People of Sikkim – The Repository of Climate Change

A family prays alongside a monk as he offers prayers to the Teesta from the bridge near Teesta Bazaar on the National Highway. The ritual, earlier performed at the river bank, is now carried out on the bridge because the reservoir of a dam downstream has submerged the Teesta's banks blocking access to the spot.

Amitav Ghosh, in his recent book, The Great Derangement, argued that the topic of climate change has remained a concern for scientists and policy makers, but the broader field of literature has largely ignored it. The title of Ghosh’s book itself is a clever choice. In medical sciences, the word derangement refers to a disturbance of normal bodily function; and Ghosh is calling climate change a derangement in the planetary climate regime due to human behavior in recent human history. What is the significance of Amitav Ghosh’s book for Sikkim – there is an immense importance.

Here in Toronto, I was a witness to record-breaking cold weather recently – shattering a 57-year record across Canada – with temperatures dipping to as low as -30 degrees. Climate change deniers across US and Canada stepped up their rhetoric, calling the extreme cold an example of climate change being a hoax. But what about the derangement in climate regimes that is unfolding simultaneously around the world? In that context, a good thing about Sikkim is that there is no climate change denial – there is something else.

Sikkim is situated in a region – the Himalayas - that is directly responsible for the water needs of about 47% of world’s population. River Teesta and other rivers of Sikkim, flow into the region with some of the densest populations anywhere in the world. The story of climate change has remained the story of big polluting cities with industries that gush out harmful particulate matter that has direct impact on the climatic regime of the high Himalayas. But with the advent of large industries and the hydropower projects in Sikkim, the impact of climate change has been accelerated to say the least.

In a 2009 article published in the New Left Review, Kenneth Pomeranz highlighted that glaciological research had revealed that Himalayan glaciers have lost all the ice formed since mid-1940s. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has also pointed out that the Himalayan region will warm twice as rapidly as the global average warming. Based on this assessment, an Ohio State University researcher has predicted that a large share of Himalayan glaciers will disappear by 2050. This is an alarm bell – we should all be paying attention to it – it has been loud and clear for some time now.

In the March of 2011, the Government of Sikkim – in collaboration with various partners – released the Sikkim Action Plan on Climate Change. This plan sought to look at the challenges climate change would pose over the next two decades. This plan provided a broad picture for focus areas such as water security; biodiversity, forest, wild life, and ecotourism; urban-rural habitats; and urban transport. The climate predictions of this report are based on the findings from the PRECIS modelling – among other models -- developed by the Hadley center in UK. The salient finding from the PRECIS modelling is the increase in rainfall in Sikkim and its surroundings by 3-56 mm overall and between 18-75mm during the monsoon season.

In The Great Derangement, Ghosh argues that the reason for people to be involved in the process of grappling with climate change is because we all are the repository of knowledge about our environment– collectively better than any other recording machine available. This idea seems to have inspired two researchers -- Kamal Bawa and Pashupati Chaudhary -- who wanted to get around the lack of evidence about climate data in Sikkim. Bawa and Pashupati used people as their repository to gather climate data, and gathered information from both high and low altitude regions of Sikkim. Until most recently the only set of data about climate regimes in Sikkim was available from two out of the 17 weather stations – both are in Gangtok city.

The findings from Bawa and Pashupati’s study were similar to what the PRECIS modelling had revealed – the rainfall has indeed been increasing and has become erratic of late. People living in the higher altitude regions of Sikkim have reported greater overall warming, early onset of summer, decrease in snow, drying up of water, among other climatic transformations as opposed to individuals living around the lower altitude areas. People from the lower altitudes have reported early onset of monsoon, decrease in snow, drying up of water, and new crop pests.

The authors of this story point out that gathering climate data for Sikkim over time is a difficult task, and therefore their study relied on survey responses which were gathered from 10 villages located in Singalila National Park in the Darjeeling Hills, and eight villages in Ilam district of Nepal – a region that is in close proximity to Sikkim. Bawa and Pashupati’s findings overlap with findings from other scientific data projections, which refer to increase in mean temperature by 2.9 degree Celsius every year, and the increase in rainfall by the 18% by the middle of the 21st century. These are worrying numbers. Sikkim has faced major natural disasters that contribute towards infrastructural collapse every year – roads, bridges, houses, and every other vulnerable infrastructure.

One question that everyone from Sikkim should ask themselves, is climate change the result of events happening afar on the plains of India? That isn’t the case – climate change drivers are right here in the state.

The Centre for Policy Research – a New Delhi-based think tank – provided an analysis of the Sikkim Action Plan for Climate Change (SAPCC) put out by the State Government of Sikkim. This is a document that everyone interested in climate change with regards to Sikkim should read – the CPR report unpacks how the SAPCC was developed. The CPR report states that there are only two sectors: water resources and the forests that have been the focus through a forecast in the SAPCC. A topic that was supposed to be a large part of SAPCC – Energy Efficiency – was largely ignored. Why is that so? The Centre for Policy Research’s report argues that this would have directly brought Government of Sikkim’s plan in conflict with its investiture into hydropower projects across the state of Sikkim. Though the SAPCC has made some suggestions in the forestry section to invest in renewable energy solutions, the elephant in the room is staring down in this action plan – hydropower projects.

The United Nations Development Programme realized the urgent need to address the dynamic climatic transformations happening across the Sikkim Himalayas, and therefore have set up a special initiative for Sikkim and other Indian states. The states currently part of this initiative by the UNDP are Uttarakhand, Manipur, Jharkhand, and Sikkim. United Nations has till date worked with the organizations based in New Delhi, but this initiative is trying to cut through the bureaucratic procedures to work directly with the states to address climate change related concerns. But only time will tell how successful United Nations is at working with Sikkim and other states of India. For now Sikkim has a team of UNDP experts working in Gangtok.

But it isn’t just the climate regimes that have been deranged; it is the political consciousness of the people that seems to also have shifted – wavering between ethnicity and religion. As we let our leaders keep us busy with political gimmicks, the fate of Himalayas and rest of South Asia, is being written by large conglomerates that are interested in exploiting natural resources for energy production. It is only the people of Sikkim who hold the key to the collective future of the state, and by acting as a repository of knowledge – recording and writing – they can develop an agenda of climate action that fights the denial and doublespeak that mires any conclusive action against the forces driving climate change in Sikkim.

[The writer is an international freelance journalist, writer and research anthropologist by training. He was also a Young Explorer Grantee at National Geographic Society and is currently based out of Toronto, Canada.]

SummitTimes presents a month-long series focusing on hydel projects and climate change in Sikkim and West Bengal. The series has been made possible with support from Wageningen University, NWO and UK Department for International Development [DFID] under Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of Climate Change research project ‘Enhancing mediascapes for sustainability and justice in the Eastern Himalaya’ coordinated by DLRP, a Darjeeling-based NGO. We will be featuring two articles every week.

More from the Spotlight series:

A conversation with 3 activists

Journey from Teestamukh till Tso Lhamo Sikkim's Hydel Story