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The expedited glacial retreat in the Himalaya is an ecological threat

Suresh Nautiyal’s Keynote address on the Himalaya Day functions at the Apeejay University, Haryana on September 9, 2011.

Hon’ble Vice-Chancellor, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Ladies, Gentlemen and dear students,

I feel obliged and honoured to be here among you. The Himalaya Day is being observed on September 9, since last year i.e. the year 2010. The Himalaya Day was conceptualised by the ecological activists who wanted to engage the planners, policy-makers, concerned citizens, media, the civil society groups and most importantly the common people to address the ecological issues collectively.

The distinguished people here know well that the ecological threats are looming larger than apprehended! The climate change regime has created a gloomy picture. The glaciers are receding and the sea-level is increasing globally. In the years to come, several low lying areas, several and island-nations will go under water—forcing millions of people to migrate to safer places, other countries! So, the global warming Ps set to cause – perhaps the biggest displacement of humanity! Can anybody imagine where these millions and millions of people – the ecological refugees – will go? Who is going to give refuge to the survivors of bad ecology!

The process of global warming is not new. According to this view, the process of climate change actually began some 18 thousand years back. I believe, if such a process was already in place, the industrial revolution and introduction of the combustion engine must have accelerated the process.

According to the aforesaid view, the Earth started warming its way out of the Pleistocene Ice Age — a time when much of North America, Europe, and Asia lay buried beneath great sheets of glacial ice. Also, according to this opinion, the Earth’s climate and the biosphere have been in constant flux, dominated by ice ages and glaciers for the past several million years and that we actually are currently enjoying a temporary reprieve from the deep freeze.

This view arguably points out that approximately every 100,000 years, the Earth’s climate warms up temporarily. These warm periods, called inter-glacial periods, appear to last approximately 15,000 to 20,000 years before regressing back to a cold ice age climate. At year 18,000 and counting our current inter-glacial vacation from the Ice Age is much near its end than its beginning, according to the subscribers of this thought. I have no idea on what scientific basis and logic this view has been built. What I know is that most of the theories are built on hypotheses. But for sure, the climate change is for real and here to stay it is deeply impacting common people’s lives.

So, I feel at ease in subscribing to reality the things which I can see and feel rather than depending on a hypothetical study as I am a layman with no scientific and academic knowledge. In my opinion, the climate change is directly related to the human activity and humans’ symbiotic relationship with the Nature. In my belief, the real threat of climate change might have prompted the scientists to come out with conclusions on the climate related phenomena. Way back in 1824, the French physicist Joseph Fourier was perhaps the first scientist to use greenhouse analogy to describe importance of atmosphere in trapping heat and influencing earth’s temperature. In 1896, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius concluded that CO2 emission from industrial-age coal burning would enhance greenhouse effect i.e. the first suggestion that human activity produced greenhouse gases. In 1938, British engineer Guy Callendar suggested that fossil fuel burning was responsible for “observed” warming of world’s climate. And in 1975, US scientist Wallace Broecker introduced the term “global warming” in one of his scientific papers.

Feeling the heat, the first world climate conference in 1979 urged the governments to foresee and prevent potential man-made changes in climate.

After this, lot of things happened like Montreal Protocol came into existence in 1987; UN set up intergovernmental panel on Climate Change or IPCC in 1988 and in 1990 came the first IPCC report; UN Earth Summit took place in 1992; 1997 Kyoto Protocol set binding targets for the industrialised nations to reduce emissions by five percent against 1990s level over period from 2008-2012; and in 2005 the Kyoto Protocol came into existence, though the US President Bush had already removed his country from the Kyoto process. Incidentally, I was in Kyoto on that very day when the Kyoto protocol on that very day when the Kyoto protocol came into existence.

Even today, the whole world is thinking about the same issue and on the same theme. That is the issue of climate change. However, we — the ordinary or wretched inhabitants of the Earth — are still oscillating between “Copenhagen” and “Hopenhagen” even as we remain divided between two dominant thoughts. One that says the climate change has happened due to global warming because of excessive human activity; and the other already explained that the climate change process is natural and cyclic, therefore to take it easy!

Before Copenhagen, several UN conferences on the issue have already taken place in different parts of the world – from Bali to Barcelona — but the main question remains unanswered. Most of the humanity keeps on guessing and hoping that something concrete and constructive will come out of the UN Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change. The half-hearted results of the Kyoto Protocol keep us reminding that Copenhagen is not going to be a smooth sail.

