The article focuses on the impact of climate change and anthropogenic activities on the Himalayan topography and its systems It also highlights various challenges that sensitive hilly areas have to face resulting in the rise of natural disasters due to which they have become an area of extensive research and have gained the attention of planners, governments, and politicians worldwide. Moreover, to cope with this global issue of climate change several remedial measures have also been given that need to be implemented for sustainable and eco-friendly development of the Himalayan region.
Keywords- Himalayas, Climate Change, water, glaciers, global warming, carrying capacity
Himalayas are the young fold mountains stretched over an area of 2400 km along the Indian-Tibet border. About 200 million years ago India was a part of the Pangea landmass that began to collide and gradually India got detached and moved northwards. As a result, Indian Plate and Eurasian Plate started to move towards each other because of tectonic movements of the plates and collided resulting in huge pressure and thrust leading to the formation of the Himalayas.
Himalayas are considered the sole of the Indian subcontinent due to their geographically favorable location that plays a crucial role in determining the climate as well as strategic significance in terms of defense, tourism, and ensuring the availability to water to 1.3 billion people (Xu et al., 2009). The Hindukush region of the Himalayas is known as the third pole as it consists of 50,000 glaciers (Yao et al., 2012; Singh et al., 2011).
Despite having significance in terms of location and topography as well as strategic importance Himalayas are under continuous threat of climate change as several changes are being observed in the structure of Himalayas by the scientists over the past few years due to climate change. According to t[U1] o United Nations, Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. Such shifts can be natural, due to changes in the sun’s activity or large volcanic eruptions. Due to the phenomenon of climate change, the Himalayas are witnessing the rapid melting of glaciers resulting in a cascading impact on water availability, biodiversity, agricultural production, the economy, and the ecosystem as a whole.
The Himalayas are considered the most sensitive zone to climate change. As per the report published by ICIMOD, the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, global warming was at least 0.3 degrees higher in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, and at least 0.7 degrees higher in the northwest Himalaya, or Karakoram. Himalayan Glaciers are considered the water tours of Asia and are the source of many world’s great rivers:
The Yangtze, the Ganges, the Indus, and the Mekong. Due to rising temperatures glaciers are melting at a rapid pace, disturbing the flow of perennial rivers as the rivers are overflooded due to water availability more than their carrying capacity that indirectly impacts the livelihoods of people who are dependent on water from glaciers, biodiversity, plants, and ecosystem.
The irony to this is the “Karakoram anomaly” as the Karakoram part of the Trans Himalayas is not witnessing glacier melting referring to the phenomenon of the propensity of glaciers to grow and remain stable despite witnessing global warming. To solve this mystery, scientists concluded that the revival of Western disturbances was instrumental in triggering and sustaining the Karakoram Anomaly since the advent of the 21st century.
Melting of glaciers has a severe impact on glacier basin hydrology, downstream water budget, impact on hydropower, flash flood, and sedimentation resulting in Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs), which in return impact agro-practices in high Himalayan region, tourism, livelihoods, etc.
Climate Change is also responsible for the change in rainfall pattern distribution in the Himalayan region as there has been a significant reduction in monsoon days witnessing no rain for a long period (Thakural et al., 2018). Absence of torrential rainfall for a long period results in ocean warming which increases the moisture content in the surrounding area, hence paving the way for natural disasters in the form of flash floods and cloud bursts, for instance, the Uttarakhand floods of 2013, the Pahalgam cloudburst in 2022, etc.
Moreover, according to reports of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is a prediction of more frequent cloud bursts shortly and fewer rainfall days that can have repercussions for the water crisis as initially due to glacier melting, there is overflow in rivers and gradually they will dry up resulting in water shortage and forest fires that can have blowback on the livelihood of people dependent on those rivers.
Despite climate change various anthropogenic activities are also responsible for degrading the natural balance of the Himalayas such as man-induced mass tourism, massive hotel construction leading to concretization, habitat degradation, and fragmentation, overexploitation of resources, illegal hunting, agriculture intensification and loss of genetic resources, human-wildlife conflict, invasive species, and atmospheric pollution, etc. for instance, Joshimath in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand has witnessed several landslides over the past few months.
Hydropower Project: Himalayas have been naturally blessed with significant geographical locations due to which they are known as the powerhouse of India. As reported by Down to Earth it had been estimated that the Himalayas had the potential to generate 115,550 MW of power and to commercialize this power generation capacity, hydrological dams are being mushrooming in the sensitive zones that have led to a toll on human lives as nature responds in its own powerful & unrestrained manner.
