Climate Risk Adaptation for Flooding in the Indian Himalayas

The emergence of the term “climate risk” to describe regions and people negatively impacted by the effects of climate change is now informing adaptation planning in highland areas. A recent study from Environmental Science and Policy reviews a pilot program in the Indian Himalayas that considers climate risk for glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) and other weather-related flooding to create an adaptation plan specific to the region. The research finds that a climate risk assessment framework can contribute to sustainable adaptation planning for communities.

How the integrative concept of climate risk was operationalized for the assessment of flood risk in Himachal Pradesh, Northern India (Source: Environmental Science and Policy).

The research was a collaborative effort under the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the government of India’s Indian Himalayas Climate Adaptation Programme (IHCAP), an initiative based on the country’s National Action Plan on Climate Change. IHCAP “aims to enhance the resilience of vulnerable communities in the Indian Himalayas through strengthening the capacities of Indian institutions in climate science, with a specific focus on glaciology and related areas, as well as institutional capacities of Himalayan states in India on adaptation planning, implementation and policy.” With this in mind, a statewide assessment was done of Himachal Pradesh, an Indian state in the Himalayas, followed by a more focused assessment of the Kullu District, one of the state’s identified hot spots for climate risk.

Located in the north-west of Himachal Pradesh, Kullu District is home to over 437,000 people and sits along the valley of the Beas River, with many floodplains running throughout. According to the study, floods are considered a major threat and the potential for GLOFs— events caused by glacier melting and lake expansion— is increasing significantly, with “enhanced risk extending far downstream from where the potentially dangerous lakes originate,” according to the research.

Integrated GLOF risk assessment for the tehsils of Himachal Pradesh (Source: Environmental Science and Policy).

“Adaptation strategies need to be underpinned by robust science,” Simon Allen, one of the study’s researchers from the Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of Geneva, told GlacierHub. Otherwise, he says, the worst-case scenario is that strategies such as Early Warning Systems could be installed in the wrong locations or may not be adequate for the magnitude of the event expected. This point supported the study’s analysis of climate risk into the categories of hazard, vulnerability, and exposure during the initial scientific assessment. An integrated risk assessment was then undertaken.

Considering components of climate risk combines aspects of disaster risk management and climate adaptation planning to create a comprehensive approach for the management of flood risk. It originates from the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as an integrative approach to managing vulnerability in the face of climate change, and has been since utilized by the C40 Cities network to increase resilience in cities such as Toronto and Amsterdam. It offers a framework for approaching adaptation that emphasizes locating and managing hot-spots of climate risk.

With a solid scientific risk assessment as a foundation, the Kullu District’s adaptation planning was approached with an emphasis on local participation. “The strategies and the underlying science need to be strongly supported by the local stakeholders, and this support and trust takes time to build,” noted Allen. The element of trust is important as it increases the likelihood of a successful project and allows the sharing of vital local knowledge. To build this trust, the locals were involved from the beginning with repeated consultations during the climate risk study and maintained control over the final decisions on adaptation options.

Multiple adaptation plans were discussed during several community workshops and meetings to address both the GLOF and monsoonal flood risks. This allowed the locals to utilize their unique knowledge of the area to determine what would be most beneficial according to their community’s concerns, goals, and institutional capacity. In the study, the support of the district’s disaster management authority was crucial in the political context of the area.

The River Beas and River Parvati in Bhuntar, Kullu (Source: Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons).

This resulted in the final adaptation proposal involving two components: glacial lake development monitoring and an instrumental monsoon flood early warning system (EWS) in the Parvati Valley, which proved to be a risk hot-spot. EWSs have been used successfully in nearby countries such as Nepal, where their remote data collection system alerted local authorities of rising water levels due to monsoonal rains.

“This strategy recognized that monsoon floods are the very real and frequently observed threat to lives and property in Parvati Valley,” according to the study. It was also able to acknowledge the local interest in preparing for a potential GLOF threat.

The study placed an emphasis on low-regret options when working with local authorities. These options include continued knowledge exchange between the Swiss and Indian partners or incorporating training for local decision-makers to ensure successful flood preparation and response. It aims to strengthen local capacities to deal with flood emergencies, which will bring immediate benefits, but also intends to help in the long-term by dealing with the rapidly evolving and uncertain future GLOF threat, according to Allen. “I don’t see it as a barrier, but rather an additional motivation and opportunity to deal with the very real and existing flood threat from seasonal monsoon rainfalls, while also keeping one eye on the rapidly evolving GLOF threat,” he said.

The pilot study is one of the few to thoroughly and successfully integrate climate risk into the assessment framework of the adaptation planning process. The ultimate goal is to utilize the strategies developed during the project in the Kullu District and upscale them to other areas of the Indian Himalayan region. This expansion will ideally be done with one of the study’s core concepts at the forefront: “While science should closely inform the decision-making process, only those actions that are strongly desired and supported by local stakeholders will prove sustainable in the long-term.”

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