Strategizing For A Looming Himalayan Breakdown

By: Varun Kumar and Sweta Bhushan

The layers of ice on our earth are collectively called the Cryosphere and it is the frozen water resource for us. The Himalayas make up the cryospheric part of South Asia and have given us the three mighty river basins of Indus, Ganga and the Brahmaputra. Numerous towns and villages live along the banks of these basins and their distributaries. This is indicative of the livelihood threats that any river discrepancies can cause due to the melting Himalayan glaciers.

The Himalayas have an enormous ecosystem stored with intricate networks of life cycles, making them our environmental capital, whose depreciation must be prevented. The range is also home to centuries of cultural knowledge signifying the livelihoods living in synthesis with the ecosystem. On the note of the seeming data insufficiency and unattended Himalayan climate questions, studies describing the patterns of ecosystem collapse
helps us chart resiliency strategies. 

Disaster mechanisms seen

Studies already pointed out that increased heating accelerates glacier melting (Maurer, 2019), and the consequent change in ice masses have been mapped by another study. The associated run-off from each glacier in all the basins is quantified through the Global Glacier Evolution Model (GloGEM). According to it, annual glacier run-off will rise until around 2050 post which a subsequent decline in the run-off will be witnessed (Huss, Hock, 2018). This can potentially affect freshwater availability
for millions of people.

An additional worry is the Glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs), already being observed in the villages of Himalayan countries, with a prominent example in Kyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. Due to fast heating, glacier lakes form which on overfilling, lead to outburst floods. The GLOFs usually flowing swiftly, wash off mud along with ice and debris eroding mostly everything on their way. This puts livelihoods and lives of local communities at massive risk, by increasing the risk of landslides, flooding,
farming unsuitability, and more.

These geographical consequences of global warming, much of which are
unprecedented, alter the downstream watercourses and disrupt the life nearby. Local communities are solely dependent on these rivers as their natural resources and don’t have much of a fight to put up for now. Reports have further suggested that a decrease in water levels in the rivers have already been seen. Himalayan towns like Shimla, Darjeeling and Mussoorie have already run into water crises.

Authorities claim that lessening snowfall has also contributed to this. A study with the Journal of Glaciology, performed by four Indian Universities recently have collected over 17 years of in situ data on the Chhota Shigri Glacier. This study shows that melting glaciers have left the higher altitude ecosystems unaltered, while the lower hills of the Himalayas undergo much of the damage. We can find more settlements at these levels than we would closer to the peaks. (Mandal, Ramanathan, 2020)

The contrasting findings prove the unpredictable nature of climate change in the Himalayas. Although, what is well-established is the insecurity created for not just local communities but also to far-reaching cities and villages. This will redefine how regions experience vulnerabilities across nations.

Strategies to face the Himalayan risks

For an upcoming abstract climate risk like the Himalayas, intellectual, and financial investment to identify solutions is a necessary way ahead.  While climate change is irreversible, nations have to build resiliency to minimize impacts. More research facilities, like the ICIMOD, specializing in Himalayan issues need encouragement. These would have to overcome geopolitical tensions amongst countries and gather human resources to focus on a common global goal-resilience and adaptability. Steps to build these two qualities can be taken with multiple arms.

Research and awareness building

Long-term mass balance and meteorological research are required from different climatic regimes to develop a holistic picture of the whole Himalayas. Studies that predict the future of water evolution and related software development are crucial to be able to analyse the true extent of the problem. Peer-reviewed papers that look into the causes and rates of melting in parts of the range can help us take necessary actions.

As a follow-up, we must build awareness of this knowledge not only among
the Himalayan settlements but also internationally, throughout the concerned countries. Being prime tourist destinations, these habitats are often at the receiving end of the damage accelerated by it. 

Policies and implementing technologies

Awareness of Himalayan Climate Change needs to be built not just in the Himalayan settlements, but also internationally, throughout the concerned countries. Being prime tourist destinations, these habitats are often at the receiving end of the damage accelerated by it. Additionally, water management on a local, neighbourhood and town level must be designed and implemented by local govt authorities.

Conserving water is crucial for most Himalayan cities to ensure availability during periods of shortage. Regulations must also keep vigil of unmonitored commercialization and urbanization in the Himalayan towns. A digital approach to climate change over the Himalayas available for both
researchers and the public can help prepare for and combat unprecedented times.

Data Analytics in real-time would provide clarity to various stakeholders on the intensity of the issues. This can help them adapt, mitigate, and build resilience in their capacities. Designing apps that present climate-risk data signaling ongoing threats, which are comprehensible for the general public can help in building awareness. Data-driven urbanization can be further incorporated in urban plans and policies. 

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

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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