The Crisis Looming At Large
Climate change is having an influence on agriculture all around the world, but countries like India are particularly vulnerable due to their large population reliant on rainfed agriculture, excessive demand on natural resources, and insufficient adaptability to coping strategies. The warming trend in India over the last century has suggested a 0.6°C increase in air temperature. Significant negative effects of medium-term climate change (2010-2039) have been expected, with yield reductions of diverse crops ranging from 4.5 to 9 percent, depending on the extent and distribution of warming. The situation may deteriorate further in the hills of Northeast India, where agriculture is primarily rainfed and complex-diverse-resource-poor. Though there exist coping technologies, most farmers lack the purchasing capacity to adopt and employ them in their circumstances, or they are inaccessible to them. Furthermore, the costs of damages caused by often occurring floods, droughts, cyclones, hail storms, and other natural disasters are enormous. The weather is also becoming more favourable for the advent of several crops and livestock pests and diseases in epidemic form, with many outbreaks recorded from various sections of the Northeast region each year. All of this is making human and livestock life more difficult by the day, and agriculture is becoming a less profitable endeavour. In such a scenario, the changing climate pattern in the region over the last century or two, combined with the flood-drought cycle, has transformed the character for the worse.
Rainfall patterns in the region have significantly changed during the last century, resulting in an overall drying. Several states in the North East were suffering from severe rainfall deficits until August 27, 2021. Manipur experienced the biggest deficit, with 58% less rain than typical. Mizoram had a 28% deficit; Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh had 23% and 21% less rainfall than average, respectively. Other states performed only slightly better. When looking at statistics from the last few decades, the tendency becomes even more pronounced. Rainwater is the primary source of water in parts of north-eastern India. Alternative water sources, such as glaciers that feed rivers in other parts of India’s mountains, are less common in the North East. Arunachal Pradesh’s glaciers occupy 223 square kilometres of land (83,473 square km). Rain and snow fed mountain springs, which in turn feed streams that join either Brahmaputra, Barak, or other rivers in Manipur. All of these things combined provide water to the area. When rainfall fails and spring flows decline, the rest of the water systems get disrupted. According to NITI Aayog report on the inventory and restoration of springs published in August 2018, over 27% of villages in northeast India are watered directly by springs. The Brahmaputra River and its major (41) and smaller (121) tributaries, as well as countless streams, drained around 70% of the region’s land. Because of its reliance on rainfall, the region is extremely sensitive to climate change.
The Variability and The Unpredictability of Monsoon
During the monsoon season (June-September), North East India receives a lot of rain, which refills the rivers. People have figured out how to reclaim and develop the soils brought in by rivers over generations. However, they have recently been unsure about their understanding. Rainfall in the region, as well as the flood-drought cycle, appears to have shifted for the worse over the last century or so. In recent years, the phenomenon has gained momentum. According to a research paper published in the journal Current Science in January 2015, the chance of drought occurring in the region was 54% from 2000 to 2014. Droughts were also a threat in western India, but not to the same extent as they were in northeast India.
According to a study paper published in the journal Nature Communications in November 2020, the Brahmaputra experienced two big flood years in the same time span — 2007 and 2010. Every year, the river is flooded, a natural process that has moulded the soil for millions of years throughout most of North East India. As a result, major floods in the Brahmaputra have been known to last for more than ten days. The flood-drought cycle is currently occurring every year, particularly during the monsoon season. The rains arrive in short spurts, flooding the land, and are followed by long periods of drought. This is a concerning warning for a region where agriculture is the primary source of income. According to the state’s climate change action plan, 86 percent of the rural population in Assam practises agriculture. Because the Brahmaputra drains the majority of the state’s land, it is also prone to flooding every year. Analysing rainfall trends over different time periods and geographical areas yields slightly different results, but there is a distinct imprint of changing patterns that indicate a change in climate. While passing through the North East, the southwest monsoon winds produce three distinct rainfall zones. High rainfall with little variability, low rainfall with little fluctuation, and high rainfall with a lot of variables are the three options. As a result, when the variability of the monsoon is considerable, any movement in the monsoon will produce a significant change in the rainfall pattern. Subsequently, it appears that the region is running out of water. This is the most comprehensive perspective of rainfall changes in north-east India that scientists can take. Rainfall in the north east is on the decline, according to longer and more current data analysis. In Arunachal Pradesh and the Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, and Tripura (NMMT) sectors, a 115-year (1901-2015) monsoon rainfall analysis published by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) in January 2018 indicated a drastically dropping trend (meteorological geographical categories as defined by the India Meteorological Department). During the monsoon season, the study discovered a general increase in the frequency of extreme rainfall occurrences. According to a research paper published in the Hydrological Sciences Journal in May 2010, a rainfall analysis for India from 1871 to 2005 found that the NMMT subdivision experienced a 135-millimetre decline in total monsoon rainfall, the third-highest decline in the country after Chhattisgarh and Kerala.