Today the fact is that we, the ordinary people, get more confused the more we indulge in the debate on the climate change due to global warming. The so-called educated people have their positions and the academicians are there with their academic and institutional biases.

So, we are basically at ‘The Square One’. No clear-cut direction ahead. In such a scenario, let me try to explain my opinion on the basis of my own common sense. I am neither a scientist nor an academician. I am just an activist engaged in the areas of Green politics, journalism, ecology and human rights. I may be wrong in my assessment but let me go by my own logic and worldview.

I have several enlightened and concerned friends who subscribe to the other ideas like the one I referred to in the beginning, but my understanding is that the climate change due to global warming is for real and alarming. I have seen it in my village, Onchar, and in other parts of my state Uttarakhand in the Central Himalayan Region (CHR) in particular. In the CHR, people have already been seeing changes in the flowering patterns because of the changing climate for last few years. The red-hot and beautiful rhododendrons bloomed ahead of the usual season. Who does not know that the year 2005 was the second warmest year in last 125 years?

Dear friends and students, the snowfall patterns have already changed and the homes of the frozen water or glaciers are melting faster than our apprehension! There are contradictory opinions, however, it seems that the climate change has already taken place due to global warming caused by excessive human activities. I’m sure that the argument that the climate change is cyclic and natural, is not going to serve any purpose! Can anybody say that emission of the Greenhouse gases has nothing to do with the global warming? Can anybody say that the industrialized and rich nations have not polluted our environment with their greenhouse gases? I tell you that the Greenhouse gases have created irreversible problems. The Himalaya, which is not only one of the most volatile and threatened ecological systems, but also home to the largest glaciers outside the two poles—is feeling the heat of the climate change! With the climate change happening, the most widely reported impact is the rapid reduction in glaciers—causing ecological crisis! Causing massive repercussions to livelihood downstream!

The scientists agree that the glacial retreat in the Himalaya has been expedited from the decrease in rainfall in combination with temperature increase and glacial shrinkage. In 2007, even the IPCC reports stated that the warming of climate was also due to human activity! One example here! The Gangotari Glacier in the Central Himalayan Region or Uttarakhand has been receding quite fast! Several other reports endorse what has been said here! Ultimately, the rivers originating from the Himalaya, will get dry in near future. A govt. of India report a decade back had claimed that the Himalayan glaciers would deplete in next seven-eight decades! Ten years have already passed since then!

In Tibet, rapid retreat of glaciers has already created havoc. The recent reports suggest that the mighty Brahmaputra has lesser flow of water today! More proof of climate change! Two years back, the evidence showed that Antarctica was warming rapidly, leaving the largest “Ice Shelf” on the brink of breaking away! The exploiters and polluters of the bounties of nature have aggravated the crisis! The governments are under tremendous pressure from the Troika of WB, IMF and WTO! It is because economic and market-oriented priorities continue to dominate ecological/environmental priorities! For any ecological system, water is necessary and water is becoming dearer and dearer! In the absence of proper moisture regime, the vegetation patterns have changed, and so are changed all life systems dependent on water! Vital changes in species of trees and in biodiversity are taking place.

The human intervention has been quite negative! The crisis in the Himalayan Region is not limited to the climate change! The mega projects like dams and hydro-power projects have also threatened Himalayan flora-fauna and people — the whole ecological system. The dam projects cause large-scale displacement. The Tehri Dam project and several other such projects are glaring examples! The refugees of the Tehri Dam area have not adequately been rehabited so far! Not to talk about adequate compensation! And, more than 550 hydro projects are envisaged in Uttarakhand alone! Of these projects, we have been able to stop 56 projects through a PIL in the Uttarakhand High Court at Nainital! Creation of Sanctuaries, National Parks, Biosphere Regions and Protected Forest Areas in the name of ecological conservation has only added to the woes of the common people! Such plans have only annoyed local people! The stray animals, the wild animals like boars and Neelgais have destroyed agriculture.  Sunderkhal is one such village in the Nainital district!

People are being denied access to the forests – even to collect fodder for the cattle, dead fire wood and others forest produce that have been traditionally accessed! The anti-people policies and insensitive laws have made people’s lives miserable! The pleasure seeking tourists particularly from the urban backgrounds do not understand these issues of forest dwellers’ survival! Bad transportation system, pathetic healthcare system – or no-system – poor electricity supply, almost zero supply of the PDS grains, scarce supply of LPG cylinders, erratic rainfalls, unpredictable and non-dependable agriculture – have created a situation in the mountains where people have no option but to migrate to the plains! And if most people migrate, who is going to protect the international borders from the enemies? No Army, no para-military forces can protect the borders without the help of the local people!

