United we stand

  • The real challenge in the Himalayan region is to make the literature on climate change accessible to public
- MAHENDRA P LAMA, Kathmandu
Farmers are growing spring-time vegetables in the winter season now; apple orchards in Himachal Pradesh have shifted to a higher altitude

Jun 15, 2016-Forests in the highlands act as a critical sink for carbon, thereby facilitating carbon sequestration to the highest order. And winter is the time when the forest cover is under a cold spell, which helps it to regenerate. But the Himalayan region has been witnessing unbelievably warm and pleasant winters in recent years. The rise in temperature in the region has not only affected the forest cover of the region but has also caused the drying up of many traditional sources of water. Mul phutnu (bursting of ground water in peak rainy season) is scarcely visible now. Beautifully prolonged spring seasons are fast disappearing. The entire natural cycle looks disturbed and uncertain.

Apa Sherpa scaled Mt Everest for the 21st time in May 2011. His village in Thame in Solokhumbu in Nepal was washed away by Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) of the Dig Tsho Lake in 1985. He warns that the Imja Lake—a glacial lake created after melt water began collecting at the foot of the Imja Glacier in the 1960s—that did not appear in the photographs taken in 1950s has now rapidly grown to over 1 sq km, posing a threat to the entire region. He mentions how climate change has been most visible to the climbers. “Now the snow has reduced and climbing has become very dangerous especially on the Hillary Step, before the Everest Summit. When you wear crampons for the snow, you suddenly encounter rocks and it gets very slippery. The rocky patch is increasing rapidly. Since 2007 the ice pinnacles in the Everest area have reduced in height. There has been flowing water in the climbing season, a clear indication that ice is melting. You no longer have to melt ice to drink water,” he says.  

Changing weather patterns

The ecological situation in the region has become worse. Yellow river was the 

mother river of China. Environmentalist 

Ma Jun in his book China’s Water Crisis states, “The flow of this Mother River 

began halting in 1972 and in 1997 not a single drop of water reached the sea for a 330 day period. The once mighty river has by now become a small, filthy stream that cannot even flush much of its sediment into the sea…But the Yellow is no worse than the situation on the North China plain, most of whose 300 rivers are open sewers if they are not completely dry.”  

Pakistan raised the issue of the drastic decline in the flow of the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab rivers, which is covered in the 1960 India-Pakistan Indus Water Treaty. It has strong politico-ecological overtones. The Indus River flowing on the Indian side itself has gone down mainly because of less rainfall in Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, the crucial watershed of these rivers. The deforestation in the region has further affected the flow. 

While some places are witnessing a decline in rainfall, others are receiving more rain than usual. Just on the eve of devastating earthquake of September 18, 2011 in the eastern Himalayas, Save the Hills, an NGO, stated that on an average, Darjeeling hills get about 388 mm of rain in September. But in 2011 just in six days between 14-19 September, it got 237 mm—61 percent of the rainfall in six days. In the tragic and frightening devastation in the Kedarnath Valley of Uttarakhand, the rainfall recorded by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) was over 350 mm in three days (14-16 June, 2013) followed by a series of heavy landslides and debris avalanches on the hill slopes and floods in the major river systems. 

The phenomenon of phenology is also visible across the hills—traditional seasonality of the crops is disturbed and the altitude-based cropping patterns are fast and unnaturally altering. The farmers are growing spring-time vegetables in the winter season now. The apple orchards in Himachal Pradesh have now shifted to a higher altitude. Famous mandarin oranges are infested with previously unknown viruses. Hill cucumbers—usually available in the rainy season—are available up to the month of October. This could change the entire recorded pattern of agricultural practices and even dislocate many farmers. 

Continuation of environmental scarcity may lead to the failure of multiple industries. The most telling impact is likely to be on the hydel power plants fed by the water from the glaciers in the mountain areas. All these could even challenge the conventional wisdom on sustainable development indicators.

Reaching the masses

An intriguing situation prevails in the region today. On the one hand, there is a huge pool of scientific studies and knowledge available on climate change and its impacts. The COP 21 was another set of magnificent scientific technicalities and professional exuberance on climate change. On the other hand, mountain farmers, entrepreneurs and villagers have all started coping with the changed situation without even knowing the reasons behind it. 

Therefore, the real challenge is to make the scientific and technical literature on climate change—mostly written in foreign and alien languages—accessible and affordable to the public so that they could be read by school children, farmers, professionals, literary figures, media persons and housewives. How do we take the famous COP 21 to the classroom of a Naga Village and to laboratories in Namche-Yarinaka-Mustang and Gorubathan and Sandakphu village? Can young minds and communities be galvanised to these classrooms and laboratories to create platforms to share sustainable solutions?

National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Eco System is one of the eight missions and a part of the Indian National Action Plan on Climate Change. This National Mission has produced a Mission Document in 2009, which covers over 51 million people in the Himalayan region. It focuses on Himalayan glaciers, biodiversity, wildlife, traditional knowledge and livelihood and planning for sustainable development. It places special emphasis on the development of human knowledge and capacities, institutional capacities, policy building and governance, continuous self-learning and a balance between the forces of nature and the actions of mankind. 

Inter-regional concern

This mission of India has to be harmonised and integrated with similar missions in Bhutan, China, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. No country can work alone to mitigate this human tragedy facing us all. Interdependence is critical in environmental risk assessment. This is more so in tightly integrated transborder ecology like that of China-India-Nepal. Nations cannot treat economic and ecological interdependence similarly. In the former case, border controls could manage and regulate the degree and impact of inter-dependence, whereas in the latter case, ‘fortress option is not available’ when disasters happen.  

This is truly recognised by the Report of the Study Group on Himalayan Glaciers (2011). The two top Indian scientists R Chidambaram and Anand Patwardhan and their team very clearly reveal the limitation of scientific knowledge and intellectual exercises on Himalayan glaciers. It blatantly mentions “improving the understanding of glacier systems will require the integration across different disciplines such as meteorology, glaciology, geology, hydrology and ecosystem research. It will also require integration across different approaches, including experimental research,  empirical/observational research and modeling and simulation. Accomplishing this is a major challenge and will require appropriate institutional response, through the creation of nodal research institutions, research networks, and long term strategic research funding approaches.” 

Universities, researchers, civil society and private institutions in the ‘Hindukush Himalayas’, therefore, must come together to develop core competence across the communities and geographies in the critical issues of cross-border implications of climate change. This points to the need for building a united mountain forum.

Lama, former member of National Security Advisory Board, Government of India, is a professor of South Asian Economies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and a member of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) from India


Published: 15-06-2016 09:07

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