During the monsoon, researchers discovered that rainfall patterns in North East India altered dramatically from one sunspot epoch to the next, implying that the seasonal trough of low pressure over the region intensified differently. Sunspot epochs are periods of increased and decreased activity on the Sun’s surface that have an impact on Earth’s climate. Even the drying of the land, which intensifies the frequency and severity of dry periods and droughts, is one aspect of warming that influences rainfall. The combination of increased moisture and drier conditions causes unpredictable changes in rainfall patterns. Other climatic factors, such as increased snowfall in the Eurasian region, have an impact on monsoon rain in North East India. Excessive snowfall in Eurasia cools the region’s atmosphere, setting off a chain of events that eventually result in a weak summer monsoon season. Also, the decline in rainfall was ascribed to sea surface temperatures over the sub-tropical Pacific Ocean, which vary in a cycle with each phase lasting a decade, according to a study published in JGR Atmospheres. The Pacific Decadal Oscillation reaches its maximum every 20 years (PDO). PDO is also influenced by global warming, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Climate, because it reduces the temperature differential across ocean layers. The peak of the PDO will shift from 20 to 12 years, potentially affecting monsoon rainfall in North East India.
The flow of rivers, the extent of snow cover, and the health of mountain springs are all affected by the shifting rainfall pattern, which has an effect on occupations, especially agriculture and fishing, forest flora growth, animal and bird habitat (and behaviour), and other ecological features. The Subansiri, Dibang (tributaries of the Brahmaputra), and Brahmaputra rivers are shifting course in unexpected ways in various Assam districts, including Lakhimpur and Dhemaji. As a result of the intense rainfall events produced by global warming, a cascade of events unfolds, such as rapid soil erosion along hill slopes that are bereft of forest cover. This causes rivers to have more surface run-off and modify their course.
Crux behind the Water Scarcity in the Region
The drying up of mountain springs, which feed all other water sources in the region, lies at the heart of the North East’s climate-related water crisis. Arunachal Pradesh’s environment minister stated in 2018 that 200 mountain springs, which are direct primary supplies of water for the state’s mountainous villages, have dried up due to a decline in rainfall. According to NITI Aayog report, it stated that the problem of dying springs is becoming more felt across the Indian Himalayan Region due to climate change and rising temperatures, rise in rainfall intensity and reduction in its temporal spread, as well as a noticeable loss in winter rain.
This spells doom for all of the northeastern states’ hilly regions, which rely heavily on these springs to supply their water needs. Mountain springs may be found in nearly every village in Sikkim. They are found in 55.7, 54.6, and 54.4 percent of villages in Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Manipur, respectively. Villages with springs are found in 44.7 percent of villages in Nagaland and 37.3 percent of villages in Arunachal Pradesh, respectively. According to the paper, springs contribute more to the base flow of huge Himalayan rivers like the Brahmaputra than glaciers, ice, and snow combined.
