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How Himachal Is Paying The Price For Ignoring Climate Change Warnings

Overexploitation and tourism, among other factors, have begun to take a toll on the hill states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, as a full-blown climate crisis stares in the face of their residents.

A fire in Himachal Pradesh. I Getty Images
A fire in Himachal Pradesh. Getty Images

The years of dire warnings about an impending climate crisis are past. The unabated heatwave leaving the hills singed, along with 2,760 cases of forest fires – said to be the highest ever in Himachal Pradesh, an unprecedented dry spell and 92.4 per cent rain deficiency are not just indicators. Climate change is happening, that too at a scary rate and scale. 

The severity of the shift in weather in the mountainous regions of Himachal is highlighted by the 21 days of a severe heatwave in the state this year, a record in recent history. The state stood at number three after Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh in the number of heatwave days in March-April 2022. Total heatwave days in both Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh were 25. In comparison, Punjab had just seven severe heatwave days while Uttarakhand had three, Bihar two and Odisha only one. 

Also Read | Damning The Himalayas: The Role Of Himalayan Dams In Climate Crisis

Thousands of tourists driving up to Shimla and hill destinations to escape the heat of the North Indian plains encountered warm weather with the water crisis, while long traffic jams and high vehicular emissions they caused only compounded the woes for locals. 

Conditions were no different for those rushing to Nainital, Rishikesh and Mussoorie in the neighbouring hill state of Uttarakhand, whose vulnerability to climate-induced disasters, like the Kedarnath tragedy in 2013 and the Chamoli disaster in 2021, is already widely known. 

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) defines a heatwave as an unusually high temperature or hot weather. For the hills, temperature exceeding 30°C and for the plains, a recording crossing 40°C is described as a heatwave. 

Also Read | Climate Change Is Pushing Himachal Pradesh’s Apples To Higher Altitudes

Environmental scientist Chander Bhushan, CEO, iForest, admits that there has been an increase in the global average temperature. Changes of 1-2°C in average temperature can cause potentially dangerous shifts in climate. This year, coupled with the severity, the timing of the heat wave –it happened in the early months of summer between March and April– is being considered more worrying for the mountain states.

He says, “We have entered a new age of hot extremes that will get worse with increasing global warming. We need a heat code and an action plan.”

Also Read | Shimla's Water Crisis Is A Man-Made Disaster And How We Made It One

On Himachal, he feels one of the long-term impacts of the heatwaves will be a steady jump in the state's energy bill due to rising dependency on air conditioners and fans. Besides, agriculture and horticulture are already showing effects of this change in terms of productivity. 

In the British-era hill station of Shimla, the use of electric fans and ACs was unheard of till some years back. The demand has grown by 70-80 per cent this summer. 

Most aged residents of Shimla recall that till the 1980s, a recording of 24°C would make a big headline in newspapers. But gradually the town started getting warmer. Snowfall pattern has changed over the years. The state capital's forest cover got replaced by a concrete jungle, even in the banned areas.

Also Read | Microclimate Can Play A Major Role In Controlling Climate Change

“After 2000, Shimla has become a hothouse, with temperature extremes of 32°C, water shortage and vehicular pollution, even as greenery disappeared to make spaces for buildings and roads,” says Dr Ramesh Chauhan, vice-chancellor at APG Shimla University. 

Says Kunal Satyarathi, joint secretary at National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), “This is the first time when the hill state recorded so many heatwave days, that too in March-April. The impact of heat, the dry spells and global warming is already visible in the form of forest fires, water crisis and drying-up of the rivers in Himachal Pradesh."

Apart from Shimla – where low water supply during summers has become regular, rural populations in several districts are also facing water scarcity due to drought conditions. More than 1,150 water supply schemes in the state have become defunct due to the drying-up of rivulets and streams, their perennial sources. 

The impact of the heat wave is conspicuously high in the state’s fruit belt. A third of the apple crop –mostly older varieties like Red Royal and Delicious– are severely impacted. The flowering in the orchards started much before usual. This left apple producers in utter panic, who resorted to measures like sprays to protect the plants against diseases, premature bud break, etc. 

State capital Shimla – which had witnessed the worst ever water crisis in its post-Independence history in 2018, was revisited by an acute water shortage. Due to the dry spell, most natural sources upstream in rural settings hit their lowest bottoms, having no water to be lifted for supply in the town.

