Himalayan communities warn against destructive development: Join global civil society and demand for equity and fair share

Topographic overview of Central Asia and Major Himalayan River Systems. Elevation and river routing is based on the SRTM30 dataset: Physiographically, the Himalayan arc forms a 150-400 km long transition between the low-elevated (<0.5 km) Indo-Gangetic Plain to the south and the high-elevated (~5 km) Tibetan Plateau to the north [Fielding et al., 1994]
By Guman Singh and Sreedhar Rammoorthi*

The Himalayas are not just a mere range of mountains, but the source of our very existence and survival. They are the source of some of the largest river-systems and basins in the world, which provides our country with 60% of its water requirement. Himalayan region contains the great Indo-Gangetic alluvial plain which is known as the ‘grain basket of South Asia’. Himalayan forests have been able to reduce carbon emissions by over 20%, being a key factor in mitigating and controlling climate change. Himalayas is the reason why we have been getting our bountiful monsoons every year on which the survival of the rest of India depends. Himalayan region contains states of diverse cultures and communities. This is one of the few places where culturally diverse communities live with their lives and livelihood intricately woven with nature. It also play very crucial role in the ecological balance in the world.

Global warming induced climate change has triggered events such as melting glaciers, rising sea levels and changing weather patterns. This in turn has lead to storms, droughts, flash floods, cloudbursts, change in vegetation. Growing body of scientific evidence has established that this phenomenon is directly linked to unprecedented amount of GHG gases released in the atmosphere largely due to burning of fossil fuels since the beginning of industrialization in last century. The situation is likely to worsen as countries with low industrialization including China and India began to pursue the same path of carbon based economic growth.

The impact of climate change is not distributed evenly across the world. Mountain eco-systems are more sensitive to the habitat and climate change due to the interaction of tectonic, geomorphic, ecological and climate agents. For instance, temperatures are rising more rapidly in the Himalayas than the global average. Over the last decade the average temperature in Nepal has risen 0.6 degrees, compared with an increase in average temperatures globally of 0.7 degrees over the last hundred years (Gravgaard, 2010). In another Himalayan region, Tibetan Plateau, temperatures have gone up over three times the global average (Schell, 2010). On an average, surface air temperatures in the Himalayan region have gone up to 1.0 degree in last decade (Srinivasan J, 2006). For this reason, Himalayas, have been identified as critical amongst regions in the world.

Communities inhabiting mountain ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather conditions such as high temperatures, altering rainfall patterns, receding glaciers and permafrost thawing, etc. Recent instances include the disastrous floods and cloud bursts, the apple orchards shifting towards higher altitude seeking lesser temperatures and arrival of mosquitoes even at high altitudes are clearly reflective of these changes. This vulnerability further exacerbates due to high dependency on natural resources for livelihoods.

Climate change is a dynamic phenomenon and interplays with a variety of factors as causes and results in its spatial presence. The transient NW Himalayas are witness to massive earthquakes in the region and the region remains tectonically active, the climatic parameters have a bearing in adding to the vulnerability of the geophysical form, the point here to argue is (which is more exemplified by the 2013 disaster in the Western Himalayas) that climatic parameters become one of the risks these transient environments collectively face and further delineates the boundary of risks, Rivers valley’s therefore become natural vulnerable zones. Broadly, the Himalayan Frontal region, Himalayan Crest and the Tibetan Plateau define the orogenic front and interior of the Himalayan Systems, the presence of major thrust and fault systems has always brought challenges to physical development and coping capacities are only limited because of the consistent changes in the transient environment. Hydropower development and its integrated components demand heavy machinery, construction, drilling, excavation, blasting and control riverine flows for generating power. The research done by Wulf et. al provides a holistic insight into (although acceptance of limited data availability due to sparse climatic meteorology and consistent long term monitoring and studies remains a limitation) the interrelations among these three regions and how peak event days trigger the river behavior or so more to say river morphology in response to the events occurring in its upper reaches. Most importantly the author talks about the sediment budget and uncertainties in case of events triggered by climate change or regional micro climatic interrelations.

