Climate change real, warns Pangi tribe

Chandrabhaga river through Pangi valley, Himachal Pradesh (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Chandrabhaga river through Pangi valley, Himachal Pradesh (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Mountain ecosystems are highly sensitive due to ecological fragility, geomorphologic instability but are blessed with vast eco biodiversity. Climate change impacts in the form of temperature rise, unpredictable and decreased rainfall, glacier melt, prolonged summers and short winters and changes in the seasonal cycle are happening at a more severe pace in the mountain areas making it more vulnerable to their impacts.

These changes are predicted to have severe effects in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region where global temperatures are already rising and are feared to bring about irreversible changes in the environment and ecosystem affecting agriculture and livelihoods. The Himalayan region, however, continues to be poorly understood making it difficult to predict the impacts of climate change on it.

Local communities, close observers of changes in nature

Local communities in the region are well known for their close interaction and a better understanding of the local environment. However, there is very less information on how mountain communities understand climate change and the mechanisms used by them to cope with it.

This paper Local perceptions and adaptation of indigenous communities to climate change: Evidences from high mountain Pangi valley of Himachal Pradesh published in the Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge presents the findings of a study that attempts to understand the indigenous communities’ perceptions of climate change, its impact on local climatic variables and strategies adopted by the community to cope with these changes.

The study was conducted among the farming communities in Pangi valley of Chamba district of Himachal Pradesh, India. A majority of the population in the valley depends on traditional subsistence agriculture and livestock rearing. The valley is rich in biodiversity and is referred to as Important Plant area and a potential site for agriculture heritage status. The area can be greatly vulnerable to climate change and impact agriculture and livelihoods due to a limited growing season and grazing activities as the areas remain snow covered for four to six months.

The study finds that:

Climate change is real for the people in the valley

Most of the people from the community say that they have experienced the impacts of climate change much more during the period 2000 to 2015 as compared to 1985-2000. They are experiencing climate change in the form of decreased snowfall, rise in temperature, late onset of monsoon, etc. People say that while the snowfall was five to 15 feet before 2000, it has now reduced to two to eight feet. A majority of the people feel that rainfall has decreased significantly with increased dry spells and intensity, a decrease in the number of cloudy days and an increase in strong winds. Many also report a delay in the timing of snowfall and early withdrawal of the monsoon. People also feel that climatic events are becoming more and more unpredictable over the years.

There has been a rise in extreme events in the valley

Many people say that the summer season and winter season are getting hotter with the winter period reducing significantly giving rise to droughts due to decreased and uncertain precipitation (rainfall and snowfall). Respondents have also observed a decreased flow of snow-melted water/glacier runoff and avalanches in the valley. The decreased snowfall has led to decreased incidence of avalanches during winter season, decrease in snow melted water/glacier runoff and subsequently, water flows in springs and nalas. This will have adverse effects on water availability for drinking, irrigation and hydropower generation in the mountains as well as plains. Some believe that there has been a decrease in the incidence of landslides, but an increase in incidents of cloudbursts in the region.

Climate change has had an impact on cropping patterns

Locals inform that organic pea is now emerging as an important off-season cash crop grown at high altitude sub-valleys such as Sural, and Hundan Bhatori. People also report the introduction of new fruits and crops to cope with the effects of climate change. Cultivation of apple and meetha tilla is increasing in parts of the valley. The valley has also witnessed a change in crops and their acreage from traditional staple crops such as barley, wheat, pulses and millets to high-value cash crops such as pea, apple, potato, cole crops, tomato etc. This is because the temperature rise and decrease in snowfall are suitable for the growth of such crops.

Many people report changes in crops like there is a decrease in the length of the growing season, change in the flowering time of crops, early maturity of crops, reduced growth period and lesser yield. Many also report an increase in crop diseases and pests such as woolly aphid, scab, wilt in newly introduced crops such as apple and potato. Many believe that the yield of crops has declined due to uncertain rainfall, shortage of moisture/irrigation water availability, a decline in soil fertility and occurrence of insect pests and diseases.

Perceptions on change in biodiversity and ecosystem health

A number of respondents say that the appearance of the wild bear population in cultivated and inhabited areas has decreased. They have also noticed a decrease in honeybees, butterflies, an increase in the appearance of mosquitoes, early migration of birds, decrease in vultures, chakor, pigeon, monal and crow and an increase in the population of monkeys. They have also noticed a change in the behaviour of some insects and birds with birds coming early and returning late to their native habitats.

Adaptation strategies to cope with these changes

All these observations of people can be scientifically validated and are real. People in the region practice crop diversification, mixed cropping, crop rotation, agroforestry/agro horticulture and improved varieties to build resilience against climate change. Some farmers have also started rearing Jersey cows or cows of improved variety in the valley and using farm manure, farm animal urine and wood ash as indigenous traditional knowledge-based products for maintaining soil fertility and improving yield.

However, the paper argues that these efforts still continue to be inadequate and need to be coupled with modern strategies such as zero tillage, snow/water/glacier runoff harvesting, mulching and agro advisory services to cope with the effects of climate change on the environment and agriculture. Thus, cost-effective and environment-friendly traditional measures need to be reoriented through the integration of modern farming techniques suited to local conditions to bring about a change.

Climate change will also bring with it new challenges and opportunities that will require timely access of agro-inputs, creation of infrastructure (Irrigation and road), soil and water conservation measures, crop/animal insurance, eco-labelling of farm products and market access. Scientific livestock rearing should be encouraged to prevent erosion of biodiversity and natural resources in the fragile mountain areas. Further, efforts also need to be made to increase awareness and capacity building among the indigenous communities on a priority basis.

The paper can be accessed here