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The Indian Himalayas
The Indian part of Himalayas extends over 10 states covering 95 districts and an area of 5 lakh km2. It comprises over 16% of the country’s geographical area. The Himalayas are diverse in people, climate, ecology, soil, flora & fauna. They comprise the lowland forests of the Indo-Gangetic Plains, the marshy wetlands of the Terai, the porous, rock strewn Bhabar belt, the inner Terai or Dun valleys, the lesser Himalayas, the Montane forests, and the Alpine scrub and grasslands (1). The region is populated by 31,593,100 people comprising 3.73% of the total population of India.
The region was once covered with rich pristine forests, a diverse flora and fauna, and home to innumerable medicinal plants and herbs. It is now much degraded and under tremendous stress. The diversity can be seen in the 13,000 species of flowering plants, of 8000 alone are in the eastern Himalayas and over 5000 species in Western Himalayas. Over 816 tree species, 675 edibles and nearly 1743 species of medicinal value are found here.
The economy in the Himalayas is as diverse as its topography. It ranges from the subsistence level economy of the migratory pastoralists and small farmers to the prosperity of the fruit and tea estate owners. Other activities include traditional crafts and skills, casual labour, employment in the fruit processing industries, the tea gardens, in the tourism and in pilgrimage industry. Corn, wheat, millet, barley, and buckwheat, sugarcane, tea, oilseeds, and potatoes are some of the major crops. A wide variety of fruits are grown in each of the major zones of the Himalayas. The major industries include processing food grains, making vegetable oil, refining sugar, brewing beer, fruit processing and fruit juice making. Since 1950 tourism has emerged as a major growth industry in the Himalayas with construction of major roads and the development of air routes changing the traditional transportation patterns. Eco-tourism, pilgrimages, adventure sports and mountain climbing are major attractions of the area.
The Himalayas have a very fragile ecosystem. For centuries, this ecosystem has remained delicately balanced, and has been responsible for the tremendous biodiversity of the Himalayas. However, the Himalayas have undergone major changes in the last century. Conditions range from a critical situation in the Himalayas of Sikkim, Uttarakhand, and Kashmir to a moderately serious situation in Bhutan and the eastern Himalayas.
The impact of over-exploitation of these natural resources that have increasingly led to reduced dense forest cover, accelerated soil erosion, increased silting of water bodies, drying-up of springs, and the disappearance of many species of flora and fauna. Besides this it has also increased the ratio of energy expended in fodder, fuel collection, and agricultural activity. Economic changes, an increase in population and urbanization, tourism, the building of communication lines into the remotest reaches have further taken their toll on this region.
There is an intricate relationship between the mountains and the plains. Many major rivers originate in the Himalayas – the Ganga, Yamuna, Kosi, Brahmaputra that flow to east and the Indus, Sutlej, Ravi, that flow to the west. These rivers flow throughout the year fed by the melting glaciers of the himalayan region that provides a 1,200,000 million m3 annual flow to the rivers. The entire Indo-Gangetic Plain, the most fertile region in the country, that supports over 900 million people, producing a variety of crops, depends on these rivers.
The 1 deg. C. increase in temperature in the Himalayas has far-reaching impacts not only on the mountainous regions but also on the northern river-plains that depend largely on them. One of the biggest concerns is the melting of the glaciers, which are retreating at an alarming rate. For e.g. the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau has a staggering 46,298 glaciers. However, recent surveys via remote sensing and fieldwork have recorded a 10 percent reduction in the last three decades, from 48,860 square kilometres (18,865 sq miles) in the 1970s to 44,438 sq km (17,158 sq miles) today. (Greenpeace reports).
These glaciers are the head waters for major rivers in Asia and India. The melting glaciers would mean floods and fast run-offs in the rivers in the short term and droughts and water scarcity in the long term. Irregular availability of water is going to be the biggest hazard in future. This will alter the area’s erosion, river discharge and sediment patterns. This will directly impact the hydropower reservoirs along the rivers and the new and planned constructions. The increased sedimentation will directly affect the agricultural lands and the irrigation canals and streams. This will lead to an overall deterioration in cropping patterns in the IGPR.
Extreme events and disaster risk
The Himalayan range is amongst the most unstable of the world’s mountains and therefore inherently susceptible to natural calamities. Deforestation aggravates the ravaging effects of regular earthquakes, and induces more landslides and floods. Furthermore, the rise in temperature would be further trigger many extreme events like Glacial Lake outbursts (GLOF), when the glacial lakes swell up due to the melting snows and burst through their confines, flooding the region on the one hand, and draining itself on the other. Flash floods from melting snows pose a threat to downstream communities, as was seen with the Kosi river which devastated Bihar in 2008. In the mountaine, melting snows would leave more and more areas bare and vulnerable to the fast run-offs and landslides.
In the Himalayan region people’s livelihoods are directly tied to the food, fodder, and fuel, provided by their environment. The local economy is characterized by persistent poverty, peculiar biophysical characteristics, remoteness, limited accessibility to economic & employment opportunities. With earning opportunities declining and the traditional crafts and skills dying a slow death, migration to the cities is high.
The changing climate and its effects on glaciers and forests and resulting water will affect the soil’s moisture and the availability of water, which is likely to have a strong impact on food production. This will increase food insecurity, particularly amongst the poor and marginalized families. The loss of bio-diversity and agro-diversity also renders these populations vulnerable and less able to cope with the rapid, expected changes.
