Changing Climate Patterns and the Himalayas

By Anuska Joshi

Many glaciers and mountains in the Himalayan region of Nepal feed major rivers downstream, and we can see direct impacts of climate change in this region, in the form of melting of snow caps, retreating glaciers, increased risks of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs), increased tree line and diminishing biodiversity.

Climate Change is bringing about many threats to all the communities across the world and the problem only continues to increase with one crisis unraveling tens or hundreds others. The global community is threatened by the increasing sea level, increased cases of erratic rainfall, drought in some places and floods in other, the biodiversity going for sixth mass extinction, increased vulnerability and reduced resilience. This happens because all the natural systems are so intricately connected to each other that a disturbance in one causes disruption in many others connected to it.

Nepal is a small mountainous country. Though small in area, Nepal’s climatic condition ranges from tropic in the south to alpine in the north. As such, climate change is impacting Nepal in many different ways. While many cases of agricultural loss is reported from all the regions, the changing climate usually has completely different effects in different communities, just because the climatic condition is so varied, and the vulnerability and resilience of the places are also different. In the past 100 years, the global average temperature has risen by about 0.74 degrees Celsius. It has also resulted in intense and frequent storms and hurricanes, heat waves, snowfalls, intense downpour, etc, and Nepal is no exception.

Many glaciers and mountains in the Himalayan region of Nepal feed major rivers downstream, and we can see direct impacts of climate change in this region, in the form of melting of snow caps, retreating glaciers, increased risks of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs), increased tree line and diminishing biodiversity. The changes in the Himalayan Hindu Kush region alone affect more than 1.3 billion people, according to International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). One of the major difficulties of changing climate is shorter but highly intense rainfall which causes problems like floods and landslides. With eight out of 14 eight-thousanders, including the highest peak Mt Everest, lying in its territory, the Nepal Himalayas is a major tourist destination, attracting hundreds and thousands of tourists every year. It sustains the livelihood of many people along the route. Climate change has its effect through fiercer storm and GLOFs. Because of the changes in the hydrological cycle, storms and downpours are getting very intense. GLOFs are major risks in mountainous areas. Glaciers always carry stones and rocks along with the ice and snow. Due to increasing temperature, glaciers are retreating at a very fast pace, and when they retreat, they leave this moraine as a form of dam. The melting ice continues to build up water content in this lake until the moraine cannot handle the pressure any more, and then it bursts, causing flood and damages in many areas downstream. As it is difficult to predict when glacial lakes bursts, it makes things even more difficult. Many communities downstream are at risk of GLOFs.

A river at Langtang region. Photo By: Craig Turner
A river at Langtang region. Photo By: Craig Turner

Now when we come down toward south from the Himalayan region, we have the hilly region called Siwalik. The Himalayas is the origination point of nine big river systems all of which have been affected due to global warming and climate change. Apart from posing flood problems to millions of peoples along the banks, the altered hydrological cycle also triggers landslides in many places. The topography of the Himalayan region and Siwalik is very weak in itself, and the increasing flood instances only make it weaker and more vulnerable to huge landslides. The instances of landslides are only increasing every year.

The southern part of Nepal is Tarai which is a fertile river basin. Now as the glaciers retreat at an alarming rate, the flood risk increases in Tarai, as the river here are fed by these mountains and glaciers. Also, the erratic rainfall is increasing the instances and risks of flash flood.

Nepal is already facing the brunt of climate change, and its hugest impact can be seen in the agricultural sector. The agriculture in Nepal is of subsistence type, and the farmers are not equipped with sophisticated technologies. They are completely reliant on the natural rain for their harvest. But due to the erratic rainfall and increased hailstorms these days, the entire harvest gets destroyed. This further fuels food insecurity. Dubar, a remote village in Lamjung district, is where I went to conduct research on the changing climate and livelihood, for my Bachelor’s project. We can see the changes in harvesting time, increased potato pests, increase in mosquito when there were none a few years back, decrease in forest biodiversity, and complete drying up of the community well etc. The people also gave up on their cattle because of heavy encroachment of invasive species.

These kinds of changes are changing people’s way of life, and not for the better. Millions of people are displaced every year due to flood and other disasters, and they lose everything to live their remaining life as refugees. They lose land, their community and their culture in the process; and this is not their choice, this is the price of carbon. If opting for sustainable and green energy is possible, then there is just no point in delaying action, and allowing temperature increase of more than 1.5 degrees. The Cop21 resulted in historic declaration for this. We already are in a very critical tipping point, with so many uncertainties regarding the climate change. The ecosystems in the world are connected in such a complex way that we don’t fully understand what implications the changing climate may have. An increase of only .5 degree causes changes in many species growth, and further increase only multiplies all the effects. Climate change is increasing risk worldwide by one chain of events giving rise to another chain of events, and most of the times the impacts are faced by poor communities which had no hand at all in the carbon emission.

It really is high time for the global community to work together to bring the emission down to minimum to reduce the carbon content from the atmosphere and halt the global warming as much as possible, as climate change does not only bring new unprecedented problems, but also exacerbate the problems that are already there.

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