The social impacts of glacial melts
8th September 2021
Glacial melt due to climate breakdown is already having rapid impacts on vulnerable communities.
The climate crisis and current Covid-19 pandemic has presented the opportunity to rethink how we address poverty, economic injustice and the climate crisis – even at the cost of having exposed the thin margins on which the global economic order runs, and how it is devoid of the capacity to deal with shocks and uncertainties.
Way back in 1920, the Indigenous peoples of the sacred Tsum Valley in the foothills of the northwest Nepal Himalaya made a collective commitment for the conservation of biodiversity and culture of their local area for the benefit of the many generations to come.
The valley residents were gearing up for centennial celebrations to reaffirm and renew the commitments in a cultural festival to be organised in April 2020. They were forced to postpone the event until further notice due to Covid-19.
This series of articles has been published in partnership with Dalia Gebrial and Harpreet Kaur Paul and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in London. It first appeared in a collection titled Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal.
While they have always remained the custodians of nature, a much greater threat looms large – the threat of climate change – with the prospect of displacing them and their culture entirely.
Around 1.9 billion people across the South Asian subcontinent depend upon Himalayan glaciers for drinking water, agriculture and energy. Due to climate change, these glaciers are melting twice as fast as they were in the year 2000.
Some parts of the Himalayan region are warming fast, three times faster than the global average.
In 2019, a comprehensive climate change study focused on the Hindu Kush, Himalaya found that even if global collective action can contain the temperature rise to 1.5°C, at least one third of the Himalayan glaciers would melt by the end of this century.
At the current rate of global greenhouse emission and warming, the Himalayas could lose two thirds of its glaciers by 2100.
Glacial lake outburst floods will wash away people and infrastructure in the mountain slopes with more frequent floods (in the already fragile region) until around 2050, increasing river discharge.
In the longer term, we will see persistent droughts with glacier-less mountains and water-less rivers. Scores of villages in the Himalayas have already been forced to relocate elsewhere due to scarcity of water.
One example is residents of Dhye village in Mustang District of Nepal. The village people have historically adjusted their agriculture-based livelihood to an arid environment and have been balancing their material needs within nature’s limits. However, climate change has rendered their livelihoods more difficult.
The Dhye villagers were forced to relocate to a nearby area, Thanchung. The government calls this relocation illegal and encroachment of national property thus rendering Dhye villagers ‘climate refugees,’ albeit displaced internally within Nepal.
The Andes have also been impacted. Peru alone has lost up to 50 percent of its glacial ice in the past three to four decades. Glacial lake outburst floods have resulted in the loss of thousands of lives.
In 1941, a single devastating flood from Lake Palcacocha killed more than five thousand people and destroyed the city of Huaraz.
Climate change has made this deadly lake more dangerous for current and future generations.
While the countries of these regions have made negligible contributions to climate change and resulting impacts, the dominant approach to development and its pathway is hastening the crisis.
Governments, motivated by their development partners, build infrastructure in the Himalayan region without giving proper consideration to geological and environmental risks.
In the rush for short term economic growth, hydropower promotes enrichment for the companies that own the dams with negative impacts to local communities many of whom live with energy poverty as the water generated energy is exported to other regions and countries.
Over 20 million people in Nepal, 82 percent of the population, lack access to clean and safe methods of energy for cooking, disproportionately exposing the women who undertake this labour to toxic air.
Household air pollution from unventilated cooking with fuelwood and charcoal presents a serious public health hazard, contributing to asthma, acute respiratory infections, tuberculosis, strokes, low birth weight, and cataracts, among other healthcare risks.
Dams also displace and the majority of displaced people are indigenous communities who have made their homes in the mountains.
Dams also increase the risk of earthquakes (in an already vulnerable region).
A study conducted after the 2015 Nepal earthquake called for an urgent revaluation of hydropower development in the region.
It reported that about 25 percent of hydropower projects are likely to be damaged by the landslides triggered by earthquakes.
Similarly, road projects across the Himalayan region pose threats to the fragile ecosystems.
By-passing the required environmental assessments and management plans, they tear through pristine areas that have been protected by indigenous communities for hundreds of years.
All these damages are mistakenly viewed as the necessary costs of development but these dominant views do not answer: for whose benefit is this development? What does development mean if it takes away so much?
If development is the story of who we want to become, whose story is promoted while silencing others? What are we leaving for future generations?
While the climate crisis and current Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the thin margins on which the global economic order runs, and how it is devoid of the capacity to deal with shocks and uncertainties, it has also presented the opportunity to rethink how we address poverty, economic injustice and the climate crisis.
One framework that is creating a vision to build a healthier, more resilient and sustainable future is the Green New Deal, propagated mostly from the industrial world.
We need to examine the merit of these proposals from the perspective of the Global South.
This framework alone cannot drive the fundamental systemic shifts required to transition away from our shared crises.
Unless those on the frontline of disaster development, climate change and marginalisation are participating in discourses meaningfully, and leading our visions for alternative futures, we will forever make cosmetic changes to a system that has historical roots in exploitation, extraction and displacement.
Sunil Acharya is the regional advisor for Climate And Resilience Practical Action in Kathmandu, Nepal.
This article was originally published in the Ecologist on 8th September 2021. The original article can be found here.