Glacial retreat at the source of the Ganges

Contributor: Chris Knight

Editor’s Note: Chris Knight sent this article to Get Resilient as he embarked on an epic journey walking the length of the Ganges river from source to sea. He began his walk at the end of October and expects it to take approximately 6 months. He is writing about his journey at

When it came, the collapse of the head of the Gomurkh glacier was sudden, loud and very frightening. I say that it was frightening not because I am a particularly timid soul, but because not two minutes before, I had been standing in the very spot that was now the new location of a mass of glacial ice and rock.

It would have been a most untimely demise. Embarking as I am, on a 1600 mile trek, tracing the course of the Ganges River in India from its source high up in the Himalaya, to the open sea in the Bay of Bengal.

The speed of the retreat of the Gomurkh glacier is a worrying indicator of the extent to which climate change is affecting the Himalayas. This has caused lakes to expand and bring floods, debris flows and an increased number of avalanches to the region. Looking ahead, there is even greater cause for concern as the glaciers provide vital lifelines for Asian rivers, including the Ganges.Looking back at the Gomurkh glacier I pondered how had I very nearly became a victim of the glacial melt that has seen it retreat by 30 metres in the 15 years since 2000. This glacial retreat is not an entirely new phenomenon, but the effects of global warming have accelerated it. People have told me that there are still ancient Hindu texts that mention the glacier at the town of Gangotri some 18 kilometres away from its current location.

Once they vanish, water supplies in these regions will be in peril. A continuation of the current retreat will eventually deplete the glacial ice and substantially reduce runoff. Such a reduction would reduce the flow rates necessary to keep dams and reservoirs replenished and crops suitably irrigated. Furthermore many species of freshwater and saltwater plants and animals are dependent on glacier-fed waters to ensure the cold-water habitat to which they have adapted.

There is some evidence of migration from the upper reaches of the valley to a lower altitude. Hamlets which were once occupied and fields which once grew barley are now empty. I asked one farmer who was making his final journey down to Gangotri why he was leaving the land that had served his family for generations.

“No water.” He replied simply before trudging off.

The problems of this area do not stem solely from climate change, but many remain intrinsically linked to it. India as a nation has the second highest population in the world and is desperate to harness the power of her major rivers for energy as well as finding areas of habitation for her increasing population. This puts enormous pressure on the natural environment and in turn help to exasperate many of the issues that are said to cause global warming.

In October of this year, devastating storms and avalanches killed scores of trekkers on the Annapurna circuit a popular trekking route in neighbouring Nepal. In 2013 in the state of Uttarakhand, an estimated 40 000 people died in storms and flooding. The full scale of the disaster went unheralded in the world’s media. The tragedy went largely unnoticed. Yet it should come as no surprise, as weather patterns and the River Ganges itself have been acting erratically for some time.

Swami Raghvendranand, head of the ashram in Gangotri, is alarmed at what he is seeing. Like most Hindus, he believes that the river Ganges is a Goddess.

“Progress has been misused,” he says, “Previously, we had 15-20 feet of snow a year. Now we have between 5-8 feet. The glacier is retreating at a very fast rate. We are very concerned.”

He consults with a fellow swami who raises another issue. “Last year in (neighbouring valley) the glacier collapsed into the lake. The water level became very high.”

With the retreat of glaciers in the Himalayas, a number of glacial lakes have been created. The potential for glacial lake floods has increased dramatically. This is a very real concern as researchers estimate that 20 glacial lakes in the Himalaya pose hazards to human populations should their terminal moraines fail.

The Himalaya is on the front lines of the climate change issue. The inhabitants of this high mountain valley are paying the price of years of neglect and a lack of understanding of the natural forces that combine to control their lives. As the Swami so eloquently puts it; “It has all been trial and error. We should start taking serious steps. When the fate of people ends, the Ganges will die. If we change, she will last forever.”

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