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The inconspicuous climate risks of the Himalayas

By: Varun Kumar and Sweta Bhushan

The Himalayas, the earth’s third pole positioned strategically in between the other two, stretches across multiple South Asian countries. The entire range possesses 15,000 glaciers ensuring water security to over 2 billion people, giving it the name “Water Towers of Asia”. The large-scale dependency on these water towers prompted an inquiry about the status of the Himalayan glaciers amidst the global climate change witnessed. In the effort to reveal the ground conditions a few Himalayan town folks have stepped up to share their observations of the climate change they’ve been experiencing over the years, and suspect a disaster brewing.

Himalayan community’s eco-anxiety

From the Afghan capital of Kabul, tucked in the Hindu Kush ranges, Aimal has notified us of frequent flash floods, including those in the country’s other parts too. He observed people’s distress of livelihood damage due to irregular weather patterns. “At Bamiyan, the changes have led to the destruction of almost 50% of crops”, says Aimal. Residents from Badakhshan province informed him of the huge glacier melting seen towards the north of Noshak mountains due to hot weather. “The Economy of Afghan’s southern provinces has been affected by several droughts too”, says Aimal.

Towards the South East in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Wajahat Akhtar from Kohat in Pakistan highlighted increased warming in the ranges. “Years before”, says Wajahat, “no one would have thought of having fans to protect heat strokes”. This has led to accelerated glacier melting, leading to the formation of new lakes thereby altering the landscape. “Even in the cold winter, we’re experiencing an increase in the number of summer-like days”, says Wajahat.

In Kashmir, Parveen describes troubling changes in the existing snowfall pattern. “Snowfall would begin in November. But now they happen unexpectedly. The winters are extending and getting worse.” Kashmir would be on winter vacation until March usually. But intensified snowfall pushes the vacation by another month, affecting schooling and work schedules. “During the summers too, the intensity of humidity has increased a lot, and become unbearable”, says Parveen.

Parallelly in Jammu, Dhruvi tells us of an influx of climate refugees from the upper districts. “Due to excessive melting of glaciers in the higher regions, rivers tend to overflow and people consequently relocate to Jammu, leading to a population upsurge”, says Dhruvi. The flooding also destroys grazing lands and cattle, forcing farmers to move to the cities. As a consequence, according to Dhruvi, they can’t escape a rise in costs of production eventually pushing up their selling prices.

Down to the lower ranges in Himachal Pradesh, hydroelectric plant engineer Pankaj Sharma says “I found rocks crumbling from the heights which is unnatural.” Pankaj and his hometown speculate that glacier melting has resulted in the erosion of mountain rock cover. “We are now worried about landslides that could follow”, says Pankaj. On the other end of the spectrum, Arnab from Assam which is a lower Himalayan state, also complains of increasing heat during the winter months.

These ground reports allude to the fact that Climate change isn’t unidirectional. A river town might experience water shortage, only to witness floods wipe out during the following seasons. Distortion of the regular climatic patterns especially in the Himalayas leaves vast sections of people facing ecological and economical fragility. Contemporary economic functions too are inherently misaligned with environmental preservation.

On the flip side, the exclusive geographical conditions and symbiotic livelihoods of the Himalayas are largely affected by the extreme weather changes. Therefore to sustain longer the synthesis between Himalayan ecosystems and its people, climate change reversal processes need to be expedited. An assessment report prepared by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a transborder organisation working on solving the Himalayan climate issue lends insights risks involved with glacier melting. The report has alerted the scientific and environmentalist community about the same. This sprung up many conservations urging governments and the people to act at the earliest.

How is the Himalayan decay an emergency?

Modern economic activities and international armed conflicts have generated toxic waste and atmospheric pollution that degrade the environment beyond their place of function. One such example is the burning of fossil fuels which play a role in the Himalayan decay. Meanwhile, the signs which notify the Himalayan communities of the glacier melting brings up a life-threatening challenge of manoeuvring through the mountains to safety. Deposition of black carbon which is the soot emanating from various forms of fossil and biomass combustion has already been accelerating the glacier melting. Black carbon reduces the glacier albedo which results in absorption of more heat and hence quicker melting.

An ICIMOD scientist further illustrates that the soot from the burning of agricultural and environmental vegetation helps the previously deposited black carbon inside the glaciers to resurface. This substratum black carbon may have settled in earlier times. Hence, we encounter more black carbon continuing the ice melting as a chain. This is a direct cause for a spike in meltwater production too. Mr P.S. Negi, a scientist of Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, has attributed the intensification of black carbon deposition to stubble burning in North Indian farmlands. Forest fires on the lower Himalayan ranges accompany the stubble burning.

Furthermore, the Himalayas will keep attracting tourists from all over the world for the serene mountain life, showing a breach of our economic interests into the pristine mountainous life. Consequently, urbanization to accommodate different inbound people without degradation of the mountain ecology seems unavoidable.

The glaciers are melting at a pace faster than witnessed in the last quarter of the 20th century. Ever since one and a half a foot of ice has been retreating annually, without equal reformation of ice during winters. The ICIMOD also reported an estimated loss of one third the ice present even if global temperature is brought down below the target of the pre-industrial1.5-degree Celsius level.

Climate Change Data Insufficiency

Scientists have combined data of multiple satellite-based images from the mid-1970s to identify a four-decade record of Himalayan glacier melting. Odd readings on Himalayan ice melting inferred from this evidence paints the picture of climate change due to global warming. But the chain of events toward disaster is still unpredictable, hence threatening.

Scientists and authorities have also been notified of the lack of sufficient ground data about the present melting trends. Very few studies too, shed light on glacier health in the western Himalayas. The data insufficiency has ill-informed policymakers for strategizing a climate change reversal and resilience to any upcoming extreme weather events.

The fourth assessment report by the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) labeled the Himalayan issue as a black-hole for Data way back in 2007. The reason cited was a lack of consistent long-term monitoring. Eco-anxiety due to this inaction has also been amplified by data-secrecy and poor sharing between the Himalayan dependent countries. Governments have been non-responsive to the climate activists’ push for open data sharing. Some experts say that the science propounded by the data may see misuse upon publication, which causes hesitancy among Himalayan dependent countries. But we fail to realize that science only ultimately takes benefits beyond borders.

The continual ignorant contribution to the current economic machines that we live in today will keep aggregating the life-threatening changes to the Himalayan Climate. Not prioritizing data documentation and disclosure within the Himalayan countries too renders us unprepared to face the annual unfurling climatic disasters. The Himalayan Climate emergency needs immediate accentuation to invoke action from all stakeholders involved.

(This article is the first in a series of three articles on the issue of Himalayan climate change.)

    Varun Kumar and Sweta Bhushan

    Varun Kumar and Sweta Bhushan

    Sweta and Varun are architects interested in research and writing. They focus on issues pertaining to the built and unbuilt environment, in addition to public affairs. Sweta is currently a fellow to Anant University whereas Varun is pursuing studies in governance and humanities. Connect with the authors on instagram at @swetab1.184 and @varunwaskumar

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