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India should get ready for the changes in the Great Himalayan water Tower

Environmental historian Mahesh Rangarajan is Vice-Chancellor of Krea University. He explained why changes in the weather are particularly significant for India.


The Himalayas are the bedrock of India's perennial rivers. Changes in the glacial melt will impact water nationwide


India encompasses around three million square kilometers with multiple agro-climatic regions. It has great diversity in climates, from arid areas in the northwest like the Thar desert to Ladakh’s cold desert to areas with very high rainfall in northeast India and parts of the Western Ghats. Scholars of these climatic patterns are now pointing to two significant shifts.
One is the distribution of precipitation that falls upon an area in a year. Let’s suppose an area receives three months of rain — we are now seeing either a majority of that rainfall in just one month or long periods of aridity. This is a major change — if an area which gets 100 centimeters of rain evenly spread gets a very large amount of rain-fall now concentrated in a very small timeframe, that has major implications for lives and livelihoods.
The other change is the onset and duration of winter in areas that have a cold season — this appears to be ending faster. In much of northern India, if the cold season ends earlier and the hot season starts sooner, the entire pattern of sowing and harvesting crops will change. Earlier, the festival of Diwali was meant to approximately mark the beginning of the cold season while Basant Ritu and Holi marked the beginning of spring and the unfolding of summer. But these co-relations are less precise now than before.
With more intensified precipitation comes a longer and more concentrated dry spell and higher temperatures in the hot season. These weather changes affect two critical cycles — the first is the hydrological cycle or the availability of water. The other is the cycle of the variations in temperature. These have direct impacts on plant productivity which forms the basis of all life.

Of course, climates have never been entirely stable through history — over the last 12,000 years, and in studies on protohistory and prehistory, there have been instances of climatic disruptions. Scholars of the Harappan civilization studied pollen grains from city sites in Rajasthan that show the nature of cropping changing, reflecting longer dry or wet spells. This is similar to Vijayanagara in southern India where scholars have found phases of climatic variations — in those times, Vijayanagara devised ways to store water, changed cropping patterns to less water-intensive crops, etc. They worked out how to reorient their lives in times of climate change. Nature wasn’t static then either — but its changes were not human-driven. Now, humans — and some humans, more than others — play a much larger role in changing the climate.
These variations in weather are critical for India. The rhythm of the seasons is central to agriculture which employs 45% of our population of 1.3 billion people. In France, under three percent of the labor force works in agriculture. In the US, this is under two percent. Consider the mind-boggling scale than of agriculture in India and the multitudes who depend on farming for food and jobs. A prolonged dry spell can impact both agricultural production and rural India’s consumption of goods and services.

There are deeper challenges as well. Dry spells due to climate change will impact the dynamics of Earth’s third water tower — the great mountain chain of Asia, the center of which is the Himalayas. The ice and snow of the Himalayas are surpassed only by the north and south poles — there are over 10,000 glaciers in the greater Himalayan mountain chain.

These glaciers have been known throughout history as the source of the perennial rivers which flow across the northern part of South Asia. If these glaciers are impacted by changes in temperature, their melt rate will change. That will affect people living even thousands of miles downstream. Such changes introduce a level of uncertainty not known in living memory.

There are steps we should take to tackle such changes in time. One of them can help us stem the flooding we’ve seen recently in coastal cities like Chennai. If you examine the pattern of land utilization in many sea-front cities over the last few decades, you will see low-lying areas have been subject to permanent structures which wasn’t the practice before. But these areas are exactly where water accumulates when there is excess precipitation. Water needs spaces to flow away to and we are now considering amounts of water that are unprecedented in history — our urban development must take this profound change into account.

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