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These ‘living mountains’ are sick, and if they die, they could take millions with them

Climate change warms the Himalayas, melting glaciers and heating rocks. This will dry up rivers in 30 years, impacting food security in northern India even sooner

“If we consider the Himalayas as a ‘Living Entity’, then it has already lost its legs. And at present, its stomach fat is getting churned by the rise in temperature brought about by climate change and increased human activity,” says Smriti Basnett, a glaciologist from Sikkim, a Himalayan state in India.

The melting snow has increased due to the heating of rocks under the thin ice during summers, and within 30 to 40 years, perennial rivers emerging out of the Himalayas may start to dry up, she adds.

This and a range of studies – by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the Hyderabad-based Indian School of Business, and Yale Environment 360 – have prompted demands for the Himalayas to be granted ‘Living Entity Status’ by activists from over 60 social organizations from almost all Himalayan states, including Himachal Pradesh (HP), Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. 

Indus, Zanskar River Confluence, Ladakh, India.

©  Pavliha

This entails giving the Himalayas the same legal rights and protections enjoyed by humans, and helps to draw urgent attention to the Himalayan crisis. In India, the Ganges river was granted ‘living status’ seven years ago.  

Activists in some of the states are also flagging fault lines in planning for developmental activities, besides social discrimination in relief and rehabilitation. Prakash Bhandari, co-founder of the non-governmental organization (NGO) Himdhara, said the increasing Himalayan disasters – landslides, flash floods, and flooding in the plains – is caused by climate change, and the result of faulty practices in the past few decades.

The 2013 Uttarakhand flood disaster and subsequent tragedies in HP and J&K, including the recent discovery that the small Uttarakhand town of Joshimath is sinking, had repeatedly been flagged as key challenges.

Though better practices and planning is discussed immediately after the disasters, there is no significant action or follow-up discussion to tackle the challenges.

The small town around Kedarnath Temple located on the Garhwal Himalayan range near the Mandakini river, in the state of Uttarakhand, got totally destroyed by the 2013 flood.

©  Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images

The science of receding glaciers

The trend of retreating glaciers is highlighted in a study by Anjal Prakash, research director and adjunct associate professor at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy, at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, south India.

Around 210 million people live within the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region, while 1.3 billion people live downstream and are dependent on the freshwater from its rivers and rivulets, Prakash told RT.

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He quoted an ISRO study that approximately 75% of Himalayan glaciers are retreating at an alarming rate.

“This retreat will increase the variability of water flow to downstream areas and endanger the sustainability of water use in the Earth’s most crowded basins,” he added.

The effects are heightened by climate change and global warming. Activists are alarmed by the paucity of snowfall and rains during this past winter, and more gradually over the last decade.

Their concerns are growing with record high temperatures this summer across India, including the normally cooler Himalayan states.

An article in Yale Environment 360 pointed out that “the area of Himalayan glaciers has shrunk by 40 percent from its maximum during the Little Ice Age between 400-700 years ago.” It noted that the melting of ice in the Himalayas accelerated at the fastest rate of any mountainous region in the world.

Soumya Dutta, an energy expert, green activist and researcher working on climate justice, told RT that climatic changes will have serious consequences for Indian states that are dependent on water from Himalayan rivers.

“Over 200 rivulets, originating from Himalayas, have dried up in recent years and 25% of the area under Himalayan glaciers has reduced in the last few decades,” he said. “An average temperature increase of 1.6C in the western Himalayan region and 1.49C in the eastern Himalayan region were recorded in recent years.”

Himalayan mountains surround glacial lake in a remote valley in Zanskar, Ladakh, India.

©  Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images

Food bowl impact

The impact will be visible in India’s northern food bowl states: Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal.

India produces over 330 mt of foodgrain, which is 11% of the total cereal production worldwide, and the sector contributes 23% to the GDP.

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UP, Bihar and West Bengal fall in the upper, middle, and lower Ganga river basin and contribute 30% of India’s total foodgrain production.

Less snowfall and rainfall activity will result in lower foodgrain production and cause food insecurity in India and worldwide as the country is the second-highest exporter of cereals.

“The farmers in Punjab, Haryana, UP and West Bengal that rely on river water for irrigation may in the future be able to reap only two crops, instead of the present three,” Dutta said. “In the near future, water for irrigation will be available till April each year followed by an acute shortage which will be a major cause of concern.”

The hill states, on the other hand, face a reduction in fruit production. J&K and HP, major apple producers, have continuously seen a decline in production.

The crop was badly affected by the lack of snowfall in 2022-23. The trend continued this year, with farmers expecting a lower yield, according to Bhagya Sidholi, an apple grower from Chopal in Shimla, the capital of HP.

Farmers take a rest in an apple orchard in Pulwam, Kashmir Valley. Horticulture is one of the main industries in Kashmir and contributes around eight percent to J&K’s GDP.

©  Idrees Abbas/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Impacting groundwater recharge

Prakash said that the trend of receding glaciers could also affect ‘groundwater recharge’ in the Himalayan region, as glaciers are its main source.

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“In the foothills, where precipitation is high, groundwater is abundant,” Prakash said in his study. “However, due to the sloppy and rocky surface, a large percentage of precipitation flows out. This results in less water going from the subsurface into groundwater bodies.”

He added that groundwater seeped out through springs in favorable circumstances, forming the main water source to rural and urban hamlets in the entire Himalayan range.

As a solution, Dutta calls for changes in cropping patterns or sowing timings. He warned that the situation in the western Himalayan region could be more serious than that of major food grain producing states of UP, West Bengal and Bihar.

He also suggested a better implementation of the Jal Jeevan Mission (which seeks to provide drinkable tap water to every household), sustainable agriculture practices, and the need to find a middle way between modern and traditional farming methods prevalent in India to ensure food security for the world’s most populous country.

July 04, 2024 at 09:22PM

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