Rationing was frequent as the total availability of water with the supply agency –Shimla Jal Prabandhan Nigam– came down to 33-35 MLD against the requirement of 42 MLD.

Shimla has begun water rationing to meet the drinking water demand. Hoteliers hired water tenders to meet high water demand because of the heavy influx of tourists.

Environmentalist Sunita Narain shared her concern about Shimla’s worst water crisis in 2018 when she drew a parallel with Cape Town in South Africa. Her fears are coming true within three years of 2018, when Shimla's water crisis made headlines in the Washington Post and New York Times, when not a drop of water was available for eight consecutive days, exacerbated by the non-availability of water at the source of Shimla's supply — perennial rivers and streams that had dried up.

Last week, massive protests over water shortage began afresh at Theog, after dozens of villagers blocked the Shimla-Rampur National Highway. The police registered an FIR against the state's lone CPI(M) MLA Rakesh Singha and nine others. 

“The villagers were not receiving water for five-six days. The source had dried up and whatever water was available was being supplied to Shimla town. The women, who had to walk 6-7 km to fetch water on foot, threatened to block the supply of water to Shimla if their demand for regular supply was not met. There is a serious conflict brewing," warns Kuldeep Tanwar, a Himachal Kisan Sabha leader and retired Indian Forest Services officer (IFS).

Climate change has not only created a serious shortage in drinking water but has also left the state's hydro-power sector reeling. There is a substantial fall in the water inflow of the Satluj – a glacier- and snow-fed river. This is a clear sign of the adverse impact of receding glaciers and the decline in snowfall in high-altitude mountains.

“Results of our study this year, on changes in snowfall, are shocking. There is a 19-27 per cent reduction in the snowfall in the catchment areas of the three perennial rivers viz Ravi, Beas and Satluj. The highest variation among these rivers in terms of loss of snow is 27 per cent in Ravi, followed by Beas is 26 per cent," informs SS Randhawa, a senior scientist who was part of the study jointly done by the state council of Science Technology and Environment; and Indian Space Applications Centre, ISRO, Ahmedabad. 

The data available with Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam (SJVN) Ltd –the country’s highest profit-making power PSU– shows a massive shortfall in power generation this year. This is mainly due to low discharge in the Satluj river, which is feeding several mega hydel projects including the 1,500 MW Nathpa Jhakri Hydel project and 412 MW Rampur project.

The total power generated in June 2022 was 884.28 MW, against 1,033.384 MW in June 2021 at the Nathpa Jhakri project. A similar disappointing trend is seen at Rampur hydel project further downstream. There was a clear shortfall of 39.10 MW in June 2022 as the project generated only 246 MW against 285 MW in June 2021. There is also data available showing reduced water discharge in the river in the summers due to less snow cover and no rain in the high mountains.

Nand Lal Sharma, chairman and MD at SJNL Ltd, says, "The shortfall in energy generation is quite unusual during the peak summers. Melting of the snow in the high mountains has always been sustaining the water discharge at the projects. The unfavourable climatic conditions, receding of glaciers and lack of snowfall are glaring factors impacting the run of the river projects in Himalayan basins in Himachal and Uttarakhand.” 

Glacier Outburst Floods (GLOFs) are yet another phenomenon in high-altitude regions linked to global warming and climate crisis. Himachal Pradesh has 958 glacial lakes of size 500 sq. metres, according to a report by the State Council of Science and Technology. Of these, 109 were formed in the last few years, while 352 exist in the Satluj Basin. The damage which GLOFs can cause in the state and all projects is unimaginable. 

Anand Sharma, a former director of the meteorological centre at Dehradun, who had correctly forecast the excess rainfall that led to the Kedarnath disaster, stressed the need for setting up an early warning system to forecast disasters in view of climate changes happening in the mountain ecosystem. He says policy planners must make vulnerability studies before building infrastructures like dams, roads, and bridges.

He adds, “This is the basic reason for massive destruction and deaths in any flash flood, cloudbursts or lake bursts, like the Kedarnath tragedy of 2013 in Uttarakhand or the Beas and Satluj river floods in Himachal in 2005.”

In 1995, massive flash floods in the Beas resulted in the deaths of 35 persons. In 2000, the Satluj flooded, leaving 135 persons dead and loss of property worth Rs 1,455 crore. Again in 2005, there were flash floods in the Satluj, caused by the bursting of the Pareechu lake in the Tibetan region, and Garsa valley floods in Kullu. Forty-six persons got buried and killed in a massive landslide at Cotrupi in Mandi in August 2017, following heavy rains, again raising the demand for an early warning system in the state that is prone to calamities and climate change.

