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Himalayan disasters

By Darryl D'Monte

Island nations are getting all the attention while no attention is being paid to the climate change crisis brewing in the Himalayan regions, said representatives of South Asian nations in Copenhagen

A potentially divisive South Asian meet on climate change adaptation in the Himalayas turned out uncharacteristically congenial, though Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh could not attend due to other pressing engagements. To make up for his absence, opposition Indian MPs – who included Ram Manohar Joshi and Sitaram Yechury – trooped in towards the end 

The tone was set by Pema Gyamtsho, Bhutan’s Agriculture Minister, who mentioned that he had been brought up in Nepal. For him, disasters induced by climate change were “nothing new”. The region had witnessed Cyclone Aila: “We have had our share of disasters,” he stressed. 

“Farmers can no long rely on traditional knowledge,” he continued. “Glaciers are retreating 30 metres in a decade; in some instances, as much as 200 metres. There are 2,000 glacial lakes, formed as a result of melting glaciers. According to the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu, 25 of them are in danger of bursting.” 

“It is more serious than anywhere in the world,” Gyamtsho said. All countries present felt aggrieved that though the Himalayas harbour the largest number of people in the world who will be impacted by climate change – 1.3 billion – small island states and other “more vulnerable” countries had been voicing their demands more aggressively and getting disproportionate attention in Copenhagen. 

Biodiversity has also been hit in Bhutan. “If tigers move up to higher altitudes, what will happen to the snow leopards?” he asked. He quoted Prince Charles who said in Copenhagen that crises also sometimes create an opportunity. Here, it could lead to neighbouring countries sharing information, learning how to manage water and integrating their development. 

Unusually, there was an Afghan representative on the podium too. Environment Minister Mustafa Saeed described the Hindu Khush mountains, which straddle Afghanistan and Pakistan, as the country’s “spinal cord”. As much as 48% of Afghanistan’s area was covered by mountains and the little Pamir glacier was the source of the Amu Darya or Oxus river. Due to the decline in snowmelt, the river was failing to drain into the Aral Sea, causing an ecological catastrophe. 

“We must keep our feet on realities [in Copenhagen],” he continued. “Talk is cheap. We need a strategic vision: even a sophisticated new car only starts with a small metal object – a key. This is the last chance we have to bury the ashes of our fathers and of the children of our sons.” 

A personal note was sounded by Erik Solheim, Norway’s Environment Minister, who last year visited the Nepal terai or low-lying Himalayan foothills. He heard how glacial lake outbursts (GLOs) were a clear and present danger. Villagers told him how their daily lives were changing. He met a young girl – the only person in the village who could interpret for him in English -- whose ambition was to study in a Kathmandu college but her dreams were shattered when her father’s house was washed away in the floods. 

Solheim saw an overwhelming need for mountain researchers to come together and Madhav Kumar Nepal, Nepal’s Prime Minister, who also came later, offered to set up a forum in Kathmandu for this purpose. 

Pakistani experts present also spoke of the need to collaborate with their Indian counterparts. They had been sharing real-time data on tropical meteorology, including cyclones. On mountains, there was a need to cooperate in sharing data, admitted Dr Qamar-Uz-Zaman Chaudhry, Director General of the Pakistan Meteorological Department in Islamabad. 

Infochange News & Features, December 2009