Climate Change in the Himalayas

The Himalaya support nearly half of humanity “Him” means snow “alaya” means mountain. The mountains of snow have also been called the third pole, since they are the third largest body of snow on our planet after the Antarctic and Arctic.


Over the last year, Navdanya / Research Foundation teams have worked with local communities in Uttarakhand and Ladakh to assess the impact of climate change on their ecosystems and economies and to evolve participatory plans for climate change adaptation. From 6th to 13th of September 2009 we also undertook a climate yatra from Dehradun in Uttarakhand to Leh in Ladakh,followed by the national consultation on Climate change at New Delhi on 17th November 2009. The project findings are compiled as "Climate Change at Third Pole".

The melting of snow in the Arctic and Antarctic due to global warming and climate change is reported frequently. However, the melting of the Himalayan glaciers goes largely unreported, even though more people are impacted.

Presently 10% of the earth’s landmass is covered with snow, with 84.16% of the Antarctic, 13.9% in Greenland, 0.77% in the Himalaya, 0.51% in North America, 0.37% in Africa, 0.15% in South America, 0.06% in Europe. Outside the polar region, Himalaya has the maximum concentration of glaciers. 9.04% of the Himalaya is covered with glaciers, with 30-40% additional area being covered with snow.

The glaciers of the Himalaya are the Third Pole. They feed the giant rivers of Asia, and support half of humanity.

In Ladakh, the northern most region of India, all life depends on snow. Ladakh is a high altitude desert with only 50mm of rainfall. Ladakh’s water comes from the snow melt – both the snow that falls on the land and provides the moisture for farming and pastures, as well as the snow of the glaciers that gently melts and feeds the streams that are the lifeline of the tiny settlements.

For centuries snow has supported human survival in Ladakh.
Climate change is changing this. Less snow is falling, so there is less moisture for growing crops. In village after village, we are witnessing the end of farming if snow melt on the fields was the only source of moisture.

Reduced snowfall also means less snow in glaciers, and less stream flow. The shorter period of snowfall prevents the snow from turning into hard ice crystals. Therefore more of the glacier is liable to melt when the summer comes.

Climate change has also led to rain, rather than snow, falling even at higher altitudes. This also accelerates the melting of glaciers.

Meantime, heavy rainfall which was unknown in the high altitude desert has become more frequent, causing flash floods, washing away homes and fileds, trees and livestock. Climage refugees are already being created in the Himalaya in villages such as Rongjuk. As one of the displaced women said “when we see the black clouds, we feel afraid.”

The arrival of black clouds and disappearance of white snow in the cold desert is how climate change id entering the life of the Ladakhi communities. They did not cause the pollution, but they are its victims. This is the direct and cruel face of climate injustice – the polluters continue to pollute, they are insulated from the impact of their own actions. Others, thousands of miles away bear the brunt of greenhouse gas pollution.

India has 5243 glaciers covering an area of 37579 km2 and containing 142.88 km2 of ice.
The Gangotri glacier, the source of the Ganga is receding at 20-23 miles per year. Millain glacier is receding at 30m/yr, Dukrian is retreating at 15-20m/yr. The receding of glaciers has accelerated with global warming. The rate of retreat of the gangotri glacier has tripled in the last three years. Some of the most devastating effects of glacial meltdown occures when glacial lakes overflow and the phenomena of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) take place.

Climate change thus initially leads to widespread flooding, but over time, as the snow disappears there will be draught in the summer. In the Ganga, the loss of glacier meltdown would reduce July – September flows by two thirds, causing water shortages for 500 million people and 37 percent of India’s irrigated land.

Glacial runoff in the Himalayas is the largest source of fresh water for northern India and provides more than half the water to the Ganga. Glacial runoff is also the source of the Indus, the Brahmaputra, the Irrawady and the Yellow and Yantze rivers.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “glaciers in the Himayalas are receding faster than in any other part of the world and if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the earth keep getting warmer at the current rate”. According to the IPCC report the total area of glaciers in the Himalaya will shrink from 1930051 square miles to 38,000 square miles by 2035.

The lives of billions are at stake. That is why we have started a participatory process for Himalayan communities to engage in the discussion on climate change, including issues of climate justice, adaptation and disaster preparedness.

In terms of numbers of people impacted, climate change at the Third Pole is the most far reaching. And no climate change policy or treaty will be complete without including the Himalayan communities.


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