But a rainy day is the worst.
It is early morning and Deoli-Benigram, a charming village sprawled over an eastern Himalayan peak, is drenched. It has been raining since the previous evening — a persistent drizzle that shows no sign of stopping.
“Rain frightens me,” says Jyoti Semwal. The 27-year-old mother of two is sitting in her two-storey home; a picture window looks down into the valley but the steady rain and dense fog obscure the view.
She doesn’t want to talk about the June day last year when it started raining, triggering floods that carried away thousands of people, including 57 men from her village.
She doesn’t want to discuss that day, or how it changed her life.
But she does — mostly because she also has some questions. They are about climate change.
Deoli-Benigram is a village lost in time.
To reach it, you have to walk 30 minutes from the main road. Most homes don’t have clocks or locks; most days, there is no electricity. Few here have ever been to Dehradun, the nearest city, 230 kilometres away in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Villagers don’t know the eminent climate change economist Lord Nicholas Stern, or what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says or does. They don’t know theKyoto Protocol. They don’t know what greenhouse gases are. They have never heard the words “climate change.”
Yet, they understand that something is happening; they have seen the signs for years, minor ones once, big ones now. They have many questions, and few answers.
“Why are the summers so hot now?” asks Semwal.
“Our winters here are shorter . . . the snow isn’t as it used to be.”
“The rain comes so much earlier now . . . I don’t know why.”
And then: “Is everything changing where you live? Can we do anything about it? Who can?”
The village, home to 65 families, is in a corner of Uttarakhand. The state has a population of more than nine million people and shares borders with Tibet and Nepal. It is famous for its spectacular landscape, tumultuous rivers and countless temples.
One of them is the Kedarnath Temple, atop an eponymous peak at an altitude of 3,500 metres. For thousands of years, pilgrims have been drawn here by the Hindu belief that it was once home to deities such as Lord Shiva. It is one of the most remote shrines in the state: in the last leg of the journey, pilgrims walk up a steep 17 kilometres — or take a helicopter. Still, hundreds of thousands visit each year during the six months the shrine is open.
On June 14 of last year, the day the rains began, thousands of pilgrims were at the temple or in transit.
The rain wasn’t particularly heavy but it didn’t stop. On June 16, it became a raging downpour. Rivers and glacial lakes unleashed monstrous floods that swept away homes, shops, schools, restaurants, crops — and thousands of people.
All within a few hours.
More than 5,700 people were killed. Only a few hundred corpses have been found. Many bodies are buried under mounds of rubble; others were carried downstream by mighty Himalayan rivers and will likely never be found.
The floods wiped out six villages, buried more than 1,000 kilometres of highways, and caused hundreds of buildings to fall into the furious waters.
Kailash Bhatt has lived in Augustyamuni, the last big town en route to the temple, for five decades and says he has never seen it rain as it did those few days.
“It was big rain,” he says. “I couldn’t see across the street from my terrace.”
It is impossible, of course, to connect a specific event to global warming. However, extreme rainfall has become much more frequent, especially in South Asia: The 2005 deluge in Mumbai. The 2007 and 2009 cyclones in Bangladesh. The 2010 Pakistan floods.
Studies show there has been a more than 50 per cent increase in extreme rainfall over the past 50 years in India.
This is exactly what climatologists, and their climate models, have said — that rainfall patterns will change, coming fiercely in shorter intervals.
Last year, the monsoon rains arrived two weeks early in this region and they were the heaviest in 60 years. (Four months later, Cyclone Phailin — one of the most severe ever recorded in the Indian Ocean — struck India’s eastern coast.)
The change in rainfall pattern is amplified in the Himalayas and other mountain ranges, says Kevin Trenberth, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.
“Mountains play a role in concentrating moisture and now there is more moisture in the air. The effect can easily get magnified, doubled or even tripled in the mountains.”
