If you follow the news, you’ve no doubt read headlines about massive flooding in India. The region, fertile and prosperous thanks to the rainshadow of the Himalayas, is known for its torrential monsoons. Big cities are shut down for days at a time when storms dump inches of rain. Valleys are scoured by raging rivers each summer. The floodplains come back to life seasonally. Power systems fail under the strain of the weather – sometimes, the largest cuts in human history hit the subcontinent, leaving millions without power for days on end.
For the students and teachers who travel to India with CCS, rain and flooding are distant but visible variables. The month of March, when we go as a school, has been a dry season for as long as people have lived in the Himalayas. It’s impossible to miss the landslides that scar the mountains from the previous monsoon, but things are generally stable when we go. Still, the people we know and live with while we’re there are seeing change happen fast.
Agora, our home in the foothills, relies on subsistence farming. People grow almost all of the food they eat and fertile ground supplies enough to make profits off of excess. Farming in the tallest, steepest mountains in the world is no easy task though. Everything is a fine balance, literally and figuratively. For more than four hundred years, the people of Agora have calibrated a way of life. They are masters of their place.
To create enough flat land to farm the food they need, they carved terraces out of the mountainside. Each terrace is remarkable – the soil is rich with nutrients cultivated over generations, the land is remarkably level in a land of precipitous cliffs, and the support system is a network of intricate stone walls. From afar, the terraces are truly mind-altering. The scale is ridiculous. Up close, they are obvious signs of the health of this place and its people. They make inhospitable mountains feel like home.
The people of Agora know when and what to plant. They live in the midst of nature and have developed a keen understanding of rainfall patterns, crop cycling to mimic growth patterns in the forest, and correct harvest times. Everyone in the village has learned to mark the passing of a year through seasonal indicators that shape everything they do and not by a calendar on the wall. They know how to read the high clouds and low forage.
The fabric of Agora means that they sense small changes acutely. The fine balance is sensitive.
- More than anything else, temperatures and rainfall are changing in the Himalayas. This extreme environment manifests change extremely. An early cold snap in September or October can dump snow on high meadows that are normally bare and available for grazing until November or December. An early warm rainstorm in March can melt fields of snow that normally melt slowly during the sunny months of April and May. Each small change triggers a reaction on par with the conditions.
- Across the Hindu Kush, the region that extends from Afghanistan to Myanmar, average air temperatures have risen by nearly two degrees Fahrenheit (National Geographic). Peak high temperatures are more or less stagnant, as is often true with climate change patterns around the world. But the cold temperatures have risen acutely. “In response, glaciers are retreating; permafrost is melting; and weather patterns are becoming more erratic, disrupting previously reliable water sources for millions and instigating more natural disasters.” (National Geographic)
- Snowfall and rain patterns are shifting in response to a warming climate in the mountains. “Most snowfall in the high mountains along the eastern swath of the region falls during the summer when the powerful monsoon noses up into the mountains. But in recent decades, that monsoon has weakened, starving the mountains of the snow that feeds glaciers and that provides key water to many farmers as it slowly melts through the springtime, right when they need water to get their crops planted. This monsoon is predicted to weaken further in the future, further disrupting critical water supplies to farmers that rely on it.” (National Geographic)
In Agora, these changes mean that seasonal harvests have become unpredictable. In the last 10 years, a pattern of inconsistency has emerged. One year, the amaranth yield will be the best on record. The next, almost nothing will grow. Potatoes, once a staple of the Agora diet in the lean months, are harder and harder to grow regularly. Unexpected rains have rotted entire crops. Farming is getting harder and harder to predict, in a place where predictability has been elemental to survival for hundreds of years.
In Uttarakhand, the surrounding state, changing weather has brought devastation. By 2012, summer rain patterns had changed so dramatically that things began to happen that had never happened in known history. In 2012, the flood of 1,000 years hit the Assi Ganga Valley. A perfect storm struck that tells a valuable story that resonates in the rest of the region:
- For years leading up to 2012, laborers from Bihar and Nepal had been working actively in the dry seasons to build a hydro-electric project in the valley. This project, approved to provide power to factories and growing cities in the plains as part of Uttarakhand’s efforts to generate revenue for the state, required active dynamiting to bore a tunnel to channel fast-flowing water. Often, the entire valley would shake as laborers set of explosives. In other environments, land resettles quickly after blasts. In the young Himalayas, dynamiting shakes loose shale and rock and leaves things loose for months.
- On August 3rd, a cloudburst hit the Assi Ganga that was unlike any before it. Rain fell out of the sky with such force that small streams overflowed almost instantly. These small streams, which give the Assi Ganga its name (translated, Assi Ganga means 80 feeder streams), raged against the loose rocks from all of the dynamitings. From the highest reaches of even the smallest rivulets, landslides pushed downstream. By the time the raging waters hit the Assi Ganga proper, which was itself also filling up, impacts caused massive landslides. These built up walls that stopped water for minutes and hours at a time. As the rain continued, these temporary barriers burst as well. A chain reaction shook the valley with such force that residents thought they were experiencing an earthquake.
