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Early last month, on February 7, a devastating flood in the Indian state of Uttarakhand carried torrents of rock, ice, water, and soil that engulfed the Nanda Devi National Park. Initial news reports suggested the flood was triggered by a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF), but experts have since used satellite imagery to confirm a lack of convincing evidence of a breached glacial lake. Instead, the flooding is now believed to have been triggered by a high-altitude landslide, caused by abnormally high levels of snowmelt as a result of heavy snowfall, bright sunshine, and warm conditions. The details behind exactly what happened are still not clear, but the harrowing visuals, large-scale infrastructure damage and death count of over 200 were enough to spark conversation about the effects of climate change in the Himalaya.
Media outlets in Nepal immediately began covering the story, following relief efforts, and making inquiries into the causes of the disaster. The truth, however, is that the 2021 Uttarakhand tragedy is one of many similar events that have occurred in the region in the past few decades, each of which have been hailed as definitive warning signs for Nepal. Perhaps most notable were the 2013 Kedarnath flood, claiming 5,000 lives, and the Seti River flash flood of 2012, which resulted in over 75 deaths.
The scientific community in the Himalayan region has long been sounding a warning. While international media attention has stayed on island nations directly affected by rising sea-levels from the melting Arctic and Antarctic sheets, climate change experts have been vocal about the unique vulnerabilities of the Himalaya. A 2017 study published in the journal Nature estimated that even if all countries in the Paris Agreement are able to meet their national targets, Himalayan glaciers will lose 40 percent of their ice by 2100. Another landmark 2019 report published by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) estimated that the Himalaya will lose more than a third of their ice within the century.
The Himalaya have been warming much faster than the global average for decades now. Reports posit figures between 0.3 to 0.8 degrees Celsius of additional relative warming in the region since pre-industrial times. Over 1.6 billion people live directly in or downstream from the Himalaya. In Nepal, marginalized communities, many of whom do not have direct representation in the country’s government, are most vulnerable, both geographically and economically. Agricultural organization, power systems, economic activity, and cultural practices in our mountainous regions, and indeed across Nepal, are thus inextricably linked with the Himalaya.
The civilizations of South Asia have largely relied on seasonal Himalayan melts and the river pathways they create for sustenance. These mountains have even influenced cultural landmarks and political borders. The role of water, both as a nourisher of life and as a destructive force of nature, is sprinkled throughout our collective consciousness. Droughts and floods are found across the mythologies, religions, and folk tales of the region.
Outside South Asia, Thales of Miletus, one of the earliest pre-Socratics, philosophized a lot about water. He hypothesized, as famously documented in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, that water was the universally omnipresent substance that made up all matter.
Such has been our species’ reverence for water, across countries, cultures, and timelines. We use it to replenish our thirst, cleanse our bodies, grow our foods, and facilitate essential production processes. Hindu rituals and traditions are marked by the cleansing and purifying powers of water while the Buddhist path to enlightenment involves practices that signal water as a symbol of calmness and stillness. The Christian Baptism ritual uses water as symbol to purify oneself in rebirth while verses in the Quran connect water with consciousness and wisdom.
Perhaps the natural next inquiry then, in the acknowledgement of the importance of water to life, would be to understand exactly how much water there is. The 2016 US Geological Survey states that 71 percent of the planet is covered in water, which is not too surprising given that most of us learned that three-fourths of the earth is water. What is surprising, however, is how much of that vast percentage is freshwater. Estimates posit that barely two percent of all water on the planet is fresh, of which one percent is trapped in glaciers, and thus inaccessible. National Geographic calculates that only 0.007 percent of the planet’s total water volume is currently available for use.
Estimates range wildly across studies aiming to explore how efficiently the water we do have is stored and used. Leaks in water delivery systems -- especially in Nepal where leakage of piped water is estimated to be around 40 percent -- is a notable example. Politics, of course, is another. Journalist and author David Wallace-Wells writes thus about the political nature of global water management in The Uninhabitable Earth, “…an abundant resource made scarce through governmental neglect and indifference, bad infrastructure and contamination, careless urbanization and development.” The nuances of Nepal’s national water management have yet to be formally investigated and studied.
Not unlike global warming or plastic pollution, there is an odd optimism upon discovering that political neglect is at the heart of our natural resource problems. After all, political problems can be fixed by electing better politicians. The water problem, however, is different, in that a large chunk of the world’s population depends on certain seasonal melt from high-elevation ice, and the largest greenhouse gas emitter countries are not directly poised to suffer the consequences of disturbances in these delicate melting processes.
If too much water melts, the short-term concern of the escalating Himalayan warming rates include intense floods, landslides, glacial outbursts, irregular rainfall, and disturbances in river pathways. On the other hand, too little ice to melt can lead to dry spells, aridity, and more extreme weather. Of course, if flows decrease over the long-term, immediate problems will come to light as much of the South Asian region’s energy and agriculture depend directly on Himalayan freshwater.
Himalayan warming is thus rather unique. Greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced urgently and as sharply as possible to protect hundreds of mountainous communities from becoming displaced or being entirely wiped out. Many believe that the Paris Climate Agreement, celebrated by governments around the world as the first step towards achieving an eventual net-zero emissions planet, is inadequate to tackle the crisis in the short term. Even then, the scientific community is losing faith in the ability of governments to meet these insufficient targets they have set for themselves.
The urgency in the Himalaya may not seem as pressing as, say, in the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu. However, taking into account the size of the populations that rely directly on Himalayan seasonal melts and the chronic socio-economic problems that exist in Nepal, it is perhaps not entirely out of line to count our small, vulnerable country among the most undermined ones in the global climate change discourse.
Shuvam Rizal Shuvam Rizal is a Kathmandu-based researcher. He is the founder of Rizolve Sustainable Solutions, Research Lead at Governance Monitoring Centre Nepal, and climate change columnist for The Record.
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