In Uttarakhand, these changes were exacerbated by reckless construction that placed buildings, dams and roads in a fragile environment.
But a disaster spread over hundreds of kilometres is always complex, almost always the result of multiple events.
In this case, it was the disregard of the fragile Himalayan ecology.
“Many buildings have been built right next to the rivers in blatant violation of environmental laws,” says Sunita Narain, director of the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based think-tank.
Few things were done the way they should have been, she says.
“Human intervention worsened the situation in this case.”
India’s eastern Himalayan region is incredibly dynamic: new roads, airports and hotels have made some areas more accessible, but also more susceptible to destruction.
Development in the eastern Himalayas has long been contentious. Successive governments have said that development is essential while approving new hotels, airports and roads, but environmentalists say that exploiting the ecologically sensitive Himalayas for hydro power, logging and religious tourism has worsened the level of destruction. Hotels are perched precariously close to rivers, mountains have been mined for tunnels, forests cleared for roads.
Then there is the big question of the growing numbers of pilgrims. Last year, the four shrines of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri were visited by an astounding 30 million people.
The widows and families at Deoli-Benigram are beginning to understand the complicated issues that have irrevocably changed their tranquil existence.
Very few homes are untouched, psychologically and economically.
The main source of income for many families, the once-thriving religious tourism industry, has all but dried up. For decades, men from this village traditionally worked at Kedarnath as priests or ran guest houses, restaurants and convenience stores. They worked for six months but made enough for the year.
It was a good life. But it washed away with the floods.
Rakesh Posti, 40, had a one-room studio close to the temple where he took pictures of tourists outside the shrine or in front of the stunning view. It was lucrative and he loved the work, says Madhu Devi, his widow.
He had been doing that for more than 20 years, she says.
She last spoke to him on the morning of June 16.
“He said he would come down to the village as soon it stopped raining,” Devi says. Hours later, cellphone coverage failed and she spent the next week in fear for her husband’s life, unable to eat. Her brother-in-law, Pawan Posti, who had been evacuated by the Indian air force, returned home with the grim news: his older brother, his cameras, his business, it was all washed away.
Today Devi, who has two children, Nayan, 14, and Nikita, 11, tends to a small farm where she grows vegetables and rice.
She, like most others who lost family in the floods, has received help from the government — about $1,200 and the promise of more — and local non-governmental organizations. “Every little bit has helped,” she says. But she has no clue how she will put her children through college. (Education up to Grade 12 is subsidized in India.)
Nayan wants to be a photographer, like his father. Nikita wants to be a teacher.
Just steps down the slope, in a four-room house with a slanted roof and a big courtyard, live Suman Devi, 29, and Sulekha Devi, 30. The two women are washing clothes using a hand pump while children play hopscotch, yelling playfully at each other. The house is clean, the paint looks new.
In the living room, framed pictures of two men in white shirts hang on a wall: brothers Ambuj and Anil, both in their 30s, the husbands of Suman and Sulekha. There are wreaths on both pictures.
The two worked as priests at Kedarnath Temple. For five generations, men in the family worked as priests. It was a given that when a man turned 16, he went to Kedarnath to be an apprentice priest, says Sulekha.
The brothers’ bodies were never found.
The women and their mother-in-law, Jasodha, waited for days for news. When those who survived the floods finally returned to the village, Suman says, “they didn’t look straight at us … that is when we knew that Ambuj and Anil were never coming home.”
The widows and their mother-in-law, also a widow, now live with five children in the house — four girls and one boy. The family has received some money from the government but “how long do you think that will last?” asks Suman.
Their savings were used to build this house in 2012.
Many of those who lived through the rain and floods lost their livelihood, says Srinivas Posti, a priest who survived four days of rain on the second-floor of his house at Kedarnath.
“It could take years for this region to recover,” he says. “But I don’t know if our village ever will.”
