The Himalayas have been frequently in the news in recent years, due to several major catastrophes. Be it the cloudburst in Leh (2010) or the tragic flash floods of Kedarnath in the Garhwal Himalayas (2013) or the floods in Srinagar (2015). The trail of cataclysmic incidents does not end here. The earthquake in Nepal (2015) and subsequent aftershocks led to a huge loss of lives and infrastructure.
The Himalayas are one of the youngest mountains in the world. Unlike other mountains, they are still in their formative age. Several geological processes are continuously in motion beneath this seemingly innocuous terrain. We can certainly never control these processes. But there is a lot we can do to minimise the adverse impact of natural hazards. The sustainable use of natural resources and effective planning in tune with the terrain and geo-location are among the necessities that can help us.
Sustainable Development of the Himalayan Region
For sustainable development of the Himalayan region, it is important to think of the Himalayas in their totality. This grand mountain chain covers an area of nearly 7,50,000 square km, spanning over 3000 km in length, 250-300 km in width, rising from less than 300 m to more than 8000 m above sea level (GoI, 2006). The Himalayas stretch from northern Pakistan on the west to the north-eastern regions of India, besides neighbouring Nepal and Bhutan. Starting from the Siwalik Hills in the south, the Himalayan mountain range extends to the Tibetan plateau in the north. The broad divisions of the Himalayas are the Siwalik, the lesser Himalayas, the greater Himalayas and the trans-Himalayas; extending almost uninterrupted throughout its length and separated by certain major geological fault lines.
The literal meaning of the Himalayas is the ‘abode of snow’ a store of enough snow and ice, to qualify as the ‘third Pole of the earth’ and the ‘water tower of Asia’, since its snows feed nearly all the major rivers of Asia. According to the Inventory of Glaciers of Himalaya published by the Geological Survey of India (GoI, 2008), the Indian Himalayan region alone houses 9575 glaciers, including the 75 km long Siachen glacier which is the biggest glacier in the world, outside the polar region.
The Indian Himalayan region covers an area of 5,33,000 square km which is approximately 16.3 per cent of the total geographical area of India. Stretching over 2,500 km from Jammu & Kashmir in the west to Arunachal Pradesh (GoI, 2006), the Indian Himalayan region spans the states of Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya and Tripura, along with the hill districts of West Bengal and Assam (GoI, 2016).
Three major rivers; the Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra have their sources in the Himalayas. The water through these rivers has not only fed civilisations down the centuries, but has also made the region a biodiversity hotspot, with some unique flora and fauna. In fact, the Himalayan biodiversity hotspot is recognised as one of the 34 global hotspots in the world (Moghe, 2011). The tough terrain and varied eco-climatic conditions of this region have supported several ethnic and socio-cultural groups, who have, over the years, developed their own distinct traditional knowledge and practices for conserving and nurturing their resources.
Challenges posed by climate change and sustenance of the Indian Himalayan Region
Global warming and climate change are major threats for the already fragile Himalayas, since even the smallest of changes in glacier dynamics can affect nearly 1.3 billion people (GoI, 2010). Variability in the volumetric flow of water in the rivers, loss of biodiversity, unstable changes in ecology, or glacier recession can end up uprooting or dislocating many traditional societies and ethnic peoples. The effect of climate change is already conspicuous in the form of erratic and unpredictable weather conditions and changing rainfall patterns in the Himalayas.
To effectively address these issues, it is important to incorporate the concerns regarding glaciers, rivers, forests, wildlife and various other components of this precious eco-system into development policies and plans. The special vulnerabilities of this ecologically fragile region need to be recognised and adaptations to climate change must become an integral part of development strategies. To achieve this, it is required to have robust scientific data on various ecological and socio-economic components. Unfortunately, the Himalayan ecosystem is one of the least studied, rendering it extremely difficult, hence, to embark on a sustainable programme or policy for the Himalayas on the basis of reliable scientific data.
National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem (NMSHE)
Realising the need to create a strong scientific database for sustainable development of the Indian Himalayas, the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India has been given the responsibility to coordinate and implement a NMSHE under the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC).
NMSHE is the only mission with a geographical focus as against the other national missions under NAPCC which are focused on sectors such as energy, water and agriculture. This is a reflection of the importance given to the Himalayan region in the NAPCC.
The broad objectives of NMSHE include understanding of the complex processes affecting the Himalayan eco-system to evolve suitable management and policy measures for sustaining and safeguarding the Himalayan eco-system
(Fig. 1). The strong combination of science, policy and governance at the national and regional levels is meant to impart a holistic approach to NMSHE for protecting the Himalayan region (GoI, 2010).
