The Himalayas were here before our anthropoid ancestors (monkeys and apes) evolved into Homo Sapiens as our species is called, and ultimately this geological spectacle of the earth’s crust will outlast our species. Apart from being among the many marvels of Nature, the Himalayas are a source of many of the world’s largest river systems including the Ganges, Indus and Yangtze and have the most glaciers outside the polar region2. According to the Geological Survey of India, there are 9575 glaciers in Indian Himalaya distributed among the three river basins – Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra.2 These rivers support the life and livelihood of more than 800 million people living downstream in Indo-Gangetic plains as well as support several industries located in these plains. The flora and fauna and the unique biodiversity in the region also depends on the water from the Himalayas.
The Himalayas literally mean the ‘Abode of Snow’ in Sanskrit. But this may not be a safe anymore. The region has now become the center stage of climate change with many of its glaciers retreating at a rapid pace. Glaciers act as buffers and regulate the runoff from high mountains to the plains, especially during dry spells. Even during the non-monsoon season, irrigation is assured from the waters of melting snow through long, winding streams. 2
A significant impact of climate change has been the formation of a large number of glacial lakes. Due to an increase in the rate of ice and snow melt, the water in these lakes has been accumulating at an increasing rate. As a large part of this water is drawn into dams, if the dams were to break , the devastation to infrastructure, dams , hydropower plants and communities living downstream will be huge. This possibility is not just a theoretical one. One such occurrence seven years ago, in 2013, was a fragile ice dam burst above Kedarnath a famous pilgrimage destination in the Himalayan, triggering flash floods that ravaged the watershed of the Ganga and caused enormous destruction and loss of lives. Pilgrims were stranded for days and had to be evacuated by troops.
Apart from water for sustenance, there is a high dependence on the glaciers located in the Himalayas and the energy security of the country. Almost 33% of the country’s thermal electricity and 52% of hydropower in the country is dependent on the water from rivers originating in the Himalayas. 2 Water is needed throughout the energy supply chain, sometimes as a direct input as in the case of hydropower or geothermal energy, as a coolant in thermal power plants or more often for the extraction and processing of energy fuels. Thus, conventional fuels used both for electricity production as well as for transport requirement, depend heavily on usage of water. 2
As the importance of cutting back on emissions cannot be emphasized enough, it is equally important that adaptation strategies are put in place. Adaptation strategies at the community level are designed to be locally appropriate and are developed in collaboration with the local communities themselves. One such initiative is being taken in Bhutan where the WWF is working with the government and local communities in order to prevent the Thorthormi Tsho glacier lake from bursting. Hundreds of workers including farmers, yak herders and women are working to channel the waters elsewhere. They are also working with farmers on crop diversification and choice of agricultural practices. 3
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), Government of India along with UNDP is implementing a GEF funded project: SECURE Himalaya (Securing livelihoods, conservation, sustainable use and restoration of high range Himalayan ecosystems) in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Union Territory of Ladakh. The project supports the Government of India in conservation of globally significant biodiversity and threatens species while securing sustainable livelihoods.
2 Tayal, Shresth 2019. Climate Change Impacts on Himalayan Glaciers and Implications on Energy Security of India, TERI Discussion Paper. New Delhi: The Energy and Resources Institute