July 2013

Tragedy in the Himalayas

A tragedy occurred last month in the mountainous regions of northern India, western Nepal and Tibet, when monsoon rains hit unexpectedly early and hard.  Rainfall from June 14-17 totaled 375% more than the normal monsoon benchmark at the event’s epicenter, resulting in flash floods and landslides along the Mandakini River, which forms part of the massive Ganges system.  Rainfall-induced heavy melting of the Chorabari Glacier contributed to the swelling streams and rivers.  Over six thousand people died in the floods, many of them pilgrims fulfilling a lifelong dream to visit the Hindu Chota Char Dam holy sites in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand.  Indian media reported over 100,000 pilgrims stranded, many spending several days without access to food or safe water.

Visiting Nepal in the weeks thereafter, this terrible tragedy — and its meaning for an uncertain future — were brought into sharp relief one day as we traveled the narrow switchbacks up from Kathmandu into the foothills of the Himalayas.  “I can’t relax anymore on these roads,” our guide said, herself a veteran of many years on this journey.  “My father and brothers were on pilgrimage to the Chota Char Dam just a week before the floods.  The roads that washed out there looked just like this one.  Now I can’t stop thinking, what if such rains happen here?   These people, these houses, would not stand a chance.”

Indeed they would not, and there is no way to know where such a disaster will hit next – but for mountain communities, we know they will be more frequent.  Such extreme and localized events are consistent with predictions of climate change, yet on the Indian sub-continent seem far more ominous not just due to flooding, but because of the importance of a regular, reliable monsoon to feed the millions of people living there.  Regional predictions of precipitation as a result of climate change are highly uncertain; yet for those dependent on the monsoon, change itself is the enemy.  Models predict a later and heavier monsoon, but the reality over the past decade has been an earlier onset, before farmers are ready, and much less rainfall overall.  Crop yields have suffered as a result, especially where marginal to begin with.

The focus of extreme events is often on lowland flooding, yet mountain peoples are equally, if not more, vulnerable.  Most glacial lake outburst floods to date have occurred in conjunction with extreme rainfall combined with high springtime melt:  a double hit for the communities below.  As both the Mandakini flooding and that in my home state of Vermont showed during Irene in 2011, seemingly small mountain streams can turn into destructive torrents when enough rain falls in a small mountain area.

Flooding in a rapidly changing climate is not just an issue for coastal regions threatened by the combination of sea level rise and extreme events; it is an issue for mountain regions as well.  And ultimately, a rapidly-changing cryosphere affects us all.

 

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