The present topography of the high, laterally extensive Tibetan Plateau and surrounding orogens exerts strong influence on atmospheric processes. On a continental scale, the high topography poses a physical obstacle to atmospheric circulations and acts as an elevated heating surface, which intensifies the South Asian monsoon [Boos and Kuang, 2010; Flohn, 1957; Hahn and Manabe, 1975]. At regional scale, orographic barriers influence precipitation patterns and air temperatures, which directly control runoff and surface erosion processes.

Especially extreme weather events, like rainstorms, can have a profound impact on the character and rates of surface erosion processes [Baker and Kale, 1998; Bookhagen et al., 2005a; Coppus and Imeson, 2002; Hartshorn et al., 2002]. Heavy rainstorms in the Himalaya repeatedly cause devastating floods and landslides, which result in loss of life and property, and mobilize large sediment volumes that damaged hydropower infrastructures [Houze et al., 2011; Webster et al., 2011]. For the next century, it is projected that more intense and increasingly direct rainfall runoff will lead to more flooding and landsliding [Chalise and Khanal, 2001; Immerzeel, 2008; Kumar et al., 2011]

Based on the magnitude-frequency relation of maximum summer rainstorms in the orogenic interior, such daily rainstorms re-occur at intervals of three to five years. Additional analyses of all 80 weather stations in Himachal Pradesh reveal that these two storms were characterized by a large spatial extent (>100 km), lasted 2-3 days in most records, and migrated from the orogenic front across the main orographic barrier into the orogenic interior. The 10-year record indicates that 17 such rainstorms occurred at the orogenic front, but only ten reached the orogenic interior.[The study estimated 17 peak Suspended Sediment concentration (SSC) events over 33 peak SSC days spread along the main stem of River Sutlej at Namgia (7|4|3|75), Jangi (3|1|1|100), Karcham (3|2|1|50) and Wangtoo (20|8|5|63) where the figures indicate Peak SSC days, Peak SSC events, events caused by rainstorms and percentage contribution of rainstorm events respectively. Concluding the case study of Baspa, the author concludes that 40% of the summer precipitation falls during 4-6 rainstorm events in both regions (Orogen Interior and Exterior), rainstorm intensity in orogenic interior varies considerably more than at the orogenic front.]

The trigger in the upper reaches of Sutlej valley is low Normalised Differentiated Vegetation Index (NDVI) which is 0.07, Ganvi which is in the Western part of Sutlej River axis has much higher NDVI.The rainfall range is 380 mm – 410 mm from Namgia to Wangtoo and contributes 37 and 17% respectively, the majority of flow discharge source is snow followed by rainfall and ice. High runoff is interpreted at Jangi (33%), Karchham (41%) and Wangtoo (50%) in the summer period.The sediment yield in Baspa is the highest at 1717 t km-2 yr-1 and it gradually increases from Namgia towards Wangtoo from 223 to 615 t km-2 yr-1 indicating the highly glaciated Baspa Valley and contribution of sediments despite have a low concentration of sediments at 0.80 gl-1‑.

The sediment concentration remains in excess of 2.20 at Namgia, Karchham and Wangtoo, the yield increases as the cumulative catchment area increases at the downstream site.The orogenic interior has steep slopes with less NDVI and exposed alluvial fans which are readily erodible and rainstorms trigger their mobilization, the riverbed which already has transiently stored sediments could also be mobilized due to increase discharge of snow and glacial melts and may increase the contribution of riverbed load in the overall sediment load.

What Himalaya Needs?

The Himalayan States and particularly Himachal Pradesh demands the formulation of an industrial policy that intensively promotes decentralised and green growth. Opportunities are abound with Horticulture, Medicinal Plants, agriculture, decentralized power generation systems, community based tourism.

Essentially these industries that need positive discrimination and if they are encouraged with the right kind of incentives the Gross Value added per invested rupee will be positive and much larger than the short run fly-by-night industrialization which would have devastated the basis for long term sustenance.