With the changes in the Himalayan region, the river plains will be impacted most. Unseasonal and un-distributed rainfall (change in rainfall patterns), floods and prolonged droughts, will bring down the food production in these regions. With scarce water and groundwater tables falling, and temperature rising, the soil conditions will becomes drier. Loss of working days and its impact on annual earnings, migration and urbanization will further push the populations into insecure conditions.
The marginalized and vulnerable groups (women, elderly, children and the disabled) will suffer the most from the impacts of climate change because they often have less resources to fall back upon. These groups are physically, socially and psychologically more vulnerable. Their vulnerability is exacerbated by many factors: difficult conditions of living, remoteness and thus inaccessibility to public facilities, limited livelihood options.
Women, specifically, in the mountain regions face a hard life and daily challenges. Steep slopes make the burdens of water, fuel wood, and fodder, which are typically women’s responsibility, much heavier and more dangerous to carry. Climate change with its impacts of longer periods of drought, water scarcity and degradation of land, depleting natural resources in terms of quantity and quality will increase the burden on these women. The collection will probably take more time and effort, considerably increasing women’s drudgery.
The household chores, combined with their livelihood activities, make their workload overwhelming. Social infrastructure and governmental services remain inaccessible for most of these women, whose mobility is restricted by motherhood and cultural norms. Very few mountain women have the opportunity to get an education, and their literacy level is very low. While migration has led men to be away from home for longer periods, the burden of responsibilities of the household has fallen on the women.
New health risks
The changing climate and the warming up of the Himalayas, the receding of the glaciers and the forest lines, will mean that diseases, pests, and vectors more suited to warmer climates can move up north. Combined with food insecurity, malnutrition, and rapid depletion of forests, the health of the populations will take a setback.
Diarrhea and infectious diseases, particularly the insect vector-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis are sensitive to the impact of climate change. Rising temperatures shorten the time needed by insect vectors to grow. This also changes the geographic distribution of vectors and they usually spread to high-altitude areas that previously had no such disease vectors, thereby increasing the probability of their spreading the disease to new populations. Frequent disaster and its impacts of loss of property, livelihoods, infrastructure etc. will make women, children, the old and the disabled very vulnerable to diseases.
Large dams and climate change
In the last few years, Pakistan, India, Bhutan and Nepal have prepared plans for massive dam building in the Himalayas. Several hundred dams are now proposed for the region, which could lead to capacity additions of over 150,000 MW in the next 20 years. In India alone, there are 74 projects with an installed capacity of 15,208 MW, 37 projects with a capacity of 17,765 MW are under construction and 318 projects are further planned with an expected capacity of 93,000 MW.
With most of dam projects proposed in the high-seismic zones in the Himalayan, which are prone to landslides, flash-floods, earthquakes, the implications for both the safety of the projects and the surrounding areas are serious.
The melting of glaciers due to Climate Change will phenomenally increase the inflows to these dams, bringing up questions of safety of the dam, the risk of damage, breach or accident and flooding and submergence (as shown by the Kosi floods of August 2008). These fast run-offs will also increase the problem of sedimentation in reservoirs. The Himalayas are highly prone to erosion and the rivers carry heavy silt loads. The accumulation of sediment behind these dams also deprives downstream plains of nutrients and silt deposits that have been the source of their fertility.
Degradation of the regional political environment
The most important links between India, China and Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh are the Himalayan rivers. Almost each and every one of the major rivers is a trans-boundary one. Though South-Asia shares some common geographical, cultural and climatic features, the political and economic situations are starkly diverse with sharp internal and external tensions. While Nepal and Bhutan continue to be primary agricultural production economies with low industrialization, Pakistan, India and China are much more industrialized. As a result, developmental policies, priorities and constraints also differ in each of these countries.
Climate Change will impact the political environment in these countries. With the melting of the Himalayan glaciers, floods and water scarcity in the mountains and in river plains of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, sea-level rise along Bangladesh and Indian coasts, the next few decades will see an exodus of climate change refugees. It is projected that 600 million people will be affected in the river plains and delta regions. Inter-boundary tensions are expected to erupt caused by the movement of these people, within their own country and into neighbouring countries. The fragile political relationships in these regions will be severely tested due to climatic disasters on one hand and deprivation and poverty on the other. Whether these countries react with co-operation or will the situation escalate and degenerate into violent confrontations remains to be seen.
This article is also available in French: L’Himalaya et le changement climatique en Inde
International Rivers, « Mountains of concrete: Dam building in the Himalayas », Dec. 2008
Mats Eriksson, Jing Fang and Julie Dekens, “How does climate change affect human health in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region?”,in Regional Health Forum,Vol.12, N°1, 2008
J.S. Singh, Sustainable development of the Indian Himalayan region: Linking ecological and economic concerns, in Current Science, Vol.90, N°6, March 2006
R. K. Maikhuri, K. S. Rao, R. L. Semwal, “Changing scenario of Himalayan agroecosystems: loss of agrobiodiversity, an indicator of environmental change in Central Himalaya, India”, in The Environmentalist, March 2001
See also the site Mountain voices, which presents interviews with over 300 people who live in mountain and highland regions round the world.
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