The Himalayas Are Simultaneously Burning and Flooding: What Are We Even Doing?
The melting of the world’s highest mountains will alter water supplies for a quarter of the planet’s people, with catastrophic consequences.
22 September 2019, 2:14am
This article is part of a wider initiative by VICE looking at the state of the environment around the globe. In Asia-Pacific, each VICE office is examining the main concerns from their territory, in an effort to gauge the health of the planet as a whole and to highlight the widespread need for change. For other stories in this series, please check out Environmental Extremes.
Like many people I know, I’ve escaped the brutal heat of Mumbai by going AWOL in the Himalayas each summer for the best part of the last decade. Apart from revelling in the snow-capped mountains, lush valleys, thundering rivers and fresh rubs from Parvati Valley, I also find it particularly exciting to slip into warm woolies—an indulgence one can never enjoy back in the sweltering city. But this June something had changed.
Attending a friend’s wedding in Kullu in Himachal Pradesh, I was aghast to find ceiling and table fans everywhere; these household amenities were unheard of just two years ago. Then I saw the temperature, and it all made sense: 32-degrees Celsius during the day, at a height of almost 5,000 feet above sea level, in the heart of the Himalayas! The nearby town of Bhuntar, which lies at an elevation of 6,700 feet, hit an unprecedented 38 degrees. Whether you live there or not, or are a frequent traveller or not, this should be alarming for us all.
The Himalayas are the home to the tallest mountains in the world, and are covered in a layer of ice that’s beaten only by the North and South Poles, earning them the title of the “Third Pole”. They are responsible for three of our biggest river systems: the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra, and they regulate South Asian weather systems and climate at large.
But satellite data from 1975-2000 shows that climate change is “eating” at the Himalayan glaciers, causing them to melt at double the speed since 2000. In recent years, the glaciers have lost about eight billion tons of water a year—or the equivalent of 3.2 million Olympic-size swimming pools. While the rising temperatures are exposing long-buried corpses on Mount Everest, the permafrost over the Tibetan plateau that formed over 2 million years has decreased by 20 percent in the last three decades. All the awful water crisis stories that headline our newspapers can be traced to the mountains and the shortages originating there. By the year 2100, at least a third of the Himalayan glaciers will be lost, and the mountains could heat up by 4.4 degrees Celsius, even if immediate measures were taken to cut emissions. With no measures, up to two-thirds of the glaciers could be lost.
“Broadly, there are two main causes leading to the temperature rise,” says environmental activist Guman Singh from Himachal-based environmental group Himalaya Niti Abhiyan. “One is global climate change, which is impacting the whole planet and is adversely affecting the Himalayas as well. The other is man-made causes like increased tourism, the building of dams, new houses, hydro projects, and general urban development.”
The temperature rise that is being witnessed globally can be seen in the Himalayas with twice or three times the rise. It’s not the building of the many small dams here that’s as much of a problem as is the machinery, tunnelling and the invasive nature of construction that leads to ecological damage. The Himalayas have a certain carrying capacity, which is to say the amount of load they can take at any given time; these mountains are fragile, and such rampant disregard for their fragility causes much of the damage we’re talking about.
“Black carbon is another point of concern,” adds Singh. “The burning of organic matter creates heavy fumes and a significant heat, which also contributes to glacier melting. As the population and tourism have increased, so has the burning and the increase of black carbon.”
Weather out here is both a cause and consequence of climate change. Now, Singh says, seasons aren’t clockwork like they have been for so many centuries. “Plants don’t grow the way they used to, in the places they used to. However, with modern technology a lot of that can be compensated for, but the long-term impacts are significant. The drying up of springs and erratic changes in river systems will mean less water for everyone, not just those living in these mountains.”
With the advent of social media, the influx of tourism in the mountains has risen significantly. Locals welcome this increase in trade, but they want tourists numbers to be managed more responsibly. More than climate change, it’s irresponsible tourism that’s wrecking immediate havoc. India’s population is on a steady increase, and so naturally, impact on the environment has also increased. The lack of awareness in people and governments, and the absence of policies and regulation are largely culpable for this state of affairs in so many of the country’s mountains.
The government of Sikkim, however, a state in the eastern Himalayas, has acknowledged this and so, out there, you will find no stalls/shops on the way to your destination, only at the final arrival point. There are no big concrete structures, and the people and the municipality have done a good job of maintaining the cleanliness and ecological balance of the place. Plastics being brought in by tourists are also monitored, which is the need of the hour. Himachal has a ban on plastics, so to speak, but only on polythene shopping bags, while processed food packaging remains unchecked. Not to mention the fact there’s no system in place to ensure proper disposal of these items, which leads to severe degradation of soil and water systems.
Multiple studies and reports have shown how melting glaciers are causing more water to flow off the mountains at a faster rate, which is causing the glacial lake outburst floods we’ve read so much about over the last few years. Rivers were overflowing and causing floods in Himachal only a month ago, and one cause is irresponsible tourism. Sure, the government needs to accept more responsibility and take better measures from an administrative and municipal standpoint, but the simplest thing that each of us can do is be more responsible tourists, and leave the place the way we found it.
This year, when I went up north on my annual sojourn, I learned that farmers who have grown apples for decades, have now moved on to producing other crops because warmers winters and tepid summers are affecting the quality of the fruit, which serves as one of the most important cash crops of the state. “The ones we grow today cannot be compared to the fruit we grew just 10 years ago,” says Kishan Sharma, a farmer in Himachal Pradesh’s Shimla district. “The plants are not getting enough chilling hours. That’s why the main areas of cultivation have now moved to the higher areas like Kinnaur and Lahaul while we are really suffering.”
I know that my trips to future trips to a cool and wet Himachal Pradesh are limited. Today, climate change threatens the livelihoods and lives of people living here—but tomorrow, it will be us.
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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.