The deleterious effect of the massive change in the ecosystems, displacement and deprivation of people and the poor rate of assimilation of local employees in the industry (under 10 percent as against a stated policy of 70 percent) is a clarion call for change. While the State seems to be trying to extend the current concessions, it is clear that this model only benefits the investors and investment bankers, the owners, the managers, corrupt politicians and other elite while crushing the local people and annihilating the local environment which will have long term implications on the ecosystems and the community. In an era when Climate Change is a widely debated issue, it calls for an urgent change in the industrial policies and the package for promotion should clearly aim at green growth.

Himalayan Communities Join the Call of Global Civil Society

Himalayan Communities through this statement join the call for equity and fair share in global climate action and warn the global community of the irreparable damage that will be caused if the Himalayan ecosystems are disturbed. Climate science paints a frightening picture—one that tells us that urgent and dramatic action is needed to have any chance at stopping irreversible global warming. This urgency is not just about the planet and the environment; it is also about people, and humanity’s capacity to secure safe and dignified lives for all. The science is unambiguous: the next 10–15 years are critical if the most dangerous effects of climate change are to be avoided. Today, the world is 0.85°C warmer than pre-industrial levels, and many people and ecosystems are already experiencing devastating impacts. Exceeding 1.5°C will entail unacceptable impacts for billions of people and risk crossing irreversible tipping points. We can only emit a finite amount of greenhouse gases— an amount known as the ‘global carbon budget’—if we wish to keep overall increases beneath 1.5°C or even 2°C. The science indicates we are reaching this limit very quickly, and may even have exceeded it. Accepting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)) scenarios does provide us with a global carbon budget, but one that will be consumed in 10–20 years at current emissions levels and entail very significant levels of risk. A commitment to keep at least within this limited budget, and to share the effort of doing so equitably and fairly, is at the heart of the international debate around climate change.

We demand:

Completely Abandon Further Development of Large Hydropower

Since the inception of the energy generation through hydro power projects the Himalayan region is the hot spot for the power generation through mega and micro hydroelectric projects, particularly since early 1950’s with the Bhakhra Dam. Since then dozens of Big Dams built throughout the state of Himachal Pradesh. With the growing urge of the energy the region by the industries the Himalayan region exploited very unscientifically for the energy generation. On one side; this model of development devastating the biodiversity and wild life at the same time put the community livelihood and sustainability in dangers.

There are more than 1000 tunnel based dams and hydro-electric projects either proposed to be built, under construction or completed across all the 11 Himalayan states. Sanctions have been given individually without any thought to the cumulative effect the proposed tunnel based dams will have on an eco-fragile region which is still evolving geographically. With these ‘Run-of-the-river’ power projects scheduled to be built on all existing rivers, these river systems would no longer flow freely, affecting communities and ecology alike – near the rivers and further downstream. State governments in their eagerness to become energy rich states have ignored their own communities whose livelihoods depend completely on the natural resources available and live sustainably.

In the state of Himachal Pradesh the maximum thrust to generate power has been emphasized on the Satluj Basin. The Satluj River originates from Tibet and enters India from Khab in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh. Out of 250 Kilo Meters basin in Himachal, India up to Bhakhara Dam, 150 Kilo Meters stretch of Satluj is in Kinnaur which has been and proposed to be completely dammed and the river will flow through tunnels. We will not able to see Satluj flowing in its natural course in future.

The Satluj enters Shimla, Kullu, Mandi and Bilaspur district up to Bhakhara Dam for next 100 Kilo Meters stretch from where it has been canalized and supplying water to Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Rajasthan and Delhi. Bhakhara dam was built in sixties and after that Satluj does not flow in its natural basin to Arabic sea. Bhakhara Dam impounded 20290 Acres of Forest land and 23863 Acres of Agriculture land of Bilaspur district only in sixties. This project submerged land up to Lathiani in Una district and Mandi. The dam submerged 371 villages and Bilaspur town where 7,206 families of 36000 population lived as per revenue record having land/house ownership, whereas land less are not being recorded. Same happened in Beas Satluj Link project which is first river linking project was executed in seventies. Displaced of Bhakhra and Beas projects are still not being resettled and R&R is pending even after 60 years.