Moreover, hydropower projects act as cross multipliers and catalysts in case of cloud bursts and floods as they hamper the original flow of water, and most of them are constructed on fragile land that can easily get eroded during heavy rains thus making it a wasteful investment. The Rishiganga flood of 2021 highlighted how hydropower projects, through their construction and impact on the environment, can exacerbate the risks associated with natural disasters such as glacial bursts and floods, resulting in significant human and property losses in Uttarakhand.
Deforestation: Despite the overexploitation of hydropower projects, deforestation remains a major cause of natural calamities in the Himalayan region as it impacts the topography negatively by causing the soil to become loose and get easily eroded during floods leading to landslides in the region.
Tourism: Excessive tourism is also putting pressure on the existing finite resources of the Himalayan region. Massive urbanization and haphazard city planning are also serious threats to the delicate structure of the Himalayas. For their benefit, humans are hampering the natural working and rehabilitating capacity of the Himalayas because of which natural disasters have become more frequent and result in large-scale loss of human life, resources, and infrastructure.
Addressing the need to look into the structure of the Himalayas with urgency, the government of India has taken several measures such as the National Mission for Sustaining Himalayan Ecosystem (NMSHE) that will develop a sustainable National capacity to continuously assess the health status of the Himalayan Ecosystem and enable policy bodies in their policy-formulation functions and assist States in the Indian Himalayan Region with their implementation of actions selected for sustainable development.
Steps have also been taken for the upliftment of research initiatives in terms of assessment and quantification of the changes in the Himalayan ecosystem that are attributable to climate change because of global emissions and human activities in the region and the development of models for future projections. Other measures are the National Mission for Strategic Knowledge for Climate Change (NMSKCC) which works on creating awareness of climate change and educating people regarding its impact on important socio-economic sectors like agriculture, health, natural ecosystem, biodiversity, coastal zones, etc.
Mission LIFE is also acting as a catalyst for sustainable development of the ecosystem as it promotes a lifestyle that syncs with the natural environment without damaging it and focuses on adopting such policies and habits that are contributing to a green and sustainable lifestyle. Moreover, it encourages participation from local people so that they can realize its importance and aid in environmental protection.
Along with that steps are being taken at the global level as well as various summits were held in the past to discuss climatic challenges that the world is facing. Several pacts have been signed by countries to combat this global challenge e.g., India with the United Kingdom had formed the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI) on climate change to address the issue of loss and damages due to climate change.
In recent G20 meetings disaster risk reduction working group is the main spotlight that covers five areas of Global Coverage of Early Warning Systems, Disaster, and Climate Resilient Infrastructure, Financing Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, Disaster Response System, and the Ecosystem-based Approach to DRR.
- To protect the Strategic Himalayas several steps need to be taken. Various Environment Education Programs should be implemented at the school level so that the younger generation should be aware of the drastic impacts of climate change on our ecosystem and should adopt measures to cope with it. Along with this performance arts should be promoted as an initiative to educate the local people about the menace of global warming.
- Ease of Living- Involvement of local communities is most important for environment-friendly and responsible tourism and ecotourism should be promoted in hilly regions by decentralizing them.
- Decentralizing tourism will in return reduce pressure on infrastructure as narrow roads will be needed that will help in achieving the carrying capacity of the region and tourism will then flourish prosperously in hilly regions without reaching the tipping and critical point.
- Several micro and macro-level assessments via research and development should be promoted for a greater understanding of the impact and implication of the current climate variability especially in eco-sensitive zones.
- Uttarakhand Floods in 2013 witnessed the loss of about 5,000 people stressed upon the need to promote better and more robust alert systems that can detect harsh climate impacts in advance. This initiative was taken in 2021, by IMD and the state government. A radar was installed in the Kumaon region in Mukteshwar to predict extreme rainfall and cloudbursts in the region but this technology needs to be adopted by other districts and hilly states as well.
- For the development of hydrological structures focus should be on the promotion of the run of the river project since they don’t require large-scale displacement of the people and prevent the land from submerging. However, this could only be a temporary solution as it can result in delaying disasters but not complete eradication.
- Moreover, development should be ensured within the carrying capacity of the region along with disaster-resilient infrastructure.
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Bhanvi Bansal is a Research Intern at IMPRI.