In a nutshell, we need to have an integrated and comprehensive policy for the Himalayan Region spread over more than 2,500 Kms covering an area of about 6 lakh 12 thousand & 21 sq. km, and inhabiting millions of people. India is not safe ecologically if the Himalayan Region is left unattended! Like India, the Himalaya is also important for Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet! The Himalaya Separates us from the Central Asia and does not allow the very-very cold winds to cross over to the Indian Sub-continent; thus, allowing us to have favourable temperature and moisture for good agriculture and other activities. This is important for us to have at least three crops a year! Several European countries get only one crop a year due to extreme cold climate! We also need good and people friendly policies to stop recurrent forest fires! We need people’s active and paid participation in controlling the forest fires! To check the forest fires ecologically – is to replace all mono species forest to the mixed forests with the tree species like Oak, rhododendron, Bhimal, utis, etc.!

Today, we need to take this issue to the schools, colleges, universities also. To keep Himalaya’s health in perfect order – is not the responsibility of the people living there alone! It is the responsibility of all of us, all Indians! Of all citizens of this beautiful Earth! The Himalayan ranges and the forests below are like our lungs! We must save them! We can keep these lungs healthy only if exploit the Mother Earth only for our NEEDS, and not for our GREED! Gandhiji and even Thoreau before him realised this!

But, we have NOT! We are exploiting our natural gifts, what most people call resources, as if we are the last generation of humanity on the Earth! This is a very-very SAD STORY! The developed world remains adamant. The champions of this world, like the US, do not want to commit sizeable cuts in emissions! Instead, they put the blame on the developing world— particularly on China and India! I agree that the countries like China and India should also behave responsibly; but I do believe that the developed world needs to — NOT only cut emission; but also adopt simpler and organic lifestyles!

I don’t understand why they must sell gasoline or petrol cheaper than a small bottle of water, cheaper than a cup of tea or coffee! or for that matter – cheaper than a small car of fruit juice or milk! Particularly, the western world is mesmerised by its wealth, it’s amazing infrastructure! Perhaps, they have forgotten that everything we use or think about – comes from the Mother Earth, and we have no right to take more than our basic needs! Why should they waste so much, when billions of people have no security of two square meals a day – when there is no right to food! It is sad that one the one hand we have no adequate healthcare system — no good hospitals — and on the other hand we have ambitious military plans and even think about exploring the Moon or the Pluto! We need thousands of Anna Hazares to fight against poverty, hunger, social injustice corruption; and, For ecological democracy where all citizens have equal share in the nature’s bounties and judiciously! In the end, I have a few suggestions to make: Local communities’ participation in all governmental and non-governmental ecological activities is a MUST— Encourage local bodies to take up projects which will have a positive impact on their well-being in a sustainable and symbiotic way! To train the government functionaries in the local and indigenous ecological knowledge systems so that these functionaries are sensitised towards local people and their needs. More and more direct interaction is needed between people coming from different socio-cultural and economic backgrounds so that they are acquainted with others’ ecological practices! Most importantly, when it comes to action – all aspects such as – resources and landmass – their judicious use – sustainability of agriculture, forests, water bodies, glaciers, economy, etc., have to be taken into consideration!

In view of this, can anybody say that emission of the greenhouse gases has nothing to do with the global warming? Can anybody say that the rich and industrialized nations have not polluted with their greenhouse gases?

I tell you, the greenhouse gases have created irreversible problems. The Himalaya, which is home to the largest glaciers outside the two poles, is feeling the heat of the climate change. The melt waters of this area drain through 10 of the largest rivers in Asia and the basins are home to more than 1.3 billion people. These water resources play an important role in the global atmospheric circulation, biodiversity, rain-fed and irrigated agriculture and hydropower, though we are against high dams beyond 15 metres in height!

With climate changes happening, the most widely reported impact is the rapid reduction in glaciers, which causes massive repercussions to livelihoods downstream. The scientists say the glacial retreat in the Himalaya results from precipitation decrease in combination with temperature increase and glacier shrinkage will speed up if climatic ‘warming’ and ‘drying’ continue. These two terms ‘warming’ and ‘drying’ have special reference to the river systems in the Pan-Himalayan Region.

Climate change-induced glacial melt could seriously affect half a billion people in the Himalayan Region, and a quarter of a billion people in China-occupied Tibet, people who depend on glacial melt for their water supply. Perennial rivers like Ganga, Indus or Sindhu, and Brahmaputra are all fed by the unique reservoirs formed by the 16,000 Himalayan glaciers. The current trend in the glacial melt suggests that the low flow will become substantially reduced as a consequence of climate change (IPCC 2007).

