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Early blooming of flowering plants is considered the first sign of increasing warming. So, when a farmer in Pauri district, Uttarakhand, exclaimed “Pralay!” to register his reaction to rhododendrons blooming in late February as against the usual early April, he knew exactly what he was talking about.
Being the highest point on earth — the Himalayas invariably experience the first blow of a changing climate; and its people are the first to experience ravages of such changes in an already sensitive ecology. A detailed report on the impact of climate change on life and livelihood of people living in higher Himalayas concluded that precipitation patterns have significantly changed in the region today as the Himalayas witness less snowfall and more rainfall. At the same time, rainfall in the area is also unevenly distributed – being more concentrated in certain areas? and of high intensity, making the local geography more susceptible to landslides with consistent downpour.
Eighty six percent of 871 respondents agreed to experiencing an increase in average temperature and changes in precipitation regime, with 92 percent respondents reporting having experienced a change in the timing, intensity, and nature of rain.
Kriti Bisht is an owner of an organic farm, called Slowness, nestled in the Kumaon Himalayas in Uttarakhand. Kriti, who routinely discusses ethnobotany and natural dyes in her videos on Instagram, mentions in one of her videos:
“It hasn’t snowed as much as it did last year – it definitely hasn’t rained like it did last year. The groundwater is already suffering. People have already started talking about how defenceless [they] are going to be against the water crisis here, this year.” With negligible snowfall in winters and the state receiving almost no rainfall post, state authorities are worried, too.
Non availability of natural sources of water is a blow to hill agriculture since it’s heavily reliant on it. Snow is one of the most important sources of moisture for soil in the Himalayas where humidity is already low. Therefore, the amount of snowfall affects soil productivity. Additionally, in the mountains, prolonged winter is necessary to keep crops and seeds dormant for better growth at a suitable time, and snow has a key role to play in making that happen, as per locals. In local parlance of Garhwal division – “Jadul bachyun renu bijal (‘the seeds remain preserved because of winters.’)”.
A good snowfall and prolonged winter – both – have not happened in the Western Himalayas this year. At the same time, the region has been witnessing more forest fires.
“Agriculture has become secondary now,” a field worker from the Institute of Himalayan Environmental Research and Education, Chaukhutia, told me when I visited Kumaon Himalayas in 2019. “My village has 20 households, only six are involved in any kind of agriculture,” he said. The rest, I ask? “Niche chale gaye (‘They all went to the plains’)” – a painful declaration for the person.
“If agriculture itself is becoming so tough and so unprofitable, who would want to continue labouring throughout all seasons with no return at hand?,” he asked me. In Uttarakhand, agriculture has always been marginal and subsistent.
The dots can seemingly appear very well connected – changes in climate-induced weather patterns, receding snowfall, and disparate rain spells are affecting agriculture: indirectly pushing people outside of their geographies to look for more profitable livelihoods. But Uttarakhand’s story is complicated since the state was already witnessing a mass outmigration crisis, because of which once-thriving rural regions now house entirely abandoned villages.
The migration “crisis” in Uttarakhand is, therefore, not new in that sense, nor is it determined by climate change alone. While climate change is indeed impacting lives and livelihoods, more is afoot in the mountains — and to understand it better, we need to not only understand local contexts better, but also take into account problems and challenges being faced by the communities.
We all remember the 2013 disaster in the Himalayas that drowned Kedarnath town and surrounding areas, claiming 5,000 lives as per official estimates. Rising temperatures which caused a glacial lake outburst plummeted as flash floods and landslides on human inhabitations.
One of the major learnings from the event is understanding how primary and secondary hazards are tightly interconnected with each other in the Himalayas. At times, it becomes difficult to separate one from the other. For instance, a massive landslide (secondary hazard) caused by heavy rainfall due to climatic changes (primary hazard) is also a climate-related hazard even when the immediate risk is the landslide.
A documentary by UNESCO India on climate migration picks up from the aftermath of the tragedy and shows how for the local people who come from affected villages, migration of able-bodied men is now a necessity more than a norm – as people fear another Kedarnath-like disaster striking the hill regions. The 2021 deluge proved that the locals’ fear was not misplaced.
Within hill districts, higher Himalayas continue to form one of the most neglected regions of the state, where lives and livelihoods are determined by vulnerability – socio-economic, and now, climate change. Disappearing pastures have pushed several shepherding and pastoralist communities to give up their livelihoods and look for more “stable” livelihood options as “unstable” climate reigns the higher Himalayas. Migration facilitates these non-traditional livelihood options for the communities.
The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) defines vulnerability as “determined by physical, social, economic, and environmental factors or processes, which increase the susceptibility of an individual or community (assets or systems) to the impact of hazards.”
From within the context of Western Himalayas, it can be concluded that the least vulnerable are communities that have access to good infrastructure and emergency rapid response services. Absence of any of these arrangements will trigger distress migration for communities affected by environmental and climatic changes.
Sustainability is deeply entrenched in the Himalayan ecosystem, where livelihood and environment are intertwined with lives of the population. Therefore, even when it comes to climate change and climate migration, the Himalayas require a different kind of articulation – an articulation in which unsustainable development is also looked at as a potential hazard that will trigger disasters, leading to migration because of displacement.
Reckless and unplanned development in the Himalayas also exacerbates secondary hazards. The recent 2021 tragedy at Tapovan and Chamoli, Garhwal, is a perfect example of this. Muck-dumping, developmental deforestation, blasting within eco-sensitive zones that shuddered the mountains resulted in greater debris formation after the glacial-lake outburst. Exacerbated disasters mean more affected areas, and greater effect on the population on account of damages – a possible humanitarian crisis in the making for Himalayan people.
It is not that the locals are unaware about these changes and the implications of a greater rate of climate change, but more often than not, their voices remain unheard and are taken into consideration only to be discarded later. This is evident from the proceedings against the Tapovan-Vishnugad project raised by Matu Jan Sangathan, a local rights-based group in the Himalayan region. Villagers had feared the negative consequences, which intensified because of bureaucracy that seldom does justice to the displaced.
Reckless development owing to rapid urbanisation implies significant changes in micro-climatic conditions of a place. Uttarakhand has already lost 50,000 hectares of forest cover — equivalent to the size of Ahmedabad – since 1991 to various developmental and defence projects.
Disasters such as those that happened in 2013 and 2021, caused by climate change, intensified by unplanned, unsustainable development, have displaced communities, official figures for which are still not available, and if available, not accepted by communities to maintain a conservative estimate.
The writing is on the wall — subtracting ecology from the development paradigm pushes people towards displacement and distress migration. And with little thought being paid to this, it is the people of the state who are having to bear the burden of these changes.