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Living in Hope and Fear Beside India's Retreating Himalayan Glaciers
By Catherine Davidson
Tashi Yudon peeks out from behind a net curtain at the rooftops below and lets out a sigh, her breath frosting on the windowpane in front of her.
Some 700 kilometers away in the capital city Delhi, temperatures have yet to dip below 25 degrees Celsius, but in Spiti there is already an atmosphere of impatient expectation as winter settles over the valley.
"The snow will come this month," the 27-year-old teacher predicts, wrapping her scarf a little tighter around herself. "I hope," she adds.
Nestled into the Himalayan mountainside at just over 4,000 meters above sea level, her hometown of Chichim is one of the highest villages in Spiti valley. Snow here signals more than just the coming of a new season; its presence is essential for the survival of the village.
Tashi Yudon, 27, with her mother, Sonam Lakit, 50, in their home in Chichim village.
"Our water source comes from the mountains," Yudon explains, pointing to a snow-covered peak towering in the background. A remote rainshadow region sheltered from the monsoon by the surrounding Himalayas, the valley receives almost no rain. Villages like Chichim are instead entirely dependent on the ice melt which trickles down from the glaciers each summer — a supply which is replenished in winter when it snows.
Recent decades, however, have seen a drastic decline in snowfall, with glaciers across the Himalayas losing a total of 8 billion tons of ice every year. "The ice on the mountain is getting smaller and summers are getting longer," Yudon frowns, as her mother nods in agreement. "There is less water."
As agriculture is becoming less sustainable, tourism is taking over as an alternative income.
Further along the valley in Pangmo, Tashi Tandup, who has lived in the village all of his life, is also worried. "Every year the mountains snow less," the 67-year-old says. "There have always been water problems here, but there used to be so much snow. We would take snow from the hills and then drink the water." Last year, after a winter with no snowfall, the village ran out of water completely.
Reduced snowfall and receding glaciers are a phenomenon impacting the whole of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region. A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that in lower altitude mountainous regions such as Spiti, "glaciers will lose more than 80% of their current mass by 2100."
The report corroborates the findings of an earlier study, which predicted that even if global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as set out in the Paris agreement, over one-third of glacial ice in the region will have disappeared by the end of the century, with "the most negative scenarios in the eastern Himalaya point[ing] towards a near-total loss of glaciers."
Yangchen Dolma, 57, walks to collect water pumped from the Spiti River from the village tap in Pangmo Nunnery.
Butith Dolma, 27, with her niece and nephew, worries her life will become unsustainable in the village.
Rapidly-receding glaciers would have a direct impact on 10 of the world's major river systems which originate in the region, increasing the risk of flooding in summers and eventually causing drought as the ice disappears. This would affect 1.9 billion people who live downstream as well as 3 billion people who rely on crops grown in the river basins. The IPCC report also predicts that as the ice melts, it will release legacy pollutants from decades of black carbon deposited on the mountain tops, contaminating downstream water supplies.
In lower altitude regions of the Himalayas such as Spiti, where glaciers were small to start with, their recession is already having an impact on the villages that depend on them.
Butith Dolma moved to the village of Demul eight years ago when she got married. "Out of the eight years, two have been droughts," she says. "We completely ran out of water. None of the crops grew."
The 27-year-old mother-of-two worries that if the water situation keeps getting worse, her life in Demul may become unsustainable. "We can survive this happening one year, but if it happens regularly we will have to move," she says.
Tashi Tandup, 67, with his wife Kalzang Angmo, 59, in their home in Pangmo village.
In nearby Ladakh, water shortages have already caused a few entire villages to migrate. The inhabitants of Kumik in Zanskar were forced to relocate in 2014 after the river which they depended on for water dried up.
"Agriculture is the main source of income here. And it's very water-dependent," explains Ishita Khanna, the co-founder of Spiti-based NGO Ecosphere. "If the situation continues then yes, there would be villages which would migrate out."
Ecosphere is working to mitigate the impact of climate change by utilizing traditional methods of water conservation combined with modern technology, such as solar pumps which can pump up river water when mountain sources dry up.
In Demul, they have experimented with check dams and artificial glaciers, designed to freeze water before it can flow off the land. "We can't control how much snow falls," says Ishita. "But we can try to trap as much of the snow or water from running off as possible."
A lack of water and vegetation makes it increasingly difficult for villagers to feed livestock.
Whilst pumping up river water and preventing run-off provide temporary relief, however, Ishita acknowledges that it might not be a sustainable solution. Eventually, she says, the water supply will deplete entirely if there's not enough snowfall.
It is a fact which constantly plays on the mind of Tandup, sat in his home in Pangmo village, where Ecosphere has installed a solar-powered pump.
"If we depend on the Spiti River only, we can build a pump and it's a solution," he says. "But if there is less and less snowfall on Kunzum top [the nearby mountain], then the rivers will stop flowing, and then we will have a big problem."
The old man says that he knows of two or three young families who have already migrated out of the valley and "moved to Manali because of the water problem." As for most families in Spiti, however, financial constraints tying him to the land means that he would never consider the move himself. "All of our lands and agriculture are here," he explains. "We don't have any land in other places."
Yudon, tearing her gaze regretfully away from the snowless scene outside her window, agrees. "This is our land, our home," she says, gesturing at the scattering of square houses below. "We will stay here in Chichim. Even without water."
"There is no other solution," she concludes simply.
Reposted with permission from DW.
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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