However, several scientists have already warned that the riverbeds of the Ganga Basin – which feed hundreds of millions in northern India – could run dry once glaciers say goodbye. Such concerns are however scotched by the report.

The measurements of glacier terminus positions show that glaciers in the Central Himalaya have been in a continuous retreat situation in the past decades. The average retreat rate is 5.5–8.7 m/a in Mt. Qomolangma (Everest or Sagarmatha) since the 1960s and 6.4 m/a in Mt. Xixiabangma since the 1980s. In recent years, the retreat rate is increasing. Ice core studies revealed that the accumulation rate of glaciers has a fluctuating decrease trend in the last century with a rapid decrease in the 1960s and a relatively steady low value afterwards. Meteorological station record indicates that the annual mean temperature has a slow increase trend but summer temperature had a larger increase in the past 30 years. All these suggest that the glacier retreat results from precipitation decrease in combination with temperature increase, and hence glacier shrinkage in this region will speed up if the climatic warming and drying continues.

It is clear that the sources of several rivers of Asia are suffering from the effects of climate change due to global warming. A report published in “Science Daily” on March 28, 2007 has only to endorse what has been said here.

Other efforts have also been there. The satellite-imagery derived glacier surface topographies obtained at intervals of a few years were adjusted and compared. Calculations indicated that 915km of Himalayan glaciers of the test region i.e.  Spiti/ Lahaul in Himachal Pradesh, thinned by an annual average of 0.85m between 1999 and 2004. The technique is still experimental, but it has been validated in the Alps and could prove highly effective for watching over all the Himalayan glacier systems. However, the procedure for achieving a reliable estimate must overcome a number of sources of error and approximation inherent in satellite-based observations.

As the authorities of the major Himalayan countries (India, Pakistan, China that controls Tibet) do not permit public access to detailed topographic maps or aerial photographs of these sensitive cross-border regions, no reference is available for satellite observation error assessment and correction. It is, therefore, by comparing the SRTM and SPOT5 topographies using stable non-glaciated areas around glaciers that researchers have been able to adjust for the deviations and superimpose the two digital field models. These comparisons gave the bases for a map of glacier elevation (and hence thickness) variations for altitude intervals of 100m over the period 2000-2004.


In view of the changing climate in the Himalayan Region and elsewhere, we necessarily need to arrive at an ethically, morally and legally binding agreement at Copenhagen. If this is not done, the rapid climate change will affect people throughout the world and deprive us of the food security, waters, rich bio-diversity, flora and fauna and particularly everything. Several communities already feel that their livelihood sources have been squeezed. Several species of flora and fauna have already disappeared because of climate change.

This phenomenon is not restricted to any part of the globe. I say this repeatedly that it’s everywhere! Recently, the drought-hit farmers in India’s Rajasthan were forced to abandon their cattle at an animal fair. A continent like Africa is already warming faster than the global average and the people living there can think of more intense droughts, floods, and storm surges in future. Several coastal countries’ existence is already threatened due to increase in the levels of sea waters. Maldives is one such example. To draw people’s attention the Maldives’ cabinet had to hold its meeting underwater! According to Prof. Sir Gordon Conway, former head of the philanthropic Rockfeller Foundation, there will be less drinking water due to climate change.

But, the developed world remains adamant. The champion of this world, the US, may not commit itself to emission cuts due to domestic politics and Japan already considers India and China as culprits and accuses them of alarmingly emitting in the air.

Notwithstanding, India must insist that the North drastically reduce its emissions and compensate the South for what it has taken away. This is essential to keep the developmental options open for the developing world. This is being said in the light that the developing India has a carbon space share of 2.5 percent compared to its fair share of 17 percent. Also, India has to take a lead and instill a sense of self-respect and self-confidence in other developing countries. India has not done that so far.

The civil society organisations have an opportunity to do Yeoman’s service by playing their role more constructively and creatively. The sector has to play this role as the State has failed and the media prefers either to keep mum or focus on the issues that generate more revenue. The days of missionary media are almost over. The only hope is the alternative media, which though is weak in terms of financial support. In a nutshell, the civil society must join the alternative media in order to do something about the climate change due to the global warming. Let us be hopeful as we do not want this planet called Earth to disappear in the oblivion with all its history, culture, philosophy, human progress, and people-friendly technology!


September 9, 2011, Haryana, India.

09/09/2011 – 00:00


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