How Melting Himalayan Glaciers Threaten Water Supplies For Millions In India

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The Himalayan mountain range carries religious, economic, ecological and strategic significance on many levels. In fact, the most visited places of pilgrimage in India are located in the Himalayas.

Source: Researchgate

The Himalayan mountain range extends in a 2,410 km curve across South Asia. The Himalayas separate the plains of the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan Plateau. The Himalayas include over fifty mountains exceeding 7,200 m (23,600 ft) in elevation, including ten of the fourteen 8,000-metre peaks, including the Mount Everest. India has the largest share of the mighty Himalayas.

The general location of the Himalayan mountain range. Source: Wikipedia

The Himalayas are inhabited by 52.7 million people and are spread across five countries: Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan. There are almost 22,000km² of glacier ice in the Himalayas.

Rivers and Snow in the Himalayas. Source: NASA Earth

Some of the world’s major rivers like the Indus, the Ganges and the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra rise in the Himalayas, and their combined drainage basin is home to roughly 800 million people. The Himalayas have a profound effect on the climate of the region, helping to keep the monsoon by rains on the Indian plains and limiting rainfall on the Tibetan plateau.

The Himalayas have deeply shaped different cultures of the Indian subcontinent; many Himalayan peaks are sacred in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

The Himalayan mountain range and Tibetan plateau have formed as a result of the collision between the Indian Plate and Eurasian Plate, which began 50 million years ago and continues today. Some 225 million years ago (Ma), India was a large island situated off the Australian coast and separated from Asia by the Tethys Ocean.

Recent researches have shown that most of the glaciers in the Himalaya are shrinking, mostly because of increasing global temperature. The number of cold nights reduced by one night per decade and the number of cold days reduced by 0.5 days per decade, while the number of warm nights increased by 1.7 nights per decade and the number of warm days increased by 1.2 days per decade.

According to a recent study, the black carbon concentration that contributes to faster melting of glaciers has almost doubled on the Gangotri Glacier. Developmental activities, pollution from local, regional and global sources accumulate over the Himalayan region and increase the concentration of black carbon.

These changes will continue and pose more acute challenges to adaptation. If the pivotal 1.5 °C target would be reached, the Himalayan glaciers would expectedly lose one-third of their surfaces. In future, the sustainability of river flow in south-east Asia will be at risk.

The consequences of climate change are being witnessed in the Himalayan glaciers and glacial lakes. The Himalayan cryosphere, the source of major river systems and lifeline in Asia, is shrinking and resulting in to increase in the size and number of glacial lakes. The Himalayan glaciers are retreating at rates ranging from 10 to 60 metres per year, and many small glaciers (< 0.2 sq km) have already disappeared.

Vertical shifting of glaciers has been recorded during the last fifty years. With the result of melting glaciers, the lakes are growing. A remarkable example is Lake Imja Tsho in the Everest region, while this lake was a non-existent in 1960, now it covers more than one sq km in area. Similarly, in the Pho Chu basin of the Bhutan Himalaya, the change in the size of some glacial lakes has been observed as high as 800 per cent over the past 40 years.

At present, several supraglacial ponds on the Thorthormi glacier are growing rapidly and consequently merging to form a larger lake. These lakes pose a threat of ‘glacial lake outburst flood‘ (GLOF). GLOFs are often catastrophic on life and property of the mountain people living downstream, besides damages to agricultural land and forests. Most of these lakes had formed only in the second half of the twentieth century due to global warming.

Imja Tso, a glacial lake in the Mt. Everest region, did not exist on trekking maps 30 years ago. Today, it is 2 kilometers long, and the region continues to warm. Source/ Credit: Kunda Dixit/ Nepali Times

Mountain lakes are just like ‘mountain tsunamis’. Catastrophic outbursts of glacial lakes result in widespread damage to people and villages, washed away bridges and roads, and fill in the river water with debris and large logs.

Kedarnath disaster of June 2013 is an example of a ‘catastrophic mountain tsunamis’. On 16th and 17th June 2013, heavy rains, along with moraine-dammed Chorabari Lake burst, caused flooding of Saraswati and Mandakini Rivers in Rudraprayag district of Uttarakhand and damaged the banks of River Mandakini for 18 km between Kedarnath and Sonprayag and completely washed away Gaurikund, Rambara and Kedarnath towns.

The Chorabari Lake also known as Gandhi Sarovar Lake is snowmelt and rain-fed lake located about 2 km upstream of Kedarnath town; it is approximately 400 mt long, 200 mt wide having a depth of 15–20 mt. The bursting of the lake led to its complete draining within 5–10 mins and resulted in catastrophe.

Pic: a, The Landsat satellite image (23 June 2013; after disaster), sowing the, lake burst (1), Gulleys erosion/cloud burst events (2) and circle (3) indicate the site of maximum devastation. b, The panoramic view of Chorabari Lake and Glacier, the red circle indicate the weak zone of the lake, where the lake was burst. c, The photograph showing the maximum devastation in Kedarnath town. d, Cartosat image (Bhuwan App) of post disaster of the Kedarnath and surrounding areas and clearly indicating Chorabari Lake outburst. The red circle indicates the breaching point of the Lake. Source: Researchgate

Glacier Retreat In India

Studies on selected glaciers of Indian Himalaya indicate that most of the glaciers are retreating because of increasing global warming. Of these, the Siachen,  Pindari,  Gangotri, Milam, Dokriani Bamako, Gara, Gor Garang, Shaune Garang, Nagpo Tokyo, Bara Shigri, Chhota Shigri, Miyar, Hamtah, Nagpo Tokpo, Triloknath, Sona,  Janapa, Jorya Garang, Naradu Garang, Bilare Bange, Karu Garang and Baspa Bamako, Parbati and Shaune Garang glaciers are retreating at faster speeds.

Global warming has affected snow-glacier melt and runoff pattern in the Himalaya. One of the best examples of glacier retreat is Gangotri glacier, where the position of Gangotri Glacier snout has been shifted about 2km upward from 1780 to 2001 and is in a continuous process. Gangotri Glacier is 29 kilometres long, two to six kilometres wide and the longest glacier in the Central Himalayas. It sweeps like a gigantic river through the heart of the mountains.

Retreating glacier of Gangotri. Source: Wikipedia

The mountains make up 24% of the world’s land area, are home to about 20% of the world’s population, provide 60–80% of the world’s freshwater and harbour 50% of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. The United Nations recognized the importance of mountain ecosystems, in chapter 13 of Agenda 21.

World nations should move towards achieving the targets of ‘Paris Agreement’ to save Himalayan biodiversity, human life, economy and ecology. Himalayan nations should cooperate in setting an early warning system. Our weather reporting and satellite images can alarm us before probable catastrophes in future. Sustainability should be maintained in Himalaya, during development activities. Development is essential, but not at the cost of sustainability, habitat loss and loss of human lives. Glaciers are our lifeline, and we must save them.

This post has been written by a YKA Climate Correspondent as part of #WhyOnEarth. Join the conversation by adding a post here.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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