By NIHARIKA NAUTIYAL
Our home Garhwal is located amidst the beautiful north-west Himalayan range and is home to around 8 million Garhwalis out of the 250 million people that the entire range houses. The largest mountain range in the world, we are part of a massive yet highly sensitive ecosystem that is very prone to changes in the environment. Over the past decade or so, environmental calamities have become ever more frequent in this region. The most prominent one that comes to mind in recent times is the Kedarnath tragedy which took a heavy toll on the lives of all beings. While we are blessed with many rivers like Ganga, Alaknanda and Bhagirathi, it also makes us vulnerable to instances of overflowing during monsoons or glacier melting. There are multiple changes in the ecology of this region that can be solely traced to one causal factor – Climate Change, or global warming.
In simple words, the Earth is heating up. Temperatures are rising more than they naturally should and this is causing a shift in ecologies of all regions. Over the past 50 years, the average global temperature has increased at the fastest rate in recorded history. Out of 16, 15 of the hottest years in NASA’s 134 year record come after 2000.
So, what is causing this rise in temperature? Life on Earth depends on energy coming from the Sun. About half the light reaching Earth’s atmosphere passes through the air and clouds to the surface, where it is absorbed and then radiated upward in the form of infrared heat. About 90 percent of this heat is then absorbed by the greenhouse gases and radiated back toward the surface. Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide trap heat in them and block heat from escaping, creating a rise in temperature. These gases are released naturally as well but, post industrialisation, the emissions have more than tripled.
Human activities are changing the natural greenhouse. Over the last century, burning of coal and fossil fuels has increased the concentration of carbon dioxide. Trees, which convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, are being uprooted to provide land for industry, agriculture and accommodating the ever increasing human needs. With massive increase in cars, flights, industries and overall globalisation, the current level of the greenhouse gases is higher than it has ever been in the past 800,000 years!
So, how do increasing temperatures affect our lives other than just sweating and discomfort? Climate researchers and activists have termed climate change as an “existential threat to civilisation”. Rising temperatures will mean that ice will melt faster. The massive glaciers in Antarctica and the Arctic region have already started melting and in turn increasing the sea level. Rising sea levels mean that all coastal areas will be at high risk of submersion. These include cities like Mumbai, New York and even countries like Indonesia and Singapore, which have already started experiencing rising sea levels.
Other than this, the vulnerability and exposure of humans to climate change will affect almost all economic sectors like agriculture, human health, forestry, energy and tourism, to name a few. Wealthy industrialised countries, which have emitted the most carbon dioxide, have more resources and so are least vulnerable to global warming. Because of India’s position on the map, we will be adversely affected by these changes.
Coming specifically to Garhwal, this region will be at the direct receiving end of fluctuations in the Himalayan ecosystem. Communities that depend on rain-fed agriculture are disproportionately vulnerable to climate change. In a study conducted by Gettysburg University in Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, a large majority of Garhwalis perceived that rainfall is increasing and that snowfall is decreasing, while a smaller majority perceived an increase in summer temperatures which correctly correlates to the climate data that shows an increase in summer temperature and winter rainfall. We are already facing the impact of climate change with an unsteady monsoon season. Last year, monsoons, which ideally start by the first week of June, didn’t start until August. Rainfall patterns are increasingly becoming more erratic.
A major proportion of precipitation is now being received in the form of rain rather than as snow. As the amount of snowfall is less and it stays for a shorter duration, chances of its getting compacted and converted to ice are reduced. This causes a mass imbalance in glaciers causing them to break or recede. Receding glaciers are a cause of great concern since they can destabilise surrounding slopes and may give rise to catastrophic landslides. It can break dams by overflowing rivers and eventually cause floods. Unfortunately, Himalayan glaciers are receding faster than the world average.
Increased temperatures have increased dry spells and fluctuated discharge of streams and springs creating unavailability of water from certain sources which creates difficulty in managing water for irrigation, livestock and household work. Villagers have to walk long distances to collect water, eventually reducing their productivity.
