Sacred Himalayas in Peril: Climate Change's Human Rights Wake-Up Call
East and South Asia Human Rights Researcher
Global Human Rights Defence
In a stark reminder of the far-reaching consequences of climate change, the sacred Himalayan region, home to the revered Kedarnath pilgrimage site, is facing an unprecedented crisis (Haberman, 15 August 2023). The intersection of religious devotion, nature's grandeur, and climate impact is shaping a narrative that demands urgent global attention (Haberman, 15 August 2023).
Millions of pilgrims embark on the Char Dham Yatra to Kedarnath every year, seeking divine blessings amid the stunning backdrop of 20,000-foot snowy peaks (Haberman, 15 August 2023). However, the glaciers that supply vital water sources to the region are melting rapidly due to rising global temperatures, putting at risk the Mandakini River, a major tributary of the Ganges (Haberman, 15 August 2023). Climate scientists stress that the Himalayas, including the Indian Himalayas, are among the most vulnerable regions to climate change (Haberman, 15 August 2023). Recent reports indicate that glaciers in the Hindu Kush region could lose up to 80% of their ice by the century's end if current warming trends persist (Zargar, 22 June 2023). These alarming statistics underscore the urgency of addressing climate change in this ecologically fragile zone.
However, it's not just the environment at stake. The people residing in this region are on the frontlines of this environmental crisis, and their human rights are under threat (Bushal, 9 January 2019). Vulnerable communities along the Karnali River in Nepal are facing increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, affecting their agricultural practices and food security (Bushal, 9 January 2019). Droughts, floods, and landslides have become more frequent, pushing communities to the brink and resulting in forced migration (Zargar, 22 June 2023) (Bushal, 9 January 2019). As glaciers continue to melt, the availability of freshwater for over 1.65 billion people downstream is jeopardised (Zargar, 22 June 2023). This is not just an environmental disaster; it's a human rights crisis that demands our attention and action.
The Himalayan crisis serves as a stark reminder of the dual environmental and human rights emergency. The melting glaciers and erratic weather patterns, driven by climate change, imperil both the environment and the well-being of communities in this fragile region. Vulnerable populations along the Karnali River grapple with disrupted agriculture, food insecurity, and forced migration due to heightened instances of droughts, floods, and landslides. These circumstances directly infringe upon the right to a safe and stable environment, as well as access to vital resources, pushing these communities to the edge of survival. Furthermore, the potential depletion of freshwater sources, affecting over 1.65 billion downstream inhabitants, raises serious concerns about the right to clean water and sanitation. This scenario highlights the immediate necessity for a comprehensive response that acknowledges the intertwined dynamics of climate change and human rights. It's crucial to recognize the extensive impact of this crisis on the lives and dignity of the affected communities, especially within the framework of India's human rights obligations and international environmental commitments like the Paris Agreement.
As the Himalayan region grapples with the dire consequences of climate change, a call to action echoes louder than ever before (Bushal, 9 January 2019). Urgent global cooperation is essential to address the complex interplay between climate change, local communities, and religious beliefs (Haberman, 2021). Governments, organisations, and individuals must recognize that the effects of climate change are not just environmental, but also have profound cultural, religious, and human rights implications (Haberman, 15 August 2023) (Bushal, 9 January 2019). The time to act is now; if we fail to address these issues, the sacred sites, livelihoods, and well-being of countless people are at stake (Zargar, 22 June 2023) (Haberman, 2021). The Himalayas stand as both a warning and an opportunity to bridge the gap between environmental conservation, human rights, and sustainable development.
David L. Haberman. (15 August 2023). Threat from climate change to some of India’s sacred pilgrimage sites is reshaping religious beliefs. The Conversation. Available at < https://theconversation.com/threat-from-climate-change-to-some-of-indias-sacred-pilgrimage-sites-is-reshaping-religious-beliefs-208737>.
Arshad R. Zargar. (22 June 2023). Himalayan glaciers are melting faster than ever, and scientists say it's "going to affect us" all. CBS News. Available at < https://www.cbsnews.com/news/himalaya-glaciers-melting-faster-study-warns-will-affect-us-all/>.
Ramesh Bhushal. (9 January 2019). Ignoring climate change in the Himalayas. The Third Pole. Available at < https://www.thethirdpole.net/en/climate/ignoring-climate-change-in-the-himalayas/>.
David L. Haberman. (2021). Understanding Climate Change through Religious Lifeworlds. Indiana University Press. Available at < https://iupress.org/9780253056047/understanding-climate-change-through-religious-lifeworlds/>.