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“Kheti?” (farming?) a local woman asks me with contorted eyebrows, hinting that my question wasn’t just unwelcome, but also ignorant of the obvious. Much has changed in the mountains in the last few years. Kamedi, my quaint little hamlet in Pauri, Uttarakhand that was once so cold that we were required to wear a sweater when we visited it, was now bristling with searing heat.
“Khani barkha, khani hyun, khani gham!” (abrupt rain, abrupt snow, abrupt heat), she continued – her animated hand movements and dramatic pauses displaying distress. The woman was only telling me what has been unfolding in the Himalayas in Uttarakhand for nearly two decades – growing unpredictability in weather and change in rainfall and snowfall patterns.
I still remember a night during the peak of summer 2015 when I was on one of the annual visits to my village, and a heavy downpour scattered people. A gush of water started flowing downstream with such intensity that it was difficult to even set foot on the ground. When the rain continued throughout the night, we were convinced that a landslide was coming. Fortunately, there was no landslide in the morning, but the crops were ruined by rainwater. A day later, the village witnessed scorching heat again and crevices, where streams and cascades were gurgling until a day ago, were suddenly parched again.
In 1990, The United Nations formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide regular scientific assessments on climate change and suggest mitigation strategies to policymakers. In 2014, a report released by the IPCC on the prospective effects of climate change discussed the danger it posed to human security in the form of forced displacements, pushing people outside of their geographies, making them more susceptible to economic vulnerabilities and possible social marginalisation.
The Hindu-Kush Himalayas span eight countries hosting 240 million people and supporting 2 billion people in Asia, directly or indirectly. In September 2019, the IPCC launched a special report on climate change, with a focus on oceans and the cryosphere. The report warned about increased flooding, variability in rainfall pattern, and rapid glacial melting as some of the effects of climate change on high mountain areas. Needless to say, it affects agriculture, livestock, even developmental projects.
How does the issue strike home in the Western Himalayas (which are a part of the Hindu-Kush Himalayas), I wonder? Can all extreme weather conditions be attributed to climate change? When do we call a landslide climate-induced? How can we say that a specific migration journey is climate-induced when there are varied and complex reasons for the migration itself?
It’s important to understand that migration is both a livelihood and risk-mitigation strategy. With uncertainties as these looming over a population, temporary migration, therefore, cannot be ruled out as a likely response to climate change. At the same time, I feel that the assumption of alarmist words like “climate refugees” ignores the subtler, slower, way in which climate change impacts individuals’ lives.
Hill regions of Uttarakhand have been grappling with floods, flood-related landslides, forest fires due to rising temperatures, erratic rainfall, and falling water tables, inviting worry from both the inhabitants and the state, who argue that climate change is an added factor that has forced able-bodied men outside of the Himalayan state. Locals do agree that the weather has gotten warmer over the years, especially in Pauri district, which has also invited worry from the state government. Uttarakhand is already facing a mass outmigration, with people abandoning villages in hill regions.
What does it mean for people of a village who suddenly stopped receiving snowfall twenty years ago, to witness snowy winter days in 2020? Do rising emissions have an impact on the mobility of mountain people? These are some questions that I wish to unpack and deliver by keeping the Himalayas – the periphery of the country – at the centre of my narrative.