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Human Footprint on the Devabhoomi

Jayanta Bandyopadhyay (jayantab113@gmail.com) is former Chair, Scientific Advisory Committee, GBPIHED Almora.

In the aftermath of the catastrophic flash floods and landslides that ravaged the state of Uttarakhand in mid-June 2013, we need to analyse the calamity and identify the role of human footprint on the Himalaya in magnifying the losses of life and property in the state.

Widespread heavy rainfall in large parts of the state of Uttarakhand caused floods and landslides in mid-June 2013, wrecked havoc in the state and devastated its economic future. Several thousand people are reportedly dead or are still missing; hundreds of villages have been destroyed to the extent that they are not fit as human habitat in their present state. The human tragedy is enormous and deserves all the support and relief. However, we generally wake up after a disaster strikes and deliver liberal relief, as has also been the case for Uttarakhand. We often stop at that point thinking that the state and the people have done their duty.

Are we to put all blames on nature and sit pretty? The question what have we learnt from this immense human tragedy in the Devabhoomi, as Uttarakhand is also called, for science and future policy, is of utmost importance. Are we in a position to analyse this calamity and identify the role of human footprint on the Himalaya in magnifying the losses of life and property? Can we initiate a fundamental reassessment of our vision for and approach to the Himalaya, so as to prevent large scale losses from such naturally occurring calamities that are expected to visit the mountain periodically?

A very important understanding we need to gather is on any destabilising contributions of human interventions in the Himalayan environment, especially land and water. Considering such an urgency, the Government of India has recently established a special Division for the Himalayan region in India in the Ministry of Environment and Forests. However, there is no dearth of examples that points to the inconvenient truth that good sense and good science do not necessarily ensure adoption of good practices that would reduce the risk to life and property in the fragile Himalayan environment.

The Calamity

The recent calamity was obviously triggered by an extreme meteorological process that precipitated 300 to 400 mms of rainfall per day over some parts of Uttarakhand continuously for about 2 to 3 days. An easy and popular explanation of this very heavy rainfall may be made by identifying it as the impact of global climate change. Such a tendency of putting instances of extreme climatic processes in the Himalaya in the black box of climate change may attract media attention, but scientific correlation of global warming and climate change with this particular meteorological extreme event in Uttarakhand, which occurred in June, has not yet been established. In any case, such extreme events will visit the Himalaya and we need to enhance our preparedness to face them.

We should recall that the ferocity of heavy precipitation and consequent run-off in the Himalaya have been an integral characteristic of its natural environment. Thousands of years before anthropogenic greenhouse gases started to be emitted into the atmosphere to induce climate change, the Hindu mythological image that the ferocity of water rolling down the Himalayan slopes is so great that it can only be moderated with the help of the proverbial long and entangled hair of the mighty god Lord Shiva. The recent events in Uttarakhand, and in particular in the Kedarnath region, indicates that the power of the proverbial Ganga, this time, tore through the obstructions of the proverbial entangled hair of Lord Shiva, devastating even the temple town of Kedarnath (Lord Shiva). The very extreme nature of the meteorological events that overtook Uttarakhand, had been regular to visit various parts of the Himalaya at various spatial scales.

Variable Climate

Nature of the atmospheric processes in the Himalaya that make its climate, are not yet known in the details that are needed for making accurate forecasting of such extreme events. As opposed to the plains, spatial variation of the climate in the mountains, and in particular, the Himalaya, is very large. The Himalaya consists of a matrix of great number of micro-climatic regions. Understanding of the climate process in the Himalaya needs a spatially dense database of diverse climate parameters, which does not exist at present. The high inaccessibility of most parts in the mountains makes it all the more difficult to generate that database. The windward and leeward slopes in the Himalaya differ considerably in their humidity and water endowment, while the sunny slopes and the shady slopes offer different temperature regimes and environments. Moving up or down by 500 meters in the Himalaya may mean a change in temperature of about a degree Celsius. Climate models that work very well for the plains need to be fine-tuned in the case of the mountains. This process of fine-tuning or zooming into smaller areas is only in the early stage of development in the case of the Himalaya. Further, setting up of automatic climate observatory stations in the inaccessible areas of the Himalaya is very costly, though work on filling this data gap has started. Thus, the knowledge base on Himalayan meteorology may become more robust in another two or three decades time.

The Human Footprint

The other part of the Uttarakhand tragedy, where we need to introspect seriously, relates to the cumulative impacts of human interventions in the natural environment. In particular, after the inaccessibility of Himalayan areas was substantially reduced through road construction since the 1960s, the human footprint on the Devabhoomi has become increasingly large. This is related more directly to the direction and impacts of human involvement in the Himalaya. From Dehradun to Kedarnath or Kathgodam to Dharchula, as in all other parts of the state, for a long time human interventions have dodged the realities and ignored the limitations of the natural eco-systemic processes in the fragile Himalaya, world’s youngest and most unconsolidated mountain range. Climatic extremes being integral part of the Himalayan environment, it is not possible to stop the natural calamities, but it is surely possible to reduce the human footprint on the Himalaya wisely, so as to reduce the loss of life and property from them.

Guided by short-term profit, human interventions in the Himalaya that ignore the eco-systemic limitations will make humans more vulnerable to extreme processes of nature leading to great losses in the long term. This practice of dodging the realities of the Himalayan environment is seen in both the land and water uses all along the Indian Himalayan region. Environmental impact studies of structural interventions have raised many questions, while human population and settlements have spread extensively without considerations of environmental impacts. Life will be smooth and happy as far as the natural processes are in the average mode. However, we forget that extreme processes are also as much natural as the attractive scenic beauty of the Himalaya!

Ecological Stability vs. Economic Growth

What can, then, we learn from the Uttarakhand disaster? A very sensitive and urgent, yet politically inconvenient point is that human interventions guided by traditional concepts of economic growth, which grew in the industrialised plains, have to be moderated so as to recognise and respect the characteristics of the mountains. Ecologists and environmentalists have worked for several decades pushing for such a transition that puts long term ecological stability before short-term financial gains. Such an approach that builds upon the ecological fragility of the Himalaya, goes against the traditional concept of economic growth. Hence, it has not been politically very attractive to policy makers. The fear is that ecological considerations will compromise the aspirations of the Himalayan people for better quality of life. Here is the need for recognising the stability of the Himalayan ecosystems as a national level priority. The Himalaya is known as the “Water Tower for Asia” and Himalayan rivers such as the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Indus provide about 70% of river flows of the country. In the future decades water from the Himalaya will be needed for both survival and economic growth. Systems like payment for ecosystem services can provide an alternative framework for creating a new economic relation between the Himalayan states and the rest of India. A new economics, with a conceptual framework built upon the mountain characteristics, will surely emerge that makes use of the positive options for human development in the Himalaya while restricting the unwise and risk-prone economics guided by short-term profits.

Poverty is not an essential feature of the mountains. Switzerland is a mountain country with one of the highest standards of living. However, local innovation and global knowledge will be needed for providing a framework for economic activities that the Himalayan environment can sustain and promote. Land use needs to be drastically updated from practicing a relatively unattractive farming to that like providing a pre-defined watershed services. Limits to the number of visitors may be introduced in areas of touristic importance and pilgrimage, in the way the national parks or the Valley of Flowers function. The damage caused by the Uttarakhand disaster could have some positive externality, if such fundamental rethinking on India’s Himalayan policy can be advanced.

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