Melting Water: Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve

Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve is located in one of the remotest regions of India, situated within the dramatic landscape of the Himalayan Mountains in the state of Uttarakhand. Encompassing the core areas of Nanda Devi and Valley of Flowers National Parks, Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2005. Due to its inaccessibility, it does not face the traditional problems of pollution which are typically discussed in this blog – but that does not mean it is untroubled.

In September 2020, the Ministry of Environment and Forests announced that the glaciers in the Rishikesh catchment area of this World Heritage Site are depleting fast due to long-term increases in temperature stemming from climate change. In fact, satellite data reveals that in 1980, over 243km2 of the Rishikesh catchment area was covered in snow, but that in 2017 this had reduced to 217km2, revealing a 10% reduction over 37 years.

Reduction in glaciers 1980-2017. Source: ANI / Devdiscourse

The contribution of glacier meltwater to river flow cannot be sustained over long periods of glacier shrinkage which means the sustainability of river flow in south-east Asia will soon be at risk. There is a growing realisation that environmental changes that are occurring in the Himalayan mountains – the water tower of Asia – threaten to undermine the security and wellbeing of a South Asian population.  These melting glaciers are the source of mighty rivers such as the Ganges, the Indus and the Brahmaputra, which hundreds of millions of people depend on for their daily needs and survival.

As always, humans are not the only species at adverse risk to a changing climate. The Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve has an extraordinarily large altitudinal range (1,800 to 7,817m), resulting in a unique topography and biogeographical locations which give rise to a number of diverse and interesting habitats, including reserve forests, evam soyam (civil) forests, panchayat (community) forests, agricultural land, grassy slopes, alpine meadows and snow covered areas.

Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve. Source: UNESCO

As a result, there are many ecosystems, and many ecologically and economically important species. For example, approximately 1000 plant species including lichens, fungi, bryophytes and pteridophytes have been recorded. The inhabitants of the Pindari, Lata-Tolma-Malari, and the Valley of Flowers areas use over 220 of these species for various purposes including medicine and food.

 Moreover, the percentage of native and endemic species is particularly high. Over 55% of the species are native to Himalaya, over 10 are endemic and 225 are near endemic. Seven endangered mammal species also find refuge in the area such as the snow leopard (Panthera unica), Himalayan black bear (Ursus thibetanus laniger), brown bear (Ursus arctos), musk deer (Moschus chrysogaster) and bharal/blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur).

As the planet warms, these beautiful and important species also find themselves in grave danger.

Snow leopard. Source: Wikipedia
Himalayan Black Bear. Source: The Mysterious World

This is not the usual story of the need to clean up water bodies, but of the need to alter our behaviours on a global scale, reducing emissions before the most incredible habitats and water sources are lost to climate change forever.

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