The Global Warming and the Indian Himalaya
In mid May, 2006, a group of friends from Mumbai trekked up the Obra Gad in the Western Garhwal. We had visited this valley, found tall grass and few days of heavy rain. Now in summer the grass had disappeared and the weather was “supposed to be” clear. We were expecting bright sunshine, lovely flowers and good amount of snow on the lower peaks of this valley. However as we trekked up it was evident that the weather was going to be very different than what we had planned for. It rained everyday and night, if I may add, and there were hardly any clear days. This was very unusual but what was more worrying lack of snow on ground or on the surrounding peaks. The villagers informed us that there was very little snowfall this winter and whatever snow they received briefly was only towards end of December. For next 6 months there were no clouds. They were experiencing shortage of water as they were no snow-melts even though there was unseasonal rain at present.
The second case scenario was experienced soon thereafter. One of our friends went for an expedition to Spiti, a Trans-Himalayan land where “it never rains”. Traditionally Spiti is a completely dry land and hardly few inches of rain fall here, it is a rain shadow area. As they reached the centre of the valley, it rained and rained heavily. Mules could not cross a small nala and so they personally ferried loads across the nala. They camped and had to stay there for next seven days in pouring rain as no movement was possible. As the nala was flooded they could neither come back nor go ahead, and this was happening in a Trans-Himalayan land. The nearby Ladakh area known as “a vast rainless desert” also received much rain. These areas, their houses, their roads are not built to resist such heavy rain and as a result extensive damage was suffered.
In autumn I went to the Pabar valley with Stephen Venables and friends. We trekked up this valley in the Himachal Pradesh situated bordering Kinnaur. At that time of the year, September, it was expected that the snow on the higher reaches would have become ice, offering good climbs. But again there was no snow, as not much had fallen during winters. The Chandranahan Lake, the source of the Pabar river was known for its beauty and pristine water where the moonlight reflected. As we reached there, to our horror the lake was dry and much scree from both side had fallen, almost burying it. All the peaks and the passes of Buran Ghati were devoid of snow and were difficult on the knees while descending.
This is the same story from everywhere in the Himalaya for past few years, particularly this year, 2006. The glaciers are drying up and receding at an alarmingly fast rate. The weather patterns are changing and no one would ever know when it is a clear season or when a storm is going to approach. While we were basking in absolutely clear sky in Kinnaur amidst dry rocks, there were constant unseasonal showers in the southern India and as I heard on the radio, two major storms originated in the Arabian Sea on the west coast of India and in the Bay of Bengal on the east coast. Both these would ultimately reach the Himalaya as per past experience. But both died out and the desert areas of Rajasthan, received maximum rainfall. People in the Himalaya are facing acute water shortage as the small rivulets on the sides and the small springs which were all fed by heavy snows are drying up. Very few people have resorted to rain harvesting and storing rain water which sometimes comes as a heavy downpour.
There are other stories of discomfort from the major glaciers of the Himalaya. A party of trekkers climbed up the Gangotri glacier and crossed it to the camping grounds of Tapovan and beyond. After a week as they returned, to their horror the glacier had collapsed and it was not possible to descend by the track they had gone up. Hundreds of villagers from the plains of Uttar Pradesh, called Kavadias, every year during a particular month walk from the plains to Gaumukh, the source of the Ganges. They camp near the source and as per traditions change clothes, have a bath at the snout and return with the Ganga water. The area near this holy snout remains littered with old clothes, cooking fires and human shit. This is just one example of the local human pollution that the Indian glaciers suffer, apart from the major aspects of global warming, which perhaps is beyond the reach of many trekkers to do something about.
The large Karakoram glaciers are all receding at a fast rate. The Chong Kumdan glacier which feeds the Shyok river used to advance and there was so much ice and snow that huge ice towers, penitents, were formed. The advancing glaciers blocked the Shyok to form a huge dam. Due to the global warming the Chong Kumdan glacier is receding and now its snout is just a rubble and scree. There are no ice penitents to be seen in the lower parts and no glacier dam is forming.
Nearby the Siachen glacier, Indian Army is stationed on it. The human presence has contributed to pollution and warming of the glacier. Again due to the global warming phenomena, this glacier has receded considerably and a very thin layer of ice separates it from the upper ground and the crevasses below. Some soldiers who had served on the glacier say that they could hear the debris and stone falling below their camps and the surface they are staying on. This makes for scary and uneasy nights. The other Karakoram glaciers also are experiencing a similar onslaught due to the changing weather patterns all over the world. May it be unseasonal rains, lack of snow and pollution caused by human beings, all are taking its toll of the Himalayan areas and its glaciers. I call it “the terrorism of environment” which should certainly be stopped like all other terrorisms affecting the world today.
Towards end of the year I went to the Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern India. Rains during monsoon here are legendary. Nothing moves and everything is flooded from June to October. This year there were almost no rains. We trekked to the Yonggyap La, a Himalayan pass adjoining Tibet. It was cold and clear days. Suddenly as we were foot of the pass, it rained and snowed for 5 days continuously. The rains, which had eluded the area during rains, came down heavily. We were paralysed and had to stay put until rations ran out. Finally the Indian Air Force rescued us by helicopters. We had fallen to terrorism of the fickle weather.
The local villagers feel helpless in face of this attack of global weather patterns. Not much is done by the scientists in India for these weather patterns form part of the major events in the world like the nuclear blast, ozone layers or gas emissions far away in the world and to think of it, there is very little even the trekkers and mountaineers can do. But what we can all do is to raise our voices for protection of the ranges, narrate our experiences, point out what are the deficiencies, explain these happenings to villagers, support the non-governmental organizations in their efforts to help people on ground, initiate and support any government moves to save the range. Through our respective forums, clubs, societies and circles we can spread awareness as to what is happening and what could be done to save the Himalaya. If we do even this much we would be supporting the fight against global warming. If we cannot reverse the phenomena of the global warming on our own, at least we should be instrumental in saving the further damage. So let us try.