The drying up of these springs will have an impact on individuals who live in the plains, particularly in Assam. To determine the exact causes of the decrease in water flow, the springs must be thoroughly investigated. However, Assam has another concern: groundwater levels are intimately linked to the Brahmaputra’s water flow. Another factor is that the Brahmaputra’s soils are typically sandy and have a limited water retention capacity, resulting in water scarcity. According to a draft study on land degradation released in November 2018 by the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC), land in the north eastern states has been severely damaged. Land degradation affects 38 %, 35 %, and 28% of the land in Manipur, Mizoram, and Meghalaya, respectively. Increased frequency of high-rainfall occurrences in the region could be one of the key causes of environmental degradation. Surface floods, flash floods, and landslides wreaked havoc across the country in 2018, and the degradation could be one of the causes. In 2018, minor to large floods hit Assam, Manipur, Tripura, Mizoram, and Nagaland. The most common cause of soil deterioration in these states, according to the report, is acidity, which intensifies floods. Water erosion causes more deterioration than acidity in only two states: Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. Because hydrogen ions (pH) are required for the creation of all acids, acidity is evaluated in terms of their concentration in the soil. When the pH equilibrium of the soil swings towards acidic nature due to an excessive presence of hydrogen ions, acidification of the soil or land occurs. Because of the significant rainfall, it receives each year, the land in the North East is naturally acidic. Acidification will be exacerbated by climate change-induced high frequency of downpours, which will reduce soil quality.
There are at least 10 main mountain springs which have dried up between Bhalukpong on the Arunachal Pradesh-Assam border and Morgung village in the West Kameng district. These springs run along to the highway that connects India and China, and spill across the highway to Tawang. They’ve become entangled in a flurry of highway-related building activity. Construction is taking place in numerous regions with large earthmoving machines, endangering the mountains’ already vulnerable geology. This comes on top of the region’s decreased rainfall and snowfall, which has harmed the springs’ health in recent decades.
Defining the Region in The Face of Climatic Adversity and Geography
The north-eastern region has become more vulnerable to disaster due to altering monsoon patterns and geographical vulnerability. As a result, examining the eight north-eastern states that are experiencing this adversity not only creates an ecological imbalance but also has an impact on people’s livelihoods.
The state of Assam is separated into three geographical regions. The Brahmaputra River valley, located at the foothills of the Himalayas, lies to the north, while the Barak River valley is to the south. The Karbi Anglong and Cachar hills lie between the two valleys. Between 1989 and 2018, the state’s monsoon rainfall decreased. Several years in the recent two decades have received below-average rainfall, falling below the long-term average of 1,486 mm. A district-level analysis revealed a different situation in which drought-like districts coexisted with floods caused by rainfall in other districts. All of the Brahmaputra’s tributaries that flow down from Arunachal Pradesh’s high Himalayan highlands to join the Brahmaputra are located in these districts. Because of the rapid and steep transition from mountains to plains, the region is inherently prone to flooding. Another serious concern which is prevailing in Assam’s Dhamaji area is the moving of Dihiri village, where the Kumutiya river has been swiftly and repeatedly changing the channel.
Arunachal Pradesh boasts an impressive 82 percent forest cover. The only lowlands are on a small strip of land in the foothills bordering Assam, and it is mostly mountainous. High hills in the south are covered in forests, while the Himalayas in the north are covered with snow. All of the Brahmaputra’s major tributaries, including the Siang, Dibang, Subansiri, and Lohit, descend from the mountains at a steep gradient, rendering them susceptible to flooding in Assam’s lowlands. Monsoon rainfall decreased significantly between 1989 and 2018, with many years having deficits below the LPA of 1,726 mm for the monsoon period. Increased rainfall may be to blame for the increased flooding witnessed in some rivers. Rice productivity has decreased in Simong village in the district’s Kaying area as a result of the increasing rainfall. Because of the increasing moisture in the soil and atmosphere, new diseases have evolved. The annual rainfall in Upper Siang has been steadily decreasing, implying that more rain is falling on fewer days. Rainfall decreased significantly in eight districts across the state. The number of pest attacks has also increased. Six additional districts also showed a downward trend. In recent decades, districts in the western half of the state, such as West Kameng and East Kameng, have seen a decline in the discharge of mountain springs and streams, possibly due to reduced rainfall.
Nagaland is largely hilly, with just a small area bordering Assam containing plains. Four major rivers, as well as hundreds of smaller rivers and tributaries, drain the state. The Dhansiri, Doyang, and Dikhu rivers flow northward into the Brahmaputra in Assam, while the Tizu flows eastward into Myanmar. The state’s monsoon rainfall decreased dramatically between 1989 and 2018. Seven of the state’s 11 districts are experiencing a decrease in monsoon rainfall, while four are experiencing an increase. There is a substantial trend in five of the seven districts with decreased rainfall. The rivers’ gradients are not as severe as they are in Arunachal Pradesh; hence they are less prone to flooding. However, recent extreme rainfall events have caused flooding in areas that haven’t seen the disaster in decades. The 2018 floods in Wokha area are an example.
