ICIMOD, being an intergovernmental organization with a regional mandate, aims to link regional institutions that are conducting cryosphere-related research into a single platform through which a common approach and data sharing can be promoted.
In the spotlight
For this month’s HKH CryoHub: In the Spotlight, we caught up with Smriti Basnet, who is a Senior Researcher/Programme Coordinator at Future Earth – South Asia Regional Office, Divecha Centre for Climate Change, Indian Institute of Science.
You were involved in developing a glaciology course curriculum for Sikkim University as a senior researcher. Can you tell us about it?
Smriti Basnet: The structural changes are being worked out at the moment and a semester course on Cryosphere Studies is being taught in the Department of Geology. We are working on reframing the syllabus and building capacity in this field.
However, it has been a challenge to introduce glaciology at Sikkim University. The university is relatively young and it is going to take some time until the university grows. The support from the professors in the Department of Geology has been overwhelming, but the absence of a Department on Environment Sciences makes functioning difficult.
We have proposed a project and grant to the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, for recognition of Sikkim University as a Centre of Excellence on “Water resources, cryosphere, and climate change studies”. If accepted, this grant could accelerate research on glaciers in Sikkim.
As a young researcher working on glaciology, why do you think cryosphere research is important in the region?
Basnet: In my hometown of Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, the first drop of tap water that I touch as I start my day is from glaciers. Yet, the source of the waters feeding Gangtok has not been scientifically quantified. There is no measure of volumetric discharge from the source, i.e. Rathey Chu River, a stream fed by snow and glacier melt as runoff. Similarly, information about the contribution of rainfall and snow and glacier melt discharge is also scarce.
Sikkim’s economy is based on hydropower generation, tourism, and agriculture. All of these sectors depend on water availability in the Teesta and Rangeet, the two major rivers of Sikkim. With the growing demand of water, especially during the peak tourist season, in-migration, population, and pressure on natural resources are increasing. Glaciers, streams, and snow cover therefore need to be continuously monitored to understand the present and future availability of water. We can make accurate forecasts and preparations for the effects of climate change and demography shift only if the present status of the cryosphere is regularly monitored and understood.
What kind of changes have you observed while on fieldwork?
Basnet: I have trekked and recced several glaciers and valleys in north Sikkim on fieldwork. The periglacial areas and the life that revolves around them – yak herding, grazing, wildlife, agriculture, and tourism – have a close association with glaciers. I have witnessed the effects of climate change in the mountains. The meadow grasslands in the periglacial areas show signs of delay, and rising temperatures have resulted in several yak grazing lands being abandoned. I have also observed a gradual decline in the number of yaks. Yak cannot tolerate temperatures above 15°C. Yak herders share similar narratives. As observers, they complain about glacier loss.
Subsistence agriculture, which is predominant in this region, depends entirely on the cold climate regime and rain. The high-altitude potatoes, cabbage, beans, maize, and barley are rainfed and the changing pattern of precipitation has been affecting harvest.
Every time I am out for fieldwork, I dread not seeing yak, I fear streams running dry during winters, I shudder at the thought of hydropower plants shutting down. It would tear my soul to see humans and animals being displaced because of a glacial lake outburst flood. To be prepared with the reality and facts is better than ignorance. It is the need of the hour to conserve and monitor seasonal snow, glaciers, and discharge not only in Sikkim but all over the Himalaya.
You are currently working with Future Earth. How is your background in glaciology useful for your work?
Basnet: At Future Earth, we believe that the only way to make living in this world sustainable is by drawing in collective knowledge and networking. As Programme Coordinator for Future Earth, I will be engaging with various sustainability programmes in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Most of these regions have large areas under snow and glaciers. Since Gangtok is my hometown, Northeast India and the Himalaya are very close to my heart and a priority area. I will soon be networking with academicians, scientists, social scientists, ecologists, environmentalists, local communities, and NGOs to tackle climate change, helping find more sustainable solutions for critical issues linked with glaciers.
I am also associated with an International Geoscience Programme (IGCP/UNESCO project) on “Himalayan glaciers and risk to local communities” and carrying out programmes to build glacier research capacity in Sikkim and Sikkim University.
What would be your message to decision makers?
Basnet: Global warming of 1.5°C is not far off. Don’t think of the next election and votes alone. Make sustainable policy reforms so that your grandchildren can play alongside rivers, see yak and witness snow-clad mountains in the future!