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Mount Everest -- also called Sagarmāthā in Nepali; Chomolungma in Tibetan -- the Earth's highest mountain, with a peak at 8,848 meters (29,029 ft) above sea level. Also visible in this airliner view from about 30,000 feet are other 8000 meter peaks such as Makalu, Cho Oyu and Lohtse. Note the large number of glaciers with clear signs of melting, such as debris covered and fractured ablation zones and newly revealed bare rock below the ends of the glaciers.
Mount Everest — also called Sagarmāthā in Nepali; Chomolungma in Tibetan — the Earth’s highest mountain, with a peak at 8,848 meters (29,029 ft) above sea level. Also visible in this airliner view from about 30,000 feet are other 8000 meter peaks such as Makalu, Cho Oyu and Lohtse. Note the large number of glaciers with clear signs of melting, such as debris covered and fractured ablation zones and newly revealed bare rock below the ends of the glaciers.

On the second anniversary of the 2014 Kashmir flood – dubbed by some as the worst in a century – I write this short piece as a victim of climate change. I was in New Delhi when the flooding began. Having spoken to my parents on the very morning of the flood, I was told that the muddied Jhelum waters had slowly started entering the house. My parents had expected a few feet of the ground floor to be flooded. But the water continued to gush and stopped only after it had swallowed half of the first floor – more than twenty feet from the ground up. Fortunately, the house was sturdily built and able to withstand the deluge. Others were not so lucky. My mother later recalled how she saw the first house in the neighbourhood, barely a hundred metres away, collapse. Miraculously, the family survived by crouching on a small outcrop of concrete plinth. Several other families got buried in a watery grave when their houses gave way. A few days later, I flew to Srinagar and rescued my stranded parents in a boat from the still inundated house. It took a month for the water to recede completely. But parched brown layers remained in many nooks and crannies of the house for nearly a year afterwards. Gaping at my devastated house that September afternoon, realisation dawned that climate change was actually upon us and not some abstract horror of the distant future.

The Kashmir flood is symptomatic of debilitating changes in the wider Himalayan region. Extreme weather events are an increasingly recurrent phenomenon in the rich and diverse but ecologically fragile mountain belt. In another north Indian Himalayan state, Uttarakhand, heavy rains are now the norm rather than the exception. Droughts and floods with increased severity have become a yearly occurrence in other parts of South Asia as well. Sunita Narain, the highly respected Indian environmentalist, pins the blame of the extreme weather events on the globally warming climate. A 2010 report commissioned by the Government of India from the Indian Network of Climate Change Assessment predicts that rainfall in the Himalayas may increase by  50 % by 2030’s.[1]

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Coupled with erratic and increased rainfall, there is also evidence of melting glaciers and declining annual snowfall resulting in a lack of replenishment to the glaciers. Large glaciers such as Siachen and Kolahoi in Jammu & Kashmir and Gangotri in Uttarakhand are retreating much faster than that in the past. Overall the Himalayas have lost an estimated 13 % of glaciers in the past four decades[2] and there are credible fears that most of the glaciers may melt away by the end of this century.[3]

Scientists have exhorted the absolute need to cap temperature rise at 1.5 °C. This figure has been brought down from the earlier suggested cap of 2 °C. While the 0.5 °C difference might not be directly perceptible, it is likely to have an effect on agriculture, economy, food security, land use patterns, wildlife, the general quality of life and even gender equality. Restricting the temperature rise to 1.5 °C is crucial for sustaining the Himalayas. The Himalayan snow cover acts as a water reservoir for present and future generations. Its rivers are a major source of freshwater for millions of people. A changing Himalayan eco-system spells disaster for South Asia.

Sadly, the effects of global warming are already been felt. Glacial streams that have sustained generations of people in some remote villages in the Ladakh region have begun drying up forcing people to relocate. And surprisingly, fruit trees planted in hitherto cold deserts have borne fruit in the high Himalayan valley of Zanskar.[4]

A significant chunk of population in several Indian Himalayan states in engaged in agriculture and horticulture. Floods, untimely or heavy rainfall and changes in seasonal duration interfere with crop cycles and yield. Apple production, a key economic activity in the states of Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, has also suffered year after year. Declined, diseased or failed yield in the traditionally cultivated lower hill ranges has forced cultivation to move to the upper reaches threatening deforestation of the natural forest cover.

For centuries, nomadic Gujjar and Bakarwal tribes have migrated through the many passes of the Himalayan range, both in summer and winter, in search of pastures for their goats and sheep. Warming temperatures have led to change in precipitation patterns and consequent disruption in the cycle of birth and rearing of new livestock as well as the migration months.

As the world’s fourth largest emitter, India must demonstrate its commitment to mitigate climate change by ratifying the Paris climate agreement as soon as possible.[5] For people living in the Himalayan region, climate change is palpable. And if the Himalayas are threatened by catastrophic and irreversible change, the Indo-Gangetic plains below cannot remain immune.

Zeenat Masoodi is a lawyer living in Srinagar.

 Notes:

[1] Climate Change and India : A 4 X4 Assessment, A Sectoral and Regional Analysis for 2030’s, Indian Network for Climate Change Assessment, http://www.moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/fin-rpt-incca.pdf

[2] Observed changes in Himalayan glaciers, Anil V. Kulkarni and Yogesh Karyakarte, Current Science, Vol. 106, NO. 2, 25 January 2014 http://www.dccc.iisc.ernet.in/observed%20change.pdf

[3] Modelling glacier change in the Everest region, Nepal Himalaya, J. M. Shea, W. W. Immerzeel, et al., The Cryosphere, Volume 9, issue 3, 27 May 2015 http://www.the-cryosphere.net/9/1105/2015/

[4] http://e360.yale.edu/feature/as_himalayan_glaciers_melt_two_towns_face_the_fallout/2858/

[5] Recent newspaper reports indicate that at the G 20 summit in China, India has expressed its inability to ratify the Paris climate agreement by December, 2016

One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    The governments over the years have been lackadaisical in addressing to the problems of climate change in their over- enthusiasm for industrial development. Consequently, Himalayan regions and kashmir are being affected almost every year. While floods in uttarakhand demolished the villages in and around the shrines of badrinath or kedarnath, the forest fires destroyed vast acres of trees and greenery. When will the rulers learn? ?!