Sikkim, on the other hand, is predominantly mountainous, with high hills in the south covered in evergreen forests and snow-capped Himalayan peaks in the north. With an LPA of 1,609 mm, the state’s monsoon rainfall increased slightly between 1989 and 2018. With a variance of 23%, July received the most rainfall. Over the 30-year period, the overall monsoon variance was larger than that of Assam, which appears to have been the most influenced by altering monsoon rainfall patterns. In South and West Sikkim, the trend is significant. Monsoon rainfall in North Sikkim has been increasing, which may be contributing to increase flooding in the Teesta. This could have caused landslides downstream in South Sikkim, particularly around Gangtok, which have been recorded since 1997.
In Manipur, 10% of the land is flat, with the rest separated into eastern and western hills. Lakes, swamps, barren areas, and small hillocks dominate about a fourth of the valley’s surface area, leaving only a little space for cultivation. Shifting rainfall variations in the state will therefore have an influence on agriculture, hurting the state’s food security. For the state of Manipur, the IMD’s 30-year review provides no statistics or trends. The weather agency cites the state only once in its broader countrywide statement about the analysis; the state saw a considerable increase in heavy rainfall days between 1989 and 2018. Manipur was hit hard by drought in 2009. Following a severely insufficient monsoon, about 46% of the country experienced moderate-to-severe drought. Manipur had a massive 56 percent rainfall deficit in 2019. According to research published by Central Agricultural University, the state’s decreasing rainfall trends have harmed farm productivity.
During the monsoon season, Meghalaya receives 71 percent of its annual rainfall. It has largely steep topography with altitudes, including the Khasi hills in the centre, Jaintia hills to the east, and Garo hills to the west, as well as some low-elevation plains. Despite this, East Khasi Hills, the state’s wettest district, has seen an increase in rainfall, albeit not in a substantial way. The district contains flat-topped hills and various rivers, and the frequency of wet days has decreased significantly. Meanwhile, rainfall decreased significantly in four districts on the east and west borders during the period. The amount of rain in these districts has similarly decreased.
Mizoram, on the other hand, is a land of rolling hills, rivers, and valleys. The state is divided into 21 distinct hill ranges of varying heights that run the length and breadth of the state. They are generally lined in a southerly direction in parallel series, with narrow, deep rivers and valleys separating them. The mountains are harsh and steep. A few tiny swaths of flat ground can be found. Although overall rainfall has remained consistent over the last 30 years, with a modest increase in month-to-month comparisons, the number of wet days in the region has decreased significantly.
Tripura is a landlocked state with modest hills and low-lying plains that is crisscrossed by numerous deep rivers and valleys. The state’s hills run north to south, parallel to one another until they vanish into Bangladesh’s lowlands. The hills are primarily low-rise and densely forested. Over the last 30 years, there has been a slight decrease in the state’s population. However, the particular difficulty is that all districts are now receiving less overall rain during the monsoon season, which contributes to 60% of the year’s rainfall.
Coping With the Adversity
In such scenarios, guaranteeing food and nutritional security for everybody, particularly resource-poor small and marginal farmers, is crucial. Long-term climate change could have significant effects for impoverished people’s livelihood security if they do not adapt in a planned manner. There is also a critical requirement to monitor the trajectory of change in main climatic factors in order to properly assess the situation and alter adaptation and mitigation actions as necessary. An evaluation was carried out based on four major indicators: socioeconomic, demographic, and health status, agricultural production sensitivity, forest-dependent livelihoods, and access to digital services and infrastructure. Sub-indicators were created from these. Four states from North East India are among the top five Himalayan states most vulnerable to climate change. Climate change action plans have cited changes in rainfall patterns as one of the key sources of susceptibility to climate change in the north-eastern states.