Most of Garhwal’s population depends on agriculture for survival and relies on timely rainfall for yielding harvest. Snow is an important source of soil moisture in the area and essential for agriculture and growth of pastures. Through changes in soil moisture and the distribution and frequency of infestation by pests and diseases, crop yield is severely affected. Due to shorter winter periods, plants go into flowering period much earlier, and thus flower at a time when weather conditions are not favorable for their growth and survival. This reduces fruiting and thus productivity. Agriculture in the area is becoming economically unviable due to reduced productivity and increased input cost because of the use of agrochemicals. Furthermore, because of decreased production and revenue, even more villagers are migrating to towns and cities in search of sources of income. Uttarakhand has the highest number of “ghost” villages in India due to this very reason!
Forests, another major source of survival for rural Garhwal, are fast depleting. Due to excessive construction of roads, usage of wood for fuel for an ever increasing population and overgrazing has led to loss of forest cover. Reduced rainfall and increased duration of dry spells are held responsible for low regeneration rates. These are reported to result in withering and drying of buds and flowers thereby adversely affecting growth and regeneration of forests. Because of reduction of forest cover, wild animals are truly victimised as their entire habitat is destroyed. We hear multiple stories of how tigers, leopards and elephants have become increasingly unwary of humans and are often sighted close to human habitations and agricultural land. Due to lack of hunting grounds or even animals to hunt, these animals often attack human settlements causing much despair in the lives of the villagers. What we don’t seem to realise is that it is our actions only that have pushed these wild animals into our terrain.
Most of the problems that Garhwal faces today can intrinsically be linked back to Climate Change. It directly or indirectly affects all aspects of human lives in the mountains. Mountain ecosystems are much more vulnerable than other ecosystems and so are its people. We will be one of the first affected populations so it falls upon us to actively do our bit to control it. Simple changes in our routine life can reduce our carbon footprint and make a more sustainable living; some of them are listed below-
● Use a bicycle or better, walk, whatever distances you can. At a time when everyone is clogging the roads with cars and bikes, by not burning fuel, you are not contributing to rising emissions.
● Opt for greener sources of energy like solar or hydro energy.
● Conserve water. Obsess over every drop. We are already facing a shortage of fresh drinking water and conservation needs to be a foremost priority.
● Increase green cover. Plant more trees. If you can’t plant, do not reduce greenery.
● The contribution of village youths in collaboration with forest department to curb forest fires during summers in a proactive manner can also save hectares of forested area’s flora and fauna.
● Switch from using wood as a fuel to other resources like electric stoves or solar gas.
● It is unavoidable in the production of goods that we use on a regular basis. However, a cleaner alternative would be to invest in recycling. Recycling is a cost-effective and eco-friendly process that eliminates waste and doesn’t emit greenhouse gasses into the environment. Be sure to deliver your discarded paper, glass, plastic, and electronics to your local recycling centre.
● Make sure to turn off lights and unplug devices that you are not using anymore when you are done with them. Replace your light bulbs with energy-efficient light bulbs to help you save electricity, too.
We are at a point of time in history where our actions in the next few years will determine the fate of our planet. Although we are currently battling a global pandemic, our biggest challenge is still to come. The holes in the ozone layer are getting bigger, large chunks of glaciers are breaking off, forests are catching fire, plants and animals are going extinct, air quality of the planet is dropping and temperatures are constantly increasing. We are soon going to reach a point of no return. Extremely polluted cities in China like Beijing are already selling fresh oxygen. Do we really want to live on a planet where fresh water and air has to be paid for? What kind of a world are we leaving for our future generations? Let us make active changes in our lifestyle because we only have this Earth, there is no plan B.
(Niharika Nautiyal is a final year student of Masters in Public Policy and Governance at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. Her fields of interest are climate change and animal rights.)