India must save Himalayan glaciers to avert ecological crisis

India must save Himalayan glaciers to avert ecological crisis

This file picture taken on May 11, 2009 shows the Khumbu Glacier at Everest-Khumbu region. (File/AFP)

Only a small percentage of India’s 1.3 billion people have ever physically been up into the Himalayas — the colossal, ice-covered mountain range running across the north of the country and defining many of its borders with Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar and China. But, imaginatively and materially, the Himalayas are a vivid reality for most Indians.

Several hundred million Indians experience the Himalayas daily, not as ice and rock, but as water: As the mountain source of the great rivers and their tributaries, most importantly the Ganga and the Yamuna, which water India’s fertile agricultural plains and their settlements. In the religious domain, the mountains are revered as timeless, mysterious and sacred, the mythical home of great Hindu gods such as Shiva, and of forbidding peaks like Kanchenjunga and Mount Kailash that are revered by people of several faiths.

Paradoxically — it is a sign of how different the scale of geological time is from time on a human scale — what Indians think of as the most permanent feature of their subcontinent is actually the youngest of the world’s major mountain ranges, formed approximately 55 million years ago by the collision of the Indian and Eurasian continental plates. It is the Himalayas that are responsible for some of the most distinctive features of India’s climate, such as its monsoon system.

Without the Himalayas, there would be no Indian civilization as we know it. Any disruption of the natural course of the ecological cycle far from human eyes up in the Himalayas would have earth-shaking consequences for the rest of India. And, in recent decades, worrying evidence has emerged from geologists that climate change is indeed causing disruptions in a world always experienced as timeless and permanent.

The clues to a potentially catastrophic change in the equilibrium of Himalayan ecology come in the form of the rapid melting of one of the most important (and mobile) components in Himalayan geography: Its glaciers.

Glaciers are giant expanses of compressed snow and ice (the bottom-most layers of which can be several centuries old) that dot the mountain ranges, creeping ever downward from the force of gravity and their own mass; contracting slightly in the summer and adding millions of liters of meltwater to the river systems that irrigate India.

About 10 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by glaciers, but most of it is at the poles. Outside of the Arctic and Antarctic, the most extensive glacier cover in the world is in the Himalayas (which is why it is sometimes called “the third pole”).

Glaciers cover about 17 percent of the Himalayas and some glaciologists estimate that glacier meltwater comprises about 10 percent of the water flow of the Ganga. In the Anthropocene age — the period, usually anchored to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution some 250 years ago, in which human beings have acquired the capability to alter the course of nature’s cycle — glaciers are an important indicator of the health and integrity of the mountains.

A landscape that took millions of years to form could disintegrate in just a few centuries because of the deleterious effects of human practices

Chandrahas Choudhury

And, in recent decades, glaciers have been speaking up — by retreating at ever faster rates as the climate warms up in one of the planet’s coldest regions. A major scientific paper published last month in the journal Science Advances by a team of scientists led by Joshua Maurer of Columbia University shows that, not only have Himalayan glaciers been melting steadily in the last four decades, the pace of melting has actually doubled in this century to about a foot-and-a-half of vertical ice a year.

The implications of this information for India’s water and economic security are grave. In the short-term, of course, increased glacial melting would result in larger volumes of water being released into the rivers of a country where water is becoming a scarce and contested resource. This could also be accompanied by what are called glacial lake outbursts, threatening human settlements in the Himalayan foothills.

Over the longer term, though, glacial melt at current levels would deprive India of its most permanent reserves of freshwater — and there would be no way of reversing this process. Further, as the levels of water stably released by glaciers into the Himalayan ecosystem over thousands of years is disrupted, many species of rare flora and fauna endemic to the Himalayas will die out or be driven down into the increasingly water-starved plains. A landscape that took millions of years to form could disintegrate in just a few centuries because of the deleterious effects of human practices.

It’s a big, big story, but one that’s hard to translate into human terms or to work into an action plan in a society where the population has tripled in the last 70 years and that requires more water and burns more energy and fossil fuels than ever before. Already, recent studies show that the Himalayas are warming three times faster than other regions of the earth: At about 0.06 degrees Celsius annually, compared to the global average of 0.02 C. Climate change and the role of glaciers as an index of a warming world need to be part of the education of every Indian schoolchild if the country is to hold off an ecological crisis a century from now.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made no secret of his wish to leave a great legacy. In his first term, he focused debate on cleanliness with his “Swachh Bharat” (Clean India) campaign and made Indians go through some hard times financially with his sudden program of demonetization. A month into his second term, he should try not to reset India’s economy, but its ecology on a path of greater sustainability.

  • Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in Bloomberg View and Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Hashestweets
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