The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has been directed by the Indian government to help all Indian states in developing State Action Plans on Climate Change (SAPCC) in line with the objectives of the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC). In the context of climate change, these SAPCCs address state-specific issues of vulnerable sectors and people. In addition, CCA-NER provides technical assistance in implementing SAPCCs and establishing a monitoring and evaluation system to track the SAPCCs’ implementation progress. Here The Climate Change Adaptation in the North Eastern Region (CCA-NER) programme is a bilateral initiative between the Governments of India and Germany that is being implemented in the North Eastern Indian states of Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Sikkim.
Since ‘water poverty’ has plagued the North East States for the past decade. Despite the fact that most parts of the region receive plenty of rain during the monsoon, the region’s water resources are facing a number of challenges that are only getting worse: climate change, which is causing floods, droughts, and soil erosion; increasing demand for water (due to population growth, unplanned urbanisation, and economic development); and deforestation or unsustainable land use in the upper reaches of the mountains, which is causing excess surface water rumination. To operationalise water and sanitation policies and enable the people of the North East to achieve the future they desire, innovative, entrepreneurial, and out-of-the-box solutions to these difficulties are required. The task will be to determine the criteria for selecting relevant technologies and methods for promoting their adoption. With all of these considerations in mind, CCA-NER played a key role in the development of an Integrated Water Policy for Meghalaya and is currently working on similar policies for Sikkim and Nagaland.
In the past, government efforts to manage and revitalise water have been driven by the application of “safe” technocratic techniques rather than context-specific scientific approach. CCA-NER delivered a unique scientific approach to the identification and solving of water management issues through partnerships with different institutions and technical professionals. It also connects these new techniques to government programmes like MGNREGA and the National Rural Drinking Water Program in order to kickstart a systematic execution of water sector changes. People’s ideas of authority over their local natural resources have shifted as a result of these efforts. Communities have been mobilised to speak up to their local governments, seeking resources to carry out actions on their own.
CCA-NER has also commissioned a hydrological study to initiate the construction of Village Water Security Plans (VWSP). The majority of South Sikkim’s areas are drought-prone because they are located in a rain shadow area, where annual rainfall amounts to roughly half of the state’s average annual rainfall. While there are numerous springs and streams in the Tendong Hills, most of them dry up or have dramatically decreased flows throughout the long, dry winter season. The towns are then faced with a severe water deficit. In addition to the baseline research, a vulnerability study was conducted in one of the most drought-affected blocks. The modelling shows how this issue has changed in the past, present, and future. With the help of the villagers in these areas, hydrological mapping, vulnerability studies, and the creation of VWSPs are being carried out. The programme has conducted a detailed hydrogeological survey of the area, documenting 22 springs and their associated recharge zones. Based on the findings of this evaluation, the national flagship programme MGNREGA is now focusing on spring shed development in a 72-acre target recharge region rather than treating the entire 1,100-hectare area, ensuring the most efficient use of money. Even during the lean season, soil and water conservation measures implemented at strategic locations resulted in a significant increase in spring water recharge. Officials from the local administration have been trained in scientific procedures and practical expertise for hydrogeological surveying and monitoring of the region’s most important springs. In addition to measuring the results of the planned measures, 23 springs in the area are frequently examined.
As a result, while climate changes are beyond mankind’s control, adaptation is the key to overcoming all adversities to which humans have been exposed. More of these efforts, with a structural and inventive framework and partnership with locals, are yet to be launched in the North East region. So that adequate mitigation can be carried out during natural disasters, allowing to cope with climate change’s implications.
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- GIZ-CCA-NER staff, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, Climate Change Adaptation – North Eastern Region (CCA-NER) Project. ( 2014, September), Scanty Amidst Plenty, GIZ
- Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, Climate Change Adaptation – North Eastern Region (CCA-NER) (2014), Coping with Change. GIZ
- Sabgomla Akshit (2021, Septemebr 06). Climate crisis in North East India: How geography, rainfall variations define calamity course. DowntoEarth
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- Sabgomla Akshit (2021, September 10). Climate crisis in North East India: How flooding shifted a village in Assam’s Dhemaji. DowntoEarth
- Sabgomla Akshit (2021, September 24) Climate crisis in North East India: Villages parched as springs dry up . DowntoEarth