Of India’s 12 Himalayan states, Assam, Mizoram and Jammu and Kashmir are the most vulnerable to climate change, a new study has concluded. High vulnerability leaves a region with low capacity to anticipate, resist, cope with or recover from the impact of a climate hazard.

Himalayan communities are generally more vulnerable to climate change because they have fewer livelihood options, limited infrastructure and a high dependence on natural resources, the study said.

Aimed at identifying the drivers of vulnerability and developing ways of adapting to and mitigating their impact, the study titled Climate Vulnerability Assessment for the Indian Himalayan Region Using a Common Framework was conducted by the Indian Institutes of Technology at Mandi and Guwahati and the Indian Institute of Science at Bengaluru.

The study was conducted in collaboration with the authorities in all the 12 states in the Indian Himalayan Region: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, Uttarakhand and West Bengal. Of these, West Bengal and Assam are only partially covered by the Himalayas.

The vulnerability index is highest for Assam (0.72), Mizoram (0.71) and Jammu and Kashmir (0.62), while Sikkim is the least vulnerable state with an index of 0.42. Sikkim’s advantage is only relative to other states, the study cautioned.

Source: Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment

Around 50 million Indians reside in the Himalayan region and depend on the mountain range’s ecology for water, food and energy. In these regions, glaciers feed up to 70% of agriculture. With climate change affecting the Himalayan landscape and weather patterns causing longer summers and shorter winters, the livelihoods and survival of these communities are threatened, IndiaSpend reported on October 12, 2018.

A rise of at least 0.5°C in the temperature has been recorded in the upper Himalayas, accompanied by an almost 10% variation in humidity levels. The temperature variation is causing the Himalayan glaciers, a part of the larger cryosphere – the part of the earth system that stores 75% of all frozen freshwater on earth – to melt. This has pushed up the odds of extreme events such as avalanches.

The changing temperature pattern poses a threat to the water security and sustainability of the Himalayan river basins. With an increase in water flow in high-altitude lakes, the chances of floods also increase, IndiaSpend
reported. In Himachal Pradesh, as per this 2013 study, farmers reported a decline in production and delayed harvest, blaming reduced snowfall. Nearly 80% of the farmers living at an altitude of 8,000 ft reported a noticeable decrease in snowfall and nearly 90% of those living at altitudes of 9,800 ft and higher said the same.

India’s greenest and wettest Himalayan state, Meghalaya, is becoming warmer as rains there become more uncertain, leaving a quarter of its forests “highly vulnerable” to climate change, IndiaSpend reported on March 23, citing a 2018 study commissioned by the state government and carried out by the Indian Institute of Science. Its plant and animal life are being impacted, disturbing the lives of communities as well.

The new climate change study is significant because it has produced India’s first vulnerability map. One of its aims is to evolve a common methodology, and determine how states and their districts are equipped to deal with the risks of climate change. A geospatial application has also been launched depicting climate vulnerabilities and risks at the state and district level.

The research team has recommended similar vulnerability studies in other Indian states.

Lack of information, infrastructure up the risk

The drivers of vulnerability vary across states. In Assam, the drivers include low per capita income, low percentage area under crop insurance and low participation in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme, a poverty alleviation programme that promises 100 days of paid work to poor families. Lack of access to information and infrastructure are factors that make it difficult for communities in the state to cope with any climate variability. The western border district of Dhubri, the eastern district of Lakhimpur and the central district of Sonitpur are Assam’s most vulnerable.

Source: Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment

Mizoram’s agriculture sector was found to be highly sensitive, with the second lowest percentage of area under irrigation among the 12 states. The state also has poor connectivity – its road density is the third lowest in the Indian Himalayan Region – and poor access to information and infrastructure.

Jammu and Kashmir lags in road density, area under crop insurance, area under forests per 1,000 rural households, percentage of marginal farmers, percentage area under horticulture crops, livestock-to-human ratio, and percentage of women in the workforce.

Himachal Pradesh, another vulnerable state, was found to have inadequate irrigation facilities – only 20%-21% of its net cropped area is irrigated and the rest is mostly dependent on rains. But the low yield variability of food grains grown here reduces the sensitivity of agricultural production to climate change. The only drivers of vulnerability observed were low livestock-to-human ratio and a large presence of small and marginal farmers (who own less than two hectares of land), who constitute 87.95% of the total peasant population and own 54.17% of the total land.

Vulnerability assessment, the first step to adapting

The first step in adapting to future climate change is to reduce vulnerability, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested in its summary for policymakers, which the current report references.

“Vulnerability refers to the inherent characteristic – both biophysical and socioeconomic – of a system. The current assessment helps in identification of the major drivers of vulnerability, both at state as well as district level, for the 12 Indian Himalayan states,” said Shyamasree Dasgupta, co-principal investigator of the study and an assistant professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT, Mandi.

“The government institutions are likely to find the report useful,” said Dasgupta. “Principal secretaries of some of the states (both Himalayan and non-Himalayan) were present during the dissemination workshop. However, it would be better to consider this study in the context of the assessment of climate vulnerability and climate change adaptation rather than disaster management.”

The central government is already implementing the National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem under the National Action Plan on Climate Change introduced in June 2008. Climate change cells have been set up in 11 Himalayan states to undertake studies on climate change risk and vulnerability assessment.

The government also launched a National Adaptation Fund on Climate Change in 2015-’16 to assist states and union territories with projects and actions. Some 26 projects had been approved across India at a total cost of Rs 648.9 crore, Lok Sabha data from March 9, 2018, said.

Source: Lok Sabha and IHCAP

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.