Keep Himalayas Free from Subsidy and Incentive Driven Mining and Industrialisation

The total Gross State Domestic Product of the Pradesh at current prices is estimated at Rs 85,841 crore in 2013-14 as against Rs 76,259 crore in 2012-13, thereby registering an increase of 12.6 percent. The structural composition of the state economy witnessed significant changes during the decade. The share of agriculture including horticulture and animal husbandry in G.S.D.P. had declined from 21.1 percent in 2000-01 to 14.25 percent in 2013-14 while the Secondary sector contribution increased from 26.5 per cent in 1990-91 to 37.87 percent in 2013-14.

This shift has occurred because of irrational incentives and we take the lower figure of the companies which have already come in and just take the component of “Capital Subsidy” which has a ceiling of Rs 30 lakhs only, it comes to a whopping Rs 2000 crores. Of course, despite these being called back-ended subsidies which are given after the investments have been made we all know that several more would have claimed and the figure could be as high as Rs 5000 crores or that is what the government is already committed to dole out to the companies.  This is an outright give away in cash. Thus for an investment of Rs 6500 crores if industrialists get back Rs 5000 crores in cash what is the need for such industrialization. It is not that the rest of the money invested is not guaranteed to shower more returns. The tax holidays will add to an enormous amount over this as excise duty and income tax alone will be 40 percent of the gross profits. Few specific companies themselves have reported turnovers of Rs 1000 crores. But even if we take a conservative estimate of Ra 5000 crores, another Rs 2000 crores is given away as tax concessions.

The process of robbing itself and the community to pay investors and promoters is not new or isolated to the industrial sector alone. The infrastructural back up of power is provided with another package of concessions. However, the utility in the State is bleeding hundreds of crores.

It is therefore clear that the process of dispossessing people of their land and other natural resources and depriving them of many constitutionally guaranteed rights and curtailing institutions of local self-governance is covertly and overtly being undertaken by the State in the name of liberalization, privatization and it is being conveniently spoken about as the inevitability of globalization. Almost all river segments and over 50,000 ha of prime land and other natural resources including forests, mineral resources and even cheap human resources are being sacrificed at this alter of globalisation.

Enhancing Observational and Monitoring Network

One of the most crucial needs and gap areas is the availability of reliable and authentic data on the Himalayan Ecosystem. The systematic collection of data and information about the Himalayan mountain system is critical for improved understanding of climate change, and its trends and impacts, and for predicting future scenario. Data and information derived from earth observation are proving increasingly vital for gaining insights about regional status and trends, especially about climatic and broader environmental changes, and their implications at the global level. Earth observation information products and services are essential for determining adaptation strategies and appropriate development interventions for the benefit of mountain communities in the HKH region. Earth observation has a special significance in this region, with its high degree of inaccessibility and severe weather conditions.

The use of remote sensing data and techniques and geographic information system (GIS) data, complemented by field verification, is an effective method for the mapping and inventorying of glaciers in the region. These methods are continuously improving and converging so that it becomes increasingly easy to compare and exchange data worldwide. It is vital to adequately augment the initiatives for long-term ecological and weather monitoring across the region so as to address the issue of knowledge gaps.

Seed Management

Like other parts of India, Himalayas also stored thousands of varieties of seeds of cereals, millets, pulses, vegetables, fruits, flowers etc. Owing to its difficult terrain, Himalayan agricultural fields did not experience green revolution in 1960s-70s, and were able to protect the rich variety of seeds. Post 1980s like most other places farmers in Himalayas also moved away from the practice of saving and exchanging seeds with their neighbors and families, to buying seeds from the market and slowly their own indigenous knowledge systems related to farming and seed saving slowly became irrelevant. Result — crop diversity suffered. In a land that once had thousands varieties of rice, it is difficult to find anything outside a few popular varieties in the markets today. Fortunately owning to the harsh terrain, Himalayan region still have more biodiverse farming than any other part of India.

As weather systems are becoming more and more unpredictable, there is arising an urgent need of seeds that are more robust and are able to survive the uncertainty in the weather pattern. The seeds that have evolved over thousands of years of farming are most likely to survive weather anomalies. It would be critical at this point to create seed banks of local indigenous varieties of seeds to save them from extinction; their loss could be an absolute loss of genetic diversity in Himalayan agriculture and would be an end to any further research on indigenous varieties.