The cost of last June’s rain and floods in this eastern Himalayan region will exceed $30 billion, according to local officials and NGOs. In villages, where men were lost to the raging floodwaters, the economic hardship is apparent and people talk honestly about it.
But few, if any, will talk about what it means for the young widows.
India, home to more than 40 million widows, is one of the few countries in the world where widowhood is a source of shame. Widows are condemned to solitary lives and, in some places, people still believe that women whose husbands have died are cursed, or that they brought bad luck to their husbands.
Deoli-Benigram lost 57 men and, not surprisingly, local media dubbed it the village of widows. A neighbouring village, Lamgaundi, lost 25. It has the same moniker.
In these two villages, there is no indication the widows are being mistreated. But there is also no indication they will be allowed or encouraged to marry again.
Widow remarriage is a sensitive issue, says Ranjana Devi, who works in Lamgaundi as an anganwadi, providing, among other things, basic health-care services.
“It rarely happens here,” she says. “People believe you get married only once and if something happens, then it was just meant to be.”
Vinita Shukla is petite, with thick dark hair and slumped shoulders.
Her husband, Jagdish Shukla, 34, owned a convenience store near the Kedarnath Temple. The store’s income helped the family build a house and save for their sons’ education. His body has not been found.
“I cannot even think of getting married,” she says. “No one will allow it. Not my parents. Not my in-laws. Even my sons will not let me do it. . . . We don’t do it here. My life is over. It is about my two sons now.”
Vinita will turn 33 in October.
She says a widowed man has it much easier in India and can get married within months of his wife’s death. “But this is how it is (for women) . . . I don’t want to upset anyone, including my sons.”
Sanju Kumari was just 17 last January when she married Subhash Sharma of Lamgaundi, who owned a restaurant near the temple. She wore a red sari and he a long red shirt with tight white pants.
Five months later, in June, he left for Kedarnath. He never returned.
Kumari, villagers say, hardly ever comes out of the house she shares with her in-laws. She returned to her parents’ village for a few weeks “but came back soon because her mother-in-law was sick,” says Ranjana Devi.
“She has made that (caring for in-laws) her whole life now.”
While the West quibbles over a global deal to fight climate change — it will be signed in Paris in 2015 and take effect in 2020 — these two Himalayan villages are already facing the reality in their picturesque backyard.
Delegates from almost 200 countries were in Warsaw in November to negotiate that outline. A draft presented on the last day of the conference was vague on when countries should present their targets for restricting greenhouse gas emissions; it simply said commitments should be presented “well in advance” of the Paris summit.
Greenhouse gas emissions have grown almost twice as fast in the past decade as they did in the previous 30 years, an IPCC report said earlier this year. It called for a drastic shift from fossil fuels like oil and coal to renewable energy to avoid rising sea levels and an increase in storms, flooding, droughts and other extreme weather.
But countries can’t agree on their targets.
Jyoti Semwal doesn’t know any of this.
Here is what she does know: rain is unpredictable, summers are hotter, winters are milder. She also knows there are too many hydroelectric projects in the state, there is too much pollution, too many tourists visiting the temples in their big, roaring SUVs.
She also knows that her husband, Sanjeev Semwal, 35, and his younger brother, Rajeev, 27, never came back from their tiny convenience store in Kedarnath.
“I don’t know much, I’m not a scientist,” she says, “but I know something is wrong now … something that has changed our lives.”
Outside, it is still raining — it is still a drizzle, and it still shows no sign of stopping.
Started in year 2010, ‘Climate Himalaya’ initiative has been working on Mountains and Climate linked issues in the Himalayan region of South Asia. In the last five years this knowledge sharing portal has become one of the important references for the governments, research institutions, civil society groups and international agencies, those have work and interest in the Himalayas. The Climate Himalaya team innovates on knowledge sharing, capacity building and climatic adaptation aspects in its focus countries like Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Climate Himalaya’s thematic areas of work are mountain ecosystem, water, forest and livelihood. Read>>