Education Fuels Disaster Resiliency in Northern India

In the Northern Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, accelerated glacier melting in the Ladakh region has made communities increasingly vulnerable to glacier lake outburst floods, or GLOFs. These unpredictable natural disasters occur when glacier meltwater creates lakes at high elevations, which have the potential to overflow and cascade down the steep slopes of mountains.

As temperatures in the Himalayan region continue to climb due to climate change, the number of glacier lakes in Ladakh has surged to over 266 as of 2014, making outburst floods an acute risk in the region.

glacier lakes form from retreating glaciers in the Himalayas. Image provided by Jeffrey Kargel, USGS/NASA JPL/AGU
glacier lakes form from retreating glaciers in the Himalayas. Image provided by Jeffrey Kargel (USGS/NASA JPL/AGU)

While engineering and infrastructure projects can decrease the chances of an outburst flood, many remote, high altitude communities in India do not have the economic means or technology to build expensive mitigation structures that could halt the effects of GLOFs. However, a recent study conducted by Naho Ikeda, Chiyuki Narama, and Sonam Gyalson found that community-based measures like engagement and education may provide an alternative path to increased GLOF resiliency in Ladakh.

The Switzerland-based International Mountain Society (IMS) conducted the study in India, published earlier this year in the journal Mountain Research and Development. The research team developed a series of community workshops in Domkhar, a village in Ladakh that is a high risk community with at least 13 glacier lakes located in the watershed. The idea was to determine whether education and outreach were viable tools for protecting the villagers from glacier lake outburst floods.

Domkhar-Gongma village. Houses and agricultural fields are situated close to the stream on the slopes of old alluvial cones and colluvial footslopes. (Photo by Chiyuki Narama, 7 September 2012)
Domkhar-Gongma village. Houses and agricultural fields are situated close to the stream on the slopes of old alluvial cones and colluvial footslopes. (Photo by Chiyuki Narama, 7 September 2012)

The workshop, held in May of 2012, brought together 120 community members, scientists, and translators to discuss a wide range of topics on glacier lake outburst floods. Over the course of four sessions, Ikeda and her colleagues discussed their findings from a 2010 field survey of local glacier lakes and distributed an informational booklet written in Ladakhi, the predominant local language. The workshop also gave researchers insight into the community members’ cultural practices, religious beliefs, and current understanding of the impacts of climate change on their local environment.

The researchers’ concluded from their time in Domkhar that community members had a mixed level of knowledge of GLOFs and their associated risks. According to the report, community members expressed an understanding of glacier lakes and GLOFs that relied on a combination of their personal experiences with nature and their religious beliefs.

One group of villagers explained that sacred animals, including horses and sheep, cause outburst floods when the community angers them. Others mentioned that the lakes are sacred because the Tibetan Buddhist temples throughout the region are reflected on the surface of the water. Religion was predominantly mentioned by older members of the community rather than younger villagers, reflecting the fact that cultural identity has played a large role in the Ladakhi community’s understanding of the natural world, although that notion may be shifting with younger generations.

Photograph of the 9 stupas at Thiksey Gonpa (wiki)
Photograph of the 9 stupas at Thiksey Gonpa, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Ladakh (wiki)

A larger number of workshop participants also discussed their observations of nature, including the animal species and local geography surrounding the glacier lakes. However, individual observations were not always accurate, as participants did not know how many glacier lakes were within the watershed or of the emergence of a new glacier lake in the area formed in 2011.

Over the course of the day, community members displayed a curiosity and increasing knowledge of GLOFs that led to the adoption of a 7-point resolution to respond to a glacier lake outburst flood. The resolution included the development of a community-based GLOF monitoring committee, establishment of an evacuation plan, and discouraging construction near stream banks. While these measures require time and effort on the part of Domkhar residents, new technology and financial support are not necessary for implementation.

Three months later, researchers returned to the village with hopes that their workshop had increased local understanding of the dangers of GLOF and made a lasting impact on the community. Results were predominantly positive, according to a follow-up survey—over half of the interviewees reported a greater understanding of glacier lake outburst floods and countermeasures to respond to a natural disaster. Even members who had not attended the workshop showed improved understanding, indicating that the information had spread throughout the community.

Mountains lining the western shore of glacial lake Tso Morari, Ladakh (Sam Inglis)
Mountains lining the western shore of glacial lake Tso Morari, Ladakh (Sam Inglis)

However, the rise in awareness within Domkhar did not necessarily translate into action. Only half of the villagers interviewed said they made preparations for flooding since the workshop. These findings indicate that awareness and education can reduce a community’s social vulnerability to natural disasters by making resiliency a community-backed effort, but cannot stand alone as the only resiliency measure. Economic and geographic barriers in the remote villages of Ladakh make implementation of GLOF countermeasures a challenge, even for the most committed communities.

 

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