The Himalayan region has witnessed a series of major disasters over the past decade: the 2013 Kedarnath floods, the 2014 and 2021 Nepal landslides, and the 2020 Eastern Himalayan and Uttarakhand floods. Although disasters are not new to South Asia in general and the Himalayas in particular, the frequency, severity, and loss of humans and public property have been phenomenally more than in previous decades. In this context, the IPCC’s sixth assessment report is an eye-opener. The average temperature of the Himalayas mountain range is expected to increase up to 2°C by 2050. This will increase disaster-frequency and imperil food and water security. Climate change impact on cryospheric water sources in the Himalayas will have consequences for the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra basins. Given the centrality of the Himalayas in the global weather system, its costs will be felt across the globe.
The sixth IPCC assessment report on climate change (CC), published in February 2022, has urged immediate actions against rising global temperatures. While previous reports were mostly warnings to the global community to prevent CC impacts, this one emphasizes the urgency of actions to avoid catastrophic disasters. It also highlights the vulnerability of the poorest countries, islands, and mountainous regions. For the first time, the IPCC acknowledges climate change-induced migration, including in South Asia, with evidence. This 3,760-page report prepared using thousands of scientific reports and studies on climate change has analyzed impacts of climate change both regionally and on a thematic basis like snow-fed water, precipitation, migration, food, livelihood, etc.
Like the previous reports, this report identifies South Asia as one of the vulnerable regions in the world given its topographical structure, population density, and poor socio-economic profile. Climate-induced hydrological changes are projected to spur migration. There is already evidence of increase in frequency, intensity, and severity of floods, cyclones, droughts, landslides, and heatwaves in the region, leading to climate-induced internal migration in Nepal, Bangladesh, and India.
As the global temperature continues to increase, the region may witness increased risks to food security due to low levels of adaptation. Food security risks due to climate change will be more severe, leading to malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies in South Asia.
Moreover, an increase in the number of disasters is expected to push 122 million more people into extreme poverty by 2030. Around 330-396 million could be exposed to lower agricultural yields at warming beyond 1.5°C—and most of them will be in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Apart from the coastal regions of India and Bangladesh, the Himalayas are identified as most sensitive to climate change in South Asia. The report refers to the entire Himalayas as the Hindukush Himalayas (HKH) region. The Himalayas are considered the third pole or the water tower of Asia due to their abundant freshwater sources. Referring to some studies on water availability in mainland South Asia, the report says decreasing precipitation have contributed to increasing incidents and severity of droughts. Water-stress is relatively higher in the western compared to the central and eastern region Himalayan regions.
There could be more flood events in the Ganges-Brahmaputra region. Floods and extreme events can change river channel systems and exacerbate transboundary conflicts. For instance, the floods on the Indus in July 2010 altered the river’s course in Pakistan, moving it closer to the Indian district of Kutch. The Koshi River has shifted more than 113 km to the west in the past two centuries.
Livestock could be affected by climate change-induced heat stress and reduced water availability through the degradation of rangelands, pastures and forests. The report says glacier retreat and increasing runoff variability could affect cultural beliefs and practices in high mountain areas. For example, the loss of glaciers threatens the ethnic identity of the Indigenous Manangi community of Nepal’s Annapurna Conservation Area.
Most importantly, the report points to rapid urbanization in the Himalayan region especially in Nepal due to internal migration from high altitudes to the mid-hills and Tarai. Quoting a study, the report says 39 percent rural communities have at least one migrant, of whom 80 percent are internal and 20 percent international. Around 10 percent migration is reported as environmental displacement. While earlier reports found women were worst affected by climate change, this one says most migrants are males. Growing urbanization in the Himalayas generates many challenges, especially in climate-change adaptation.
As reported in some Nepali media outlets, over the past decade, hundreds of people in Mustang, Manang, Bajhang, Sankhuwasabha, Sindhupalchowk and Dolakha districts have been relocated due to landslides, floods, drying up of streams, and decreased water-flow. An independent study found that close to 15 percent of the springs in Mustang and Manang have dried up, and water flow has declined by up to 70 percent in other places of Nepal. There are also reports of vector borne diseases (VBDs) in high latitude regions of Nepal like Kalikot, Mugu, Jajarkot, Humla, Jumla, and Salyan districts. Warmer temperatures will only exacerbate the VBDs.
Climate change risks are imminent in the Himalayan region. Both individual states and HKH member countries as a whole have failed to adapt. Except for China and India, other countries that share topography with the Himalayas, struggle to implement resilient and adaptation programs due to insufficient funds and technology. Developed countries responsible for the current crisis ignore the concerns of these countries. Moreover, the developed countries have also avoided their commitment (for instance, to mobilize $100 billion a year from 2020, as per the 2015 Paris Agreement) to mitigate climate change impacts in developing countries.
Protection and preservation of the Himalayan biodiversity and ecology is not just the responsibility of Nepal and Bhutan. These are global ecological heritage. Millions of people in Asia directly benefit from Himalayan resources; millions more do so indirectly. Therefore, instead of waiting for the developed countries’ support, it is the responsibility of the Asian countries to act to protect the Himalayas.
Already, back in October 2020, eight HKH countries declared an ‘Action to sustain mountain environments and improve livelihoods in the Hindu Kush Himalaya’. But there has been little progress perhaps due to Covid-19 and differences between member countries. Collective actions need to be expedited by keeping aside bilateral differences on the geopolitical front.