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The reality of climate change in our hills

The reality of climate change in our hills

Flash floods have claimed over 30 lives in the past week in Uttarakhand and many more are currently missing. The damage is the worst in Uttarkashi and Chamoli districts of the Garhwal region. In 2010, parts of the Kumaun region witnessed a similar disaster with lives lost, fields washed away, roads blocked and homes buried under landslides.

With three consecutive years of excess rainfall in July 2010, September 2011 and now in August, the infrastructure in the state has taken a beating. The question in everyone’s mind is whether this shall be the norm henceforth. Is climate change for real?

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The Kumaun region has this summer faced a shortage of both fodder and water. In May and June this year, Ramgarh block of Nainital district received 24.08mm of rainfall against 478.88mm in the same months in the preceding year. The rainfall in these two months was 84% lower than the long-term average between 1890 and 1990. Water for household use was sold at 1 per litre for those who could afford it. The fodder shortage led to wheat husk being bought and transported up from the terai region at prices ranging between 5 and 11.6 per kilogramme.

The summer crop has by and large been a disaster. The dry spell through May and June led to a substantial decline in fruit production, affected the size of the fruits and potatoes and delayed sowing of several other vegetables. While the fodder and water situation will undoubtedly improve with the rains of the past three weeks, if the prediction of an early withdrawal of the monsoon is true, then not just will the kharif crop also be hit, but we may not have seen the last of this drought.

Is there a preparedness to deal with disasters induced by excess rainfall or droughts in the hills? More importantly, is there a long-term strategy to deal with climate change?

One long-term strategy that seems to find favour with certain decision makers, is to ensure that there is a dramatic and widespread transformation of the knowledge and skill base of young people in the region accompanied with job opportunities in the plains. In other words, ensure that the dependence on agriculture and rural economy is reduced and people can migrate to urban areas. Unfortunately, on current form, this cannot be the only strategy to pursue.

In the long-term, for the hills, a concerted focus and investment must include investments in soil and water conservation, afforestation, enhanced fodder production, an improvement in soil health and moisture conservation in rainfed areas, crop diversification, rain-water harvesting, recharging of ground water, improved drainage and an enhancement of the area under irrigation through micro-irrigation. To protect against risks, crop or weather-based insurance must be promoted rather than politically expedient waivers of agricultural loans.

None of this is new or impossible. Resources for all of these exist in government programmes/schemes. However, an integrated area development approach is required that departments operating in independent silos cannot provide. The best bet then would be to let panchayati raj institutions lead such an integrated effort.

The trends of the past three years in Uttarakhand are proof of a significant alteration in the micro-climate irrespective of whether climate change is real or not, it is not a risk worth taking. Given the pace of this change, communities do not as yet have well developed coping mechanisms and the low-income families are the most vulnerable to this change. But we must not merely think of those residing in the hills, but also those downstream in the Indo-Gangetic plain, all the way up to the Bay of Bengal.

V K Madhavan has worked in the not-for-profit sector for two decades and spent 15 years living and working in deserts and hills. He’s still on the fringe asking questions and looking for answers. He will write every fortnight.

Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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