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I know that there’s a lot one can write in relation to climate change, but I want to begin my story with ash. It sounds a bit weird, I know, but I hope things will make more sense once I finish explaining.
As we all know, the mighty Hindu Kush Himalayan region is melting fast. Some say the Gangotri Glacier is disappearing; some say there will be no ice by the end of the 21st century, and some have pointed out that the recent disaster in Chamoli in Uttarakhand is because of a glacier melting.
In unison, we like to blame it all on climate change — as if the environment has turned on us humans for no fault of our own. And yes, while climate change is definitely a cause for melting glaciers, can we ask ourselves why we are witnessing it in the first place?
Let me share with you three anecdotes from my life in relation to what I’m talking about. My very first memory of ash relates to my childhood. It’s from a time when I didn’t know the difference between climate and weather, from a time when words like global warming hadn’t even entered our lexicon.
I was born and brought up in southwestern Haryana, a region neither wholly green as Haryana nor dry and bare as Rajasthan. It’s a mix of fertile plains and Aravalli hills, water and arid soil, fair habitation and sand dunes. Here, mercury touches 48° Celsius every summer and dips to zero every winter. A below 0° Celsius temperature leaves frost (a thin layer of ice) over the crops and other vegetation.
Since we didn’t have a toilet in our home those days, I would follow my mother every morning to our farm to attend nature’s call. In winters, before we left home, my mother would collect last night’s ashes from the earthen stove in a basket. On reaching the farm, she would spread it over small spellings and crops.
The logic? Ash, my parents believed, would protect the crops from frost. Not letting it settle over them, or in case it did quickly dissolve it. Ash wasn’t an enemy as it is made out to be now — in fact, it was treated as a friend of the crops.
I have already spoken about my limitation to distinguish weather from the climate in those days. So, I opted for Geography as a major subject during college, in part to correct this deficiency and in part to study about land in more detail. When it came to the environment, the conversation around this time involved understanding the difference between global warming and climate change.
I too was curious about what was happening to the earth and my quest to understand the human impact of these then newly-minted terms would take me to Spiti Valley in the months of March and April in 2014. Spiti valley is famous for its off-season pea cultivation, for which sowing happens in mid-April. But how can that happen when every inch of land is under several inches of snow during this time, you wonder?
Yes, the secret was ash. For a few afternoons consecutively, I observed that farmers of the valley threw ash over pockets of land covered under snow. After a few days, as if by magic, the snow over that pocket melted and the farmers then ploughed the pockets to sow peas. Ash, again, turned out to be the farmers’ friend.
My third encounter with ash is the most recent. I am a researcher, and 3 years ago, I moved to the Himalayas permanently. I got a house in the middle of a pine forest. The good part about living where I live? During storms, the forest whistles beautifully. The sad part? Every summer, they catch fire badly.
Factually speaking, approximately 4,000 to 5,000 forest fires take place in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand every year. When there is a fire, that produces ash, ash that flies and settles somewhere. In the mountains, it settles over glaciers.
According to reports, we know that it is the black carbon particles of ash (a product of incomplete combustion and burning) that gives off smoke that settles over the glaciers. They darken the surface and enable higher absorption of light and heat, eventually causing the snow or ice to melt. The black carbon particles settle over ice and melt it.
Now, let’s think about that question again, the one we began with — why do glaciers melt? There are many reasons for it, but human-made actions, including forest fires, are one of them. Even a child can understand that much of what we like to blame on climate change is actually human-made induced by human activity and indiscriminate exploitation of our natural environments.
And if that’s the case — isn’t the action that we can take obvious too?
When a 7-year-old child could sense it. When a 25-year-old understood it. Why is it so hard for our grey-haired policymakers to find out what causes glacier melting and what needs to be done?
I personally feel our present discourse on climate action is very one-sided, based on a top-down way of decision making that fails to consider local contexts. To better deal with the unravelling crisis, we need a holistic understanding of the issue — not just from a policy or a scientific perspective but also from the perspective of the local communities impacted by the use.
It is only through the merging of traditional wisdom with cutting-edge scientific methods — when we include the local communities in problem-solving — that we can understand the issue better and design the right policies that help the communities preserve these resources.
Ash can both melt a glacier and save a crop. It is human action that ultimately determines whether we use it for the benefit of the environment or its peril.