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By 2050, temperatures across some portions of the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region are projected to increase by 1–2°C. Compared to a 1960s baseline, the monsoon is expected to become longer and more erratic, precipitation is projected to change by 5% on average, and the intensity of extreme rainfall events is likely to increase. Furthermore, climate models project substantial losses in glacial mass and area in the coming decades (up to 2030, 2050, and 2100) for some parts of the region.
The aquatic bodies of the HKH region are a lifeline for millions of floral and faunal communities who depend on them for numerous services. These water bodies are critical for a majority of rural and mountain communities. They are especially important for mountain women, who often find themselves shouldering all household responsibilities as male members migrate to nearby towns and cities seeking better livelihood options. These women are at the frontline of climate change, living in a time of unpredictable climatic patterns and facing its effects – be it in the form of diminishing services from aquatic systems which they rely so heavily upon, or the disasters (floods and droughts) which these systems bring to their doorsteps year after year. The women here are torn between having to deal with these climate-induced impacts and perform their daily chores – caring for the children and elderly, and taking care of the household.
My interactions with the women of the HKH have given me some insight into certain climate change-related water issues that adversely impact their lives, livelihoods, and well-being. Worryingly, based on local insights and backed by published scientific literature, the severity of these impacts have increased over the past few years. To make matters worse, human stressors on aquatic bodies have the potential to boost the adverse impacts of climate change.
The women I’ve spoken to during my field work have told me that rivers have less water these days than they used to (and certainly not all year round), which means there is less food. There is a lot of demand for the water that is available, and less rain only means more worry for the women. Even when the river waters flow, they are no longer potable. Water needs to be boiled before it can be consumed, and this requires firewood, collecting which is also a responsibility designated to women. As most streams that flow through villages are polluted, women are travelling greater distances and spending more time collecting water from mountain springs.
The situation looks grim, to say the least. Livelihood opportunities must be extended to mountain women so that they are able to sustain their households and themselves. This is especially true because the remittances male family members send are not always guaranteed. Changing climatic variables and increasing human stressors have adversely changed ecosystem service flows, directly influencing livelihood security within mountains and in dependent lowlands.
My discussions regarding some of the livelihood opportunities possibly impacted by climate change and anthropogenic stressors have revealed distressing insights. Households now rely on fish that are smaller in size and weigh less than they used to before. The women I’ve spoken to tell me that there are less fish now to be caught and sold in the local market, which means household incomes have taken a hit.
On this World Water Day, when the focus is on “Water and Climate Change”, action plans to tackle climate change need to be integrated across different water sectors and coordinated across borders, working towards safe and sustainable water management. It is vital to ensure that the poorest people don’t get left behind. One way to work towards this could be to pin-point sustainable actions that can be implemented to provide relief to mountain and rural women of some of the drudgery they face. It is also critical to understand that aquatic ecosystems and their dependent inhabitants are highly vulnerable to the long-term impacts of climate change, and need targeted interventions at various levels of governance. Increasing human stressors at critical sites are an additional threat complementing climatic impacts and need key management strategies from decision makers.
Anantaraman Vaidyanathan (1931–2020) left behind a rich body of scholarly ...