Currently farmers are highly dependent on market for seeds and are sometimes dictated by markets forces to choose certain kind of seeds or to pay higher prices. To protect farmers from this cycle, agriculture extension services can institutionalize the seed banks under the ownership of farmers. Extension service should not only popularize local seeds, but also work towards research in local varieties that are more robust.

Crop Diversification

Population pressures coupled with recent changes in socio-cultural change from subsistence to market economy has resulted in farmers emphasizing on cash crop. It also means replacement of staple food crops by cash crops and of multipurpose agroforestry trees by fruit trees. This fact corroborated by primary data, which revealed more and more farmers moving to cash crops and monoculture farming. In addition, in Himachal Pradesh and J&K extension of agricultural land is through replacement diverse forests by apple orchards. Simultaneously, Improvement in accessibility and supply of staple food grains at subsidized price by the government means that farmers have benefitted financially from growing cash crops. That said, loss of agro-biodiversity means more risks to local livelihood in the wake of fall in market price/ demand, termination of government subsidy on staple foods, less diverse food basket, pest outbreak in a cash crop dominated landscape and climate changes induced variability. As we notices from esearch that most of the farmers in the study area were suffering pest and wild animal attack, which means direct loss in total income. Increased application of fertilizers temporarily leads to higher production but at high input costs and more resilient pests. Increasing agro biodiversity using crop diversification and economic benefits from non-timber forests produce can increase resilience of mountain communities and check degradation of forests. Farmers in the hill are known to grow a variety of crops triggered by a sense of securing survival in isolated settlements in a highly variable and uncertain biophysical environment. High level of crop yields (e.g. 6.5 t ha-1 of wheat and 14 t ha-1 of potato) and food sufficiency in many villages insulated from external forces due to extreme inaccessibility (Chandrasekhar 2003, Semwalet al. 2003a) testify the potential of indigenous knowledge.

It is thus suggested that policies and incentives favoring Indigenous innovations such as cultivation of medicinal plant and native varieties of staple food crops and traditional practices to cope up with the variability and uncertainty arising due to changing climate.

Alternative Livelihoods

The majority of people in the Himalayas depend on subsistence agriculture and natural resources for their livelihoods. However, traditional agriculture no longer serves as a sufficient livelihood option fulfilling the needs of most mountain communities. In recent years, economic growth, shifting population dynamics, and climate change have taken place so rapidly and intensely that the vulnerability of mountain farming communities have increased manifolds. The changing global environment and societal changes mean that opportunities need to be generated locally for mountain people to strengthen and adapt niche product and service systems to tackle the chronic and growing poverty.

Guman Singh
Guman Singh

The Himalayan region are endowed with an extensive variety of high value, low volume products, such as non-timber forest products (NTFPs), medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs), and honeybee products, and are suitable for cultivating temperate and off-season crops. However, the primary producers and collectors of these products generally receive a relatively low share of the returns due to insufficient knowledge of market chains, lack of processing facilities, inadequate quality control, and similar factors. The same holds true for mountain tourism, which, despite its enormous potential within the region, not

Sreedhar Rammuthi
Sreedhar Rammuthi

only remains largely underdeveloped, but also rarely benefits the local population in the form of sustainable and non-exploitive employment and supply of services and local products. Despite the relevance for mountain people’s livelihoods, and the quick growth of trade in NTFPs and MAPs, national and regional policies have not been adequately developed, adapted, or implemented in the region. There is significant scope to generate more income locally by supporting mountain people to generate new livelihood options and add value to high value products and services.

Using a combination of indigenous knowledge and modern scientific knowledge, new avenues of livelihood could be generated from existing resources and provide much needed economic security to the mountain communities. Additionally, a supportive role by local cooperative, government agencies, civil society organizations etc can provide technical knowhow, credit, market linkages and insurance to the communities and create a diversified livelihood scenario.

*Himalaya Niti Abhiyan, Kullu, Himachal Pradesh


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