Data from the State Disaster Management Authority shows the deaths of 4,306 persons in calamities like landslides, flash floods, house collapse and monsoon rains between January 1, 2019, and June 18, 2022. The loss to infrastructures like bridges, highways and property was more than Rs 1,722 crore. There were 42 cases of landslides alone in 2021, of which two happened in Kinnaur, claiming 49 lives. 

On July 28, 2021, nine people died and seven went missing after flash floods ripped through Lahaul-Spiti – a district that had till then never seen monsoon rains. Earlier, nine tourists died when hit by a boulder racing down a mountain at Batseri near Chitkul in Kinnaur. Forty others were buried in a major landslide after rains in Kinnaur on August 11, 2022.

Kinnaur, a high-altitude district bordering Tibet, witnessed the outbreak of a devastating wildfire that burnt down Himachal's precious chilgoza forests. The fire continued for almost 72 hours, leaving a trail of destruction. More than 40 bighas of chilgoza forests were reduced to ashes.

The temperature at Kalpa, a high-altitude mountain valley, reached 19°C in February 2021, a record. There is already a decline in winter snowfall there.

The pattern of rainfall has completely changed, and so have snow and temperature. The winter snowfall cycle is completely disturbed, impacting the horticulture economy and availability of water in towns and villages earlier having abandoned water discharge in rivers, streams, rivulets and perennial springs.

Rohan Lal Negi, a noted environmentalist and orchard owner, says, “Extreme weather events have caused multiple impacts on land, crops, fruits, and water sources. My own orchard has dried up. It has stopped bearing fruits. The soil looks like a desert. In fact, every third or fourth orchard in Kinnaur is showing signs of withering, battered by heat and dry conditions. Some farmers have abandoned lands and orchards. They are no longer productive and economical, except those growing new varieties in the upper ranges."

Negi says it's the first time in 65 years that he has noticed such a devastating impact of heatwaves in this highly fertile land, where water, snow and forests have been the best companions of farmers. Forests, which used to be the source of food, fodder, water and wood, are vanishing, with mega hydel projects and dams built in Kinnaur. This year, the water in the Satluj – one of Himachal's most water-laden rivers, has touched the lowest bottom. This is a highly worrying sign. 

Lahaul-Spiti, another ecologically fragile district, is notable for the negative effects of climate change over the past 15 years. The district remains under snow for six to seven months and is also cut off from the rest of the world due to the closure of Rohtang Pass (13,059 ft). It’s only after the new road across Rohtang Pass was completed in 2020 that the valley got its all-weather connectivity.

But there are new worries among locals. The new road means higher tourist influx, movement of vehicles, fast-food eateries, plastic waste and garbage, which are wreaking havoc on the environment. More than 10,000 tourists and other vehicles entering Lahual during peak summer are bound to accelerate the melting of glaciers, which are the source of water for the local ecosystem. 

"For almost 15 years, I have been carrying out a consistent campaign to adopt the Bhutan model in Lahaul-Spiti, to save this high-altitude region from an unnatural death. There is hardly anyone in the government that's listening. If Lahaul-Spiti goes, an entire ancient civilisation, centuries-old glaciers –our heritage– will get lost," warns Prof. CM Parsheera, Director of Institute of Tribal studies at Himachal Pradesh University, Shimla, recalling how the intervention of the National Green Tribunal in 2015 saved Rohtang Pass from environmental disaster.

Dr Suresh Attri, Principal Scientific Officer (Environment), Department of Environment Science and Technology, says, "Himachal Pradesh is one of the pioneering states to have prepared a climate action plan (Level-II). There are the latest technological tools available for analysis, and future projections on climate behaviour. The department is making effective interventions in the planning process and also mitigations.

“What is still alarming is that not only is Shimla becoming hotter, but the rise in humidity. Last week, after the arrival of monsoons, the town witnessed an unusual rise in humidity. We can find its direct link with heatwave days. It needs more studies on the impact of such changes in the climate.”

Shimla witnessed the hottest day on May 27, 2010, with 32.4°C, 8°C higher than normal. It surpassed the earlier record of 31.7°C on May 20, 2004.

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