NMSHE Programmes and Achievements
- Scientific Capacity Building: Under NMSHE, several programmes have been initiated to fulfil the felt need for generating data on the Himalayas. To start with, NMSHE has identified six ecosystem areas, and constituted thematic task forces around each. These task forces will look after:
- natural and geological wealth,
- glacier and water,
- Himalayan agriculture, and
- traditional knowledge
- Each task force is being coordinated by one lead institution with a network of institutions supporting the effort as partnering institutions. The lead institutions for NMSHE are G.B.Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development, Wildlife Institute of India, Indian Council of Agriculture Research, Jawaharlal Nehru University, National Institute of Hydrology and Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology. Altogether more than 60 research and academic institutions spread across the Himalayas are task force partners.
- An Inter-University Consortium on Cryosphere and Climate Change (IUCCCC) has also been initiated under NMSHE. It is a group of four universities which will bring in the field data for scientific studies on climate and cryosphere changes over time and space and evaluate societal needs and capabilities for adapting to such changes in the coming decades.
- An Indo-Swiss Capacity Building Programme on Himalayan glaciology (Exposure, 2014) was also launched to train students in glaciology. The programme has trained 52 Indian researchers, with 27 researchers having received advanced training.
- A state-of–the-art framework for integrated vulnerability, risks and hazard assessment has also been developed, and studies related to glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) are being conducted to deal with emerging glacial lakes in Sikkim. Detailed information about these programmes is available on NMSHE web portal.
- Capacity Building of the Himalayan States: No programme can be successfully implemented without the active participation of the Himalayan states. Hence, NMSHE plans to have state climate change cells in each of the Himalayan states, for effective implementation of policies at the local level, and generating awareness on climate change and global warming among communities.
- The state climate change cells have been constituted following several consultation workshops organised in Delhi, wherein all the Himalayan states participated, and submitted their proposals and suggestions. So far, these centres/cells have been established in seven states—Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Sikkim, Mizoram and Tripura. Plans are underway to establish such Cells in the remaining Himalayan states (Gupta, 2016).
- Policy Platforms: The science policy disconnect is another major issue preventing sustainable development. To fill this gap, the NMSHE has provided for a Himalaya Sustainable Development Forum (HSDF) (GoI, 2010). This forum is meant to provide a platform for active cooperation and dialogue among decision makers, research institutions, governments of the respective Himalayan states, as also civil society organisations and individuals.
The strategic knowledge generated through the NMSHE can eventually be used for formulating suitable policies for the Indian Himalayan region. Although considerable progress has already been made since 2014, a lot more needs to be done, given the vast area the Indian Himalayan region covers, and the variety of micro-level and macro-level issues relating to climate change that must be dealt with.
Greater synergy within the various arms of the programmes and institutions, as also the central government and the respective state governments is the need of the hour. This can enable us move to the next level, and help deliver concrete and conclusive results for the well-being of all our people.
Department of Science and Technology, Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India (2016). Indian Himalayan Region. Retrieved from http://knowledgeportal-nmshe.in/indian-himalayan-region.aspx.
Department of Science and Technology, Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India. (2015-16). Himalayas Climate Change Portal. Retrieved from http://knowledgeportal-nmshe.in.
Department of Science and Technology, Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India. (2010). National Mission for sustaining the Himalayan eco-system under National Action Plan on Climate Change: Mission Document. Retrieved from http://dst.gov.in/sites/default/files/NMSHE_June_2010.pdf.
Exposure. (2014). Indo-Swiss Capacity Building on Himalayan Glaciology. Retrieved from https://ihcap.exposure.co/indoswiss-capacity-building-programme?slow=1.
Gupta, Akhilesh. (2016, January 20). Welcome Climate Change Portal BLOG. National Mission For Sustaining The Himalayan Ecosystem. Retrieved from http://knowledgeportal-nmshe.in/ViewSingleBlog.aspx?id=22.
India-Wris Wiki, Government of India. (2008). Glacier resources of Indian Himalaya. Retrieved from http://india-wris.nrsc.gov.in/wrpinfo/index.php?title=Glacier_resources_of_Indian_Himalaya.
Moghe, Gaurav. (2011, October 7). Biodiversity hotspots in India. Retrieved from http://www.biodiversityofindia.org/index.php?title=Biodiversity_hotspots_in_India#cite_note-6.
Ministry of Environment & Forests, G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment & Development, Government of India. (2006). Governance for Sustaining Himalayan Ecosystem. G-SHE Guidelines and Best Practices. Retrieved from http://gbpihed.gov.in/PDF/Publication/G-SHE_Book.pdf.