Alarm Bells from Nanda Devi

It should not take a tragedy for the Himalaya to change its approach to mountain development. Yet every disaster that occurs is a poignant reminder that narrow solutions to short term threats are not the way forward.

On Sunday, 7 February, a glacier near Nanda Devi was bulldozed by a massive rockfall which triggered a tsunami-strength rush of water, killing hundreds downstream. This flood was yet another sign that the Himalayan region must take a broader view on climate action–one that addresses the drivers of glacial instability and considers the climate system as a whole.

The climate crisis is particularly potent in the Himalaya, where the glaciers on the roof of the world are disappearing at an unprecedented scale, losing over a quarter of their volume in the last four decades alone. Mountain dwellers and more than 1 billion people living downstream will suffer from its consequences.

One fifth of the world’s population is now at risk of water scarcity as the frozen fresh water above them disappears, and downstream communities live in fear of being washed away in unpredictable floods. To make matters worse, ice melts to form lakes, which absorb heat and speed up the melting of the glaciers. As of 2020, Nepal alone held 2,070 of these glacial lakes, 47 of which were at high flood risk.

There is a sizeable body of research on glacial lakes and their threats to downstream communities. Proposed solutions include risk knowledge and assessment, monitoring and early warning systems, and structural mitigation activities like construction of gated outlet channels to control the release of water from swelling lakes. Yet, limited climate adaptation funding means that despite these potential solutions, returning to the example of Nepal, only two out of 2,070 lakes have had their levels reduced.

If glacial lake outburst floods are such a pressing environmental threat, why is more action not being taken? Responsibility for managing future floods is passed like a baton from activists to scientists to policy makers and back, each group blaming something different for the lack of concrete action.

We need more research, we have wasted too much time on research, we need more finance, we need science-based policy, why does the developed world not step in? And on and on. In this ever-changing blame game, no one takes responsibility, and it is the most vulnerable who suffer.

The problem is not solely a lack of finance or research, but a flawed outlook on climate change itself. In a drought-prone region, it is costly and perhaps short-sighted to drain freshwater from natural reservoirs into the ocean through the Himalayan river system. The fact that there is not yet a way to safely harness glacial water should not serve as the end of our innovation.

Some experts have proposed that these glacial lakes could work as dams to retain meltwater–which could be tapped to produce hydropower and help farmers in drought prone months. This is just one example of how innovation must look past immediate threats and solutions to address the broader systems of environmental change at work.

For too long, the Himalayan region has overlooked the impact of their domestic policies and local environmental degradation, and instead blamed the west for the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

Yet atmospheric carbon is not the only driver of ice loss. Black carbon from fires, cookstoves and diesel engines is a growing threat to glacial stability lurking right in the Himalaya’s backyard. This regional pollution darkens the surface of the glaciers, accelerates melting, and cannot be blamed on faraway foreign governments.

As sustainability has emerged as a key developmental agenda in response to climate change, the time has come to look beyond reliance on international finance and external blame It is time to reconceptualise the Himalayan region’s relationship with climate action and mountain development.

The Himalaya hold a wealth of local and indigenous knowledge from communities who have lived in harmony with the mountains for centuries. Rather than relying on narrow technological solutions to the immediate threat of glacial floods, the way forward is to look at the Himalayan climate system as a whole. Local knowledge can point to a more thoughtful, effective path that taps into nature-based solutions and centers a systems science approach to climate action.

We need an interdisciplinary approach that takes responsibility for our own contributions to the climate crisis while acknowledging our agency in creating regional results. We need to change the way we think about glacial melting and climate action in the Himalaya and introduce a broader view.

It is time to end the blame-game, time to move away from narrow solutions that only address one aspect of the impact of the climate crisis on Himalaya. Glacial melting, ecosystem change, and water resource management are all connected and must be treated as such.

Killian Dumont and Rastraraj Bhandari are both research fellows at the Geopolitics & Ecology of Himalayan WaterInitiative at NYU Abu Dhabi.

eARThumanities at NYU Abu Dhabi

@2020 Geopolitics & Ecology of Himalayan Water