The rain arrowed down, light and springy. The oak trees on the Himalayan slopes—trunks festooned with ferns, mushy with moss—drank it up. The moss looked luminescent, more than a little giddy with overabundance. But the green shine of the Uttarakhand slopes near Mukteshwar had a dark underbelly that seemed to be loosening itself on us.
In July, nine tourists died after their car fell into the rain-swollen Dhela river. The current washed them away. In August, 32 people died in rain and landslides in Himachal Pradesh. In a tragic incident in October, at least four mountaineering trainees from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering on an expedition died after an avalanche hit. Uttarakhand was ringing with red alerts against the rain. In Kumaon and Garhwal, showers themselves were not always the problem—their timing was.
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As I walked, looking for birds, I saw piles of slaty-grey rocks that had fallen down the mountainside. There were little, harmless looking piles of rocks everywhere between Ranikhet and Nainital, and on another route between Mukteshwar and Talla Ramgarh. But such rockslides are not always small, and neither are they always part of the scenery.The temperature has gone up and glaciers have retreated in the Himalaya; Himalayan rainfall will increase but snowfall will decrease, going by the predictions of the Union ministry of earth sciences as well as people’s lived experiences. Rainfall is also becoming more unpredictable.
It’s ironic that the much valued Himalayan water is a beast with many, many heads. Studies show that in areas with oak forests, streams are maintained naturally in moist, richly layered oak forests. But another tree, the Chir pine, dries up the soil and is known to invade oak forests.
Less snowfall and retreating glaciers mean fewer perennial water sources and disappearing streams. It’s easy to underestimate this problem as it has rained long and strangely this year, sometimes gentle, sometimes intense, but frighteningly unstoppable. According to news reports, September saw over 200% of the average rain for the month in Uttarakhand. I asked Sanjay Bisht from Peora village whether this would help charge aquifers.
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Bisht and his family, agriculturalists and home-stay owners, still drink mountain spring water. Their relationship with water is sparkling and unfiltered—they use as little of it as possible and let the rest percolate into the mountain. Yet Bisht was unhappy with the cold September rain. What they needed, he told me, is gentle rain that fills the soil and water harvesting structures, not continuous, unpredictable rain that washes everything off, slipping and sliding over slopes, not allowing the mountain to drink up the water. What is the use of this rain? Bisht asked.
Almost every other year, tourists arrive in the monsoon, go too close to rivers and get felled by water, say villagers near Mukteshwar. In Peora, as a sudden damp cold pervaded the land in between orange and red alerts, people reiterated local wisdom. Don’t stand under rock faces when storms come. Don’t drive when it’s raining. Let native trees grow and hold the soil down with their root-claws. Don’t wait for monsoonal bounty, save water year-round. Be scared of nature and respect it.
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It is interesting that even as the Himalaya are lashed by climate change, there are several development plans for the mountains which will transform, almost terra-form, the area. All-weather roads between Pithoragarh and Banlekh have been built, and more are planned under Char Dham road projects. These involve blasting mountains for road widening. A first of its kind railway line, from Rishikesh to Karnaprayag, is being constructed; it will have over 50 bridges.
While connectivity is important, blasting and tunnelling in seismically active zones like the western Himalaya must be done with caution. Fragile slopes can tumble easily—and lashing rain and storms don’t help. In Pithoragarh, for instance, all-weather roads don’t last through the year. Any work in the mountains clearly needs to consider the looming threat of climate-induced natural hazards, seismic risks, and local wisdom on topography and hydrology.
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If you are a tourist visiting the wildly popular Himalayan hill stations, a rockfall on the side of the road may be just another pretty problem. For people who live in the mountains, potentially dangerous development meant to aid tourism is something to be endured every day. Bisht and other villagers talk about a discomfort they now feel with the weather. Because the climate of one’s home place is like an old family house. A well-lived-in house, with temperamental creaking doors and suddenly slippery bathroom tiles, a house that whinges and wheezes, heats and cools, but still moves to a familiar rhythm. It is a ritualised cycle of comfort and discomfort. But with unpredictable storms, floods and water scarcity, the house of weather is beginning to feel feral.
I remembered Bisht’s “what’s the use of this rain?” comment as I walked in the forest after two days of frightening, continuous September downpour. There were leeches in the grass and moss on the stones. Ray Bradbury’s epic sci-fi story, The Long Rain, came to mind—it is set on his version of planet Venus, where it never stops raining. The forest felt different after long showers. The birds were out, too close to us, looking for food after long spells of hunger. Great barbets snatched at fruit, and Brown-fronted and Grey-headed woodpeckers that did not stop drilling for grub in the rain continued their long search for a meal. Ridiculously beautiful birds appeared. I counted the blues: the powder blue of the Verditer flycatcher, downy and unreal; the pale blue of the Blue-capped rock thrush; the brilliant, Rin-detergent blue of the Ultramarine flycatcher; the star-spangled, metallic blue of the Blue whistling thrush; the lapis of the Red-billed Blue Magpie.
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At the Gaula river, I looked for the majestic Crested kingfisher usually seen along the river, its huge crest alert, its black and white body waiting to launch on fish. That day, it was missing. The rainfall had turned the water turbid and the predator would not be able to see its prey.
There was a quiet peace, perhaps before another storm. People rushed to complete tasks, dry clothes, examine crop damage. They often say nature is angry in the mountains but also that she is goddess-like—dangerous and life-giving all at once. That there are venomous and stately King cobras in the pine needles they gather, and medicines in the folds of trees.
Their life in this verdant, unique place is acutely tuned to the climate. And we urgently need a tuning fork to amplify their traditional knowledge as we bring in JCBs and engineering. The house of weather and climate adaptation needs a captain, and that captain needs to be local. As both overabundance and scarcity hit the mountains, vocal for local knowledge has never been more relevant.
Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author of Wild And Wilful: Tales Of 15 Iconic Indian Species.
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