir on Planet, But Threatened by Global Warming, Secretary-General Warns Event, Stressing Consequences Could Be Catastrophic

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the side event on the International Year of Glaciers’ Preservation, in New York today:

My thanks to President Rahmon for Tajikistan’s leadership in putting the global focus on preserving the world’s glaciers.  Glaciers are critical to all life on earth.  Over centuries, they carved out the landmasses we call home.  Today, they cover 10 per cent of our world.

Glaciers are also the world’s water towers.  They represent the largest reservoir of fresh water on the planet — supporting our nutrition, health, economies and energy production.  And nearly 2 billion people — one out of every four people on earth — live in areas where glaciers and seasonal snowmelt supply their water.

But, these silent giants are facing a rude awakening.  Human activity is driving our planet’s temperature to dangerous new heights.  Global warming is a global warning that we are on the wrong track.  And melting glaciers are the canary in the coalmine.

Antarctica is losing an average of 150 billion tons of ice mass every year.  The Greenland ice cap is melting even faster — losing 270 billion tons per year.  To put that in perspective, that combined total ice melt in just one year is the equivalent of a wall of ice fully five metres high, covering my entire home country of Portugal.

And consider the vast mountainous glaciers in nearly every continent.  In Asia, for example, 10 major rivers originate in the Himalaya region, supplying freshwater to 1.3 billion people living in its watershed.  President Rahmon has long warned about the devastation from melting glaciers on communities and people alike.  We’ve already seen how Himalayan melts have worsened flooding in Pakistan.

As glaciers and ice sheets continue to recede over the coming decades, major Himalayan rivers like the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra will feel the impact — seeing their flows reduced.  On top of that, rising sea levels combined with saltwater intrusion will decimate large parts of these huge deltas.

In fact, a new compilation of data released by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned that global average sea levels have already risen faster since 1900 than over any preceding century in the last 3,000 years.

Unless we reverse this trend, the consequences will be catastrophic.  Low-lying communities and entire countries could be erased forever.  We would witness mass movements of entire populations — and fierce competition for water and land.  And disasters would accelerate worldwide — including floods, droughts and landslides.  Losing these giants would be a giant problem for our world.

We must do more than sound the alarm on this emergency.  All countries must act as one to protect people and communities alike: by investing in climate-resilient buildings, infrastructure and water pipelines, as well as policies that conserve precious water resources and their ecosystems for the future; by building institutional capacities and integrating risk reduction measures to ensure that every person in the world is protected by life-saving early warning systems against hazardous climate or weather events by 2027.

By strengthening our research, data and monitoring capabilities on current and projected changes in snow and glacier cover to help shape plans, strategies and priorities to reduce and better manage the impact of climate change on glaciers; and above all — by limiting global warming to the 1.5°C rise to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

We urgently need to reduce emissions, enhance adaptation measures and ensure climate justice.  And developing countries must have the resources to adapt and build resilience against climate disaster.

Let’s stop global warming in its tracks.  Let’s help all countries build more resilient futures.  As we look ahead to the International Year for Glaciers’ Preservation in 2025, let’s act now to mobilize greater political, private and public will to conserve our glaciers and all they give to us.

For information media. Not an official record.