- On the morning of August 4th, residents of Agora woke up with no context for what had happened. The routines of the community unfolded slowly, as they usually do on a summer morning. One can’t see the river from most houses and low clouds hung over Sangamchatti, obstructing what view there might have been. A young boy, heading off to the jungle to play, was the first to see the river upstream of the village. He came running back to town, screaming that the valley was gone. No one believed him.
- When people had the chance to observe what had actually happened, the scale of flooding was obvious. Stretches of forest were gone and boulders bigger than 3 story buildings were nowhere to be seen. The entire river was several feet higher than it should have been, lifted up by the land that had been sucked down. Nothing looked the same along the Assi Ganga. Downstream, an entire village had been wiped away and the camp for the laborers who were working on the hydro project was simply gone.
- What people couldn’t see was just as bad. Below the surface of the water, life had been erased by the gritty substrate that was flowing with the water and the release of toxins and minerals in intolerable quantity. Perhaps a few small nymphs remained but the river was otherwise lifeless. Trout, thriving in the valley for more than 150 years, were all dead. So too were snow trout and small local catfish and tadpoles.
The 2012 flood in the Assi Ganga was an accurate model of what will continue to happen if climate change is left unchecked and development continues along sensitive Himalayan valleys. It is a perfect storm with a clear recipe. Just a year later, the same conditions came together for even wider evidence of this truth:
- Uttarakhand is one of India’s youngest states. It broke off from Uttar Pradesh in the early 2000s and has had to rely on limited industrial capacity, low population density relative to other parts of India, and difficult-to-access resources. Generating revenue is no easy task in the small mountainous state. In the past 15 years, the government has decided to invest in hydropower as a way of generating revenue by selling energy to the plains. Tourism has been identified as a major opportunity for growth and the government has opened the gates to development of this sector. Road construction, in particular, has become a consistent part of the landscape. Although this infrastructure benefits local communities, it also threatens the balance of life in the region and destabilizes the hillsides.
- Uttarkashi, just 15 kilometers from Agora, is the gateway to Gangotri, perhaps India’s holiest pilgrimage destination and the major source of the Ganges. Because of its location and its role as the capital of the surrounding state, Uttarkashi has grown considerably since the creation of Uttarakhand. This part of India was once considered the least accessible because of its steep valleys and high ridges. But the roads have come and they continue to come and with them thousands of people seeking opportunity. Blasting and construction are constant.
- Although government policies have long banned construction within reasonable distances of riverbeds to avoid environmental issues, the government of Uttarakhand turned a blind eye to regulations in order to allow for what they perceived as essential growth. The monsoons have always been powerful forces along the edge of rivers. Building in the same flood zones has created the conditions for catastrophe.
- While construction has increased throughout Uttarakhand, the glaciers that are nestled in the high valleys of Uttarkashi district and surrounding regions have been melting. Melting glaciers create lakes in dangerously high low points. These lakes generally leak into small streams and rivers that flow south toward the fertile plains. Their flow is regulated by glacial ice that surrounds them and by the relatively consistent melting rates that have existed for thousands of years. In the past two decades, the conditions in these glaciers have changed tremendously. Many have lost as much as 75% of their original size since 2000. When lakes like this are already full to capacity with snowmelt, rain can cause dangerous bursts.
- In June of 2013, the worst flooding in Uttarakhand history hit. Pilgrims in key destinations like Gangotri and Kedarnath (all four sources of the Ganges are in Uttarakhand) had amassed in the thousands. In Kedarnath alone, 25,000 people were on the banks of the river worshipping on June 16th. The cloudbursts that hit the regions were enough on their own to swell streams and rivers and cause devastation. Coupled with the conditions in glacial lakes and the impact of recent dynamiting throughout the region, these cloudbursts sent walls of water plowing downriver, unlike anything that people have ever witnessed.
- Although there are conflicting reports of exactly how many people died in the 2013 floods, all estimates say that at least 5,000 lives were lost. Though the government vehemently denies their findings, other studies suggest that as many as 15,000 people lost their lives in the immediate flooding and the isolation that followed. Hundreds of thousands were stranded and thousands more were evacuated to safety.
- For the infrastructure of the region, the floods were devastating. Hundreds of bridges collapsed, leaving communities cut off for weeks and months. Powerlines were swept away and still need replacing. Hundreds of miles of roads washed away as landslides were sucked into the raging waters. And from the highest settlements near the sources of the area’s holy rivers to the massive holy towns on the edge of the plains, famous, iconic temples, statues, and buildings were lost for good.
- The largest hydroelectric dam in India, the infamous Tehri Dam, was breached during the floods. Scientists thought this would never happen.
Put simply, Uttarakhand and the many valleys of the region are ideal indicators of what might continue to happen if development and climate change are left unchecked. Although the Himalayas are particularly sensitive and therefore ahead of the curve on most changes, they paint a representative picture of the impact that these forces will have on the lives of millions of people living around the world.