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’.


The findings of the report are particularly dire for the northeastern region, with the predicted loss of around 95% of the Eastern Himalayan glaciers at current levels of warming. Furthermore, it has also predicted the loss of 64% of existing glaciers in the Eastern Himalayas even if warming is contained to 1.5 C degrees, which currently looks unattainable, by the turn of the century.


The agrarian economy of north India is dependent on these Himalayan rivers and changes in the volume and flow will impact agriculture everywhere, including the river valleys of northeast India. It is expected that faster melting of glaciers will initially provide an overabundance of water and lead to more flooding. However, in the long run the loss of glaciers will reduce the flow of the rivers and eventually cause water scarcity in the hills and valleys, which is an unimaginable prospect for most people in the rainfall abundant region.


On the 9th of March 2013, I was with a small group of people braving the extreme windchill of the Antarctic Sound at 7 AM. From the top deck of our expedition ship we watched a few huge tabular icebergs that had floated north from the collapsed Larsen B ice shelf 11 years earlier. The leader of the International Antarctic Expedition was Robert Swan, the first man to have walked to both the planet.


“Back in 2002, most people did not believe in climate change. When the cracks were first noticed on Larsen B, scientists said it will take a long time to collapse, but after that it went down very fast and collapsed in less than 4 weeks,” he said. That was the moment when the impending threat of sea level rise and its implications hit home. The most vulnerable country is Bangladesh and it will be impossible for any border security or fencing to keep out the millions likely to be displaced due to melting of the polar ice sheets.


In December 2018, Assam and Mizoram were named as the most vulnerable to climate change among 12 Himalayan states during a presentation by the Indian delegation at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) at Katowice, Poland. The scientists cited the findings of the “Climate Vulnerability Assessment for the Indian Himalayan Region Using a Common Framework” prepared by the Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati & Indian Institute of Technology Mandi, in collaboration with Indian Institute of Science Bangalore, under the project Capacity Building on Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment in the States of Indian Himalayan Region.


Assam, with one of the lowest areas under irrigation, lowest forest area per 1,000 rural households, lowest per capita income, lowest area under crop insurance, etc., was the worst placed among all the 12 states in terms of vulnerability. Lack of access to information and infrastructure are factors that make it difficult for communities in the state to cope with any climate variability. The report also named the districts of Dhubri, Lakhimpur and Sonitpur as the most vulnerable within Assam.


Mizoram was the found to be the second most vulnerable with an overly sensitive agriculture sector and second lowest percentage of area under irrigation among the 12 states. Poor road connectivity, infrastructure and access to information were among other indicators. The first of its kind vulnerability map and report for the entire Himalayan region, was produced by the Department of Science & Technology under the National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem (NMSHE), part of the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC).


Manipur was ranked as the fourth most vulnerable state with low per capita income, low percentage of farmers taking loans and low area under forests per 1,000 households. Meghalaya was placed 5th on the vulnerability index, followed by Nagaland at 7th, Tripura 9th and Arunachal Pradesh 10th. Sikkim, with the highest per capita income among the states assessed, lowest area under open forests but good coverage of dense forests, large area under orchards and a low population density was ranked as the least vulnerable of the 12 Himalayan states.


Previous scientific studies had forecast a similar predicament for the region, with one report from September 2018 including the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin among the five global hotspots that are likely to see ‘water wars.’ The researchers created a data-based index of ‘hydro-political’ issues in areas with a history of 'transboundary water resources,' where conflicts are likely to be exacerbated by climate change and population growth.


With the impending climate crisis set to disrupt livelihoods and social security across the region, it is imperative that policy makers realize that any talk about climate justice anywhere in the world must include the Eastern Himalayan narrative. Going by past experiences of Assam with refugees, floods, erosion and conflicts, and the struggles of the entire northeast, the region demands a place on the climate justice map. On the other hand, vulnerable communities worldwide could benefit from treasure trove of indigenous knowledge for developing resilience and adapting to the changing environment.



Rituraj Phukan is an environmental writer with personal experience of climate change impacts at the polar regions. He believes in making a personal commitment to solving the biggest environmental crisis to humanity and has been vegan for years. His blog C.A.R.E. Climate Awareness Report for Earth focuses on related issues. He can be reached at rrajphukan@gmail.com

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