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‘Covid-19 is double trouble for the Himalayan population’

The Intergovernmental International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal recently published a policy paper, ‘COVID-19 Impact and Policy Responses in the Hindu Kush Himalaya’. The Hindu Kush Himalaya, a mountainous corridor stretching across India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, is home to about 240 million people, and provides food for more than three billion. In an exclusive interview to Mint, ICIMOD’s director-general David Molden explains how the pandemic has affected the livelihood of people living in the mountains and the growing impact of climate change on the region. Edited excerpts:

How has the pandemic affected the residents of the Hindu Kush Himalaya region?

The health situation is not so bad. India had a few cases early on, but now the situation seems under control. Pakistan saw a spike because of migrants but, again, that’s taken care of. Bhutan didn’t have many cases because they sealed their borders immediately. In Nepal, we are starting to get some cases, but not in remote areas. So, it’s in relatively better shape. But from the livelihood perspective, people have been hit hard by the lockdown. Curtailment of transport, the return of migrants, the impact on earning sources has been quite severe, and it is compounded by the impact of climate change. Essentially, it’s double trouble.

Is there any gender-specific impact of the pandemic?

Oh yes. There are a lot of gender issues, some of them around migration. Many people in the mountains go to Dubai, Qatar and Kuwait, even Delhi and Mumbai, for job opportunities. Now, because of the lockdown, many have returned home. This has made things more difficult for women who were already looking after their agricultural land, family and daily household chores. There’s also gender-based violence. Now, women have to go to water sources more because of an extra family member, which exposes them more to covid-19.

The water crisis has been deepening in the Himalayas over the years. Has covid-19 worsened it in any way?

Water has always been a struggle in the mountains, but we don’t hear much about it because people just cope with it. The government wants you to wash your hands regularly but that’s not possible here. Any place you go, you will see women walking miles to fetch water because there are no great water services. In Ladakh, people depend on glaciers and snow melt for water since there is very little rainfall. The glaciers are seriously receding. In east India, the story is different: they are not relying on ice melt and glaciers but the rapidly depleting groundwater. Floods and extreme rainfall are becoming more regular, which is further affecting the area and making it more difficult to access clean water.

What climate change is telling us is that there’s going to be more rainfall in future but it would be less predictable. We are going to see very heavy rainfall events followed by drought periods. Another problem at the water front is sanitation. It’s a huge issue in mountain areas and in the rapidly expanding cities like Mussorie, Shillong and Guwahati. It’s not just all climate change, you know. The government also needs to make the right investments.

While putting together the report, which findings were you most surprised about?

We were all happy with the clean air and low pollution levels because of the lockdown but soon we realized it has become easier for poachers to extract resources from protected areas. Food security is another aspect that needs more attention in the long run because of floods, droughts and locusts.

The paper suggests that the current crisis is a good opportunity to hit the reset button. Could you explain?

The mountain people need the safety net from the government. They need jobs and some sort of monetary help. Governments are putting in a lot of investments but they need to focus on issues around sustainability and green growth. If we are spending so much money on recovery, can we ensure that the money is spent with a long-term point of view? For instance, if we are giving funds, we need to ensure that women who have to manage on their own are getting the funds. The ethnic groups too need focused and consistent help. The aim should be green recovery. Oil and gas might seem like an easier investment right now, especially with the oil prices down. But let’s have an eye on wind, solar energy and good practice hydropower.

Ultimately, we will go back to tourism but now’s a chance to push the reset button because mountain tourism is in really bad shape. This crisis is really the time to decide and get into action about which direction we want our future to go, that is, a more green and equitable society. Tourism is a fantastic opportunity for mountain people but it has to more sustainable.

Is the younger generation more vocal about climate change and a more sustainable future?

Absolutely. There’s a lot of interest in sustainable entrepreneurship, with youth being very active. The government needs to find a way to encourage and support them more. I think our hope is the young people. Youngsters like Greta Thunberg do have the voice and are coming forward to bring a change, and not on just climate change. They are bringing up many other important issues like racial discrimination. That’s important because what’s going to make politicians listen is strong voices.

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