The Impending Climate Crisis in the Eastern Himalayan Region

Text by Rituraj Phukan

Photo: Udayan Borthakur

The agrarian economy of North India is dependent on the Himalayan rivers and changes in the volume and flow will impact agriculture everywhere, including the river valleys of Northeast India. 

The COVID-19 lockdown reminds me of the period of civil unrest against illegal infiltration in the 1980’s when, we missed over a year of school, spending months at home doing nothing. Growing up in those tumultuous years was very frustrating, and I always wondered why people would want to leave their own countries and cause trouble in other lands.

It was the movie, "An Inconvenient Truth,” that helped answer the questions that had lingered in my mind since childhood. I could finally make the connection. It might be possible that these infiltrators were early climate refugees, displaced by rising sea water levels and salinization in their homeland. This seminal film also helped me understand why floods and riverbank erosion ravaged our state every year. I realized that Assam might well be among the early climate-change impacted regions of the world.

Recent studies indicate potentially catastrophic environmental hazards for the Eastern Himalayan region connected to anthropogenic warming of the planet. Having endured civil unrest in the past, the predicted depletion of once abundant natural resources may once again push the region to the brink of conflict. The perennial issues of influx of displaced people, floods, river-bank erosion, and human-wildlife conflicts are likely to aggravate further in a warming planet.

The first Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) Assessment Report published by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in January 2019 corroborated the findings of the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report regarding glacial loss in the Himalayas, besides providing fresh insights into impacts in the Eastern Himalayan region.

The report has predicted the loss of over a third of extant glaciers even if global warming is contained at 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, under a best-case scenario, by the year 2100. However, average temperatures in the HKH region have already increased by 1.3 degrees C, and scientists believe that 40 percent of the glaciers in the Tibetan plateau could disappear by 2050. This accelerated melting of glaciers will have implications on the overall water, energy, and food security in the HKH region.

‘Asia’s water tower,’ the HKH region is the source of 10 major river basins, providing ecosystem services that directly sustain the livelihoods of 240 million people. Nearly 1.65 billion people living in downstream areas of these river basins also benefit directly and indirectly from its resources and more than three billion people benefit from the food produced in its river basins. The HKH and the Tien Shan mountains together form the largest area of permanent ice cover outside of the north and south poles and are also referred to as the ‘Third Pole’.