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Dawa Steven Sherpa, a mountaineer and environmental activist, distinctly remembers one evening in August 2017. Sherpa was in Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu. He received an alert from an environmental research organisation he worked with: Nepal’s Chukung village, at the foot of Mount Everest, was about to be hit by a flood triggered by melting glaciers.
“The Imja lake, right above my Sherpa community’s village, had burst. I was asked to evacuate them immediately,” Steven told VICE News. It was a glacial lake outburst flood, one of the most hazardous effects of glaciers melting.
As a mountaineer who has scaled Mount Everest three times, Steven has experienced the adverse impact of industrialisation on the Himalayas first-hand. “If you scoop up snow on the Himalayan mountains, you will see a layer of black soot from the carbon emissions of nearby industries,” he said.
In an attempt to combat these negative effects of industrialisation, he is building a gabion wall – a dam-like structure made of rocks – to protect mountain communities, like the Sherpas, from glacial floods.
Steven belongs to the growing tribe of volunteers, activists and environmentalists raising awareness about the impact of climate change on glaciers in the Himalayas that are melting at an unprecedented rate.
On July 28 this year, 52 environmental organisations and activists across 12 Himalayan states of India, drafted a letter to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. The letter highlighted how regulatory decisions and industrial projects have contributed to immense ecological damage in the world’s youngest mountain range.
The 2,400 kilometers (1491 miles) of mountain range that is spread across five countries including India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China, has been significantly deglaciating since 1991.
The letter notes that a hydropower project generating 150,000 megawatt of power has the potential to negatively affect almost 90 percent of the Indian Himalayan valley, and wipe out 27 percent of dense forests in the region.
“The government has classified the Himalayan region under the climate vulnerability index. It means that any project in the region would exacerbate landslides, groundwater drying up, and glaciers melting,” Manshi Asher, an activist from Himdhara Environmental Research and Action Collective, and one of the 52 signatories to the letter, told VICE News. Asher is running a campaign to prevent ecological damage and protect vulnerable communities in the Himalayas.
Asher believes that developments in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, are disturbing. Assam is the most vulnerable place in the Index due to factors including deforestation and the least amount of irrigated area. Yet, it is home to a natural gas well, run by the government-owned corporation, Oil India Limited. The oil well has been spewing natural gas uncontrollably after a blowout since May this year, threatening to damage a sensitive ecosystem. The blowout has displaced more than 3,000 people.
Meanwhile, in Sikkim state, roughly 600 kilometers (372 miles) east of Assam, 23 glaciers have significantly retreated or deglaciated since 1995. The rapid pace of melting glaciers comes with grave consequences, like the flash floods and landslides which have killed 21 people and displaced more than 30 families in the last three months.
It is a tragedy which Mayalmit Lepcha, a Sikkim-based environmentalist, will never forget. In August, Lepcha participated in a Janta Parliamentary session on environment, an online event organised to discuss environmental issues relevant to the Himalayan region. “About 30 dams built in Sikkim have had an adverse impact on our sacred forests and rivers,” she said during the event.
Yet despite the mountain range facing an ecological crisis, the Indian government has introduced the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020. The EIA allows the post-facto clearance of industrial projects, reduces the scope of public redressal, and has a provision for violators to self-report their violations.
At present, an expert appraisal committee – a team of scientists and project management experts – survey the impact of a proposed project and take into account how it affects the local communities living in the area through a public consultation process. The EIA 2020, if converted into law, will render this process obsolete.
Gopal Krishna Agarwal, a spokesperson from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, dismissed the allegations that the government was compromising the biodiversity of eco-sensitive zones for the ease of doing business. “People mainly object to the EIA because they feel we have done away with public hearings, but this is only for specific projects in border regions,” Agarwal told VICE News.
But regardless of the project, the impact on those on the ground are real and tangible.
Dr. Ravi Chopra, an environmental scientist based in the Northern state of Uttarakhand, said these projects advertised to help locals will essentially do more harm. Once the glaciers melt – as hastened by these projects – it will disrupt the perennial year-round flow of Himalayan rivers that wax and wane in the summer and winter respectively. “Ultimately, even the hydro power projects have no effect in providing usable water resources,” said Chopra.
Keshav Singh Panwar runs a general store in Uttarakhand. In 2012, Panwar lost his home and all his belongings to devastating floods and landslides in which ten people died and 38 went missing. Panwar, who lives in a rehabilitation centre until today, told VICE News that excessive deforestation done for commercial projects in his state is to blame.
To make matters worse, the government has done close to nothing to support those like him most affected by avoidable tragedies linked to environmental degradation – something that will only increase as lax policies like the EIA come into play.
“For the last eight years, the government has been telling me that I will get a new home but they have not given me anything,” he said.
As for Steven, he is also concerned about how melting glaciers contribute to storms, avalanches and increased cases of frostbite on mountains. He fears a time that it will no longer be safe to climb the Himalayas.
“As mountain climbers, we rely on our skills, but erratic weather makes it difficult to forecast what climbers should expect,” Steven said. “For us, it’s not an inconvenience. It’s a threat to our life.”
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