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Climate change: how important are the rivers?

Dr. BHARAT KUMAR PRADHAN Sikkim Biodiversity Board

Rivers are equally important in regulating climate change

It is indeed a proud moment for the whole populace of tiny state of Sikkim that the flagship programme of the government of Sikkim “Mero Rukh Mero Santati (My Tree My Child)” has caught an eye of the central government who has selected the same to demonstrate India's global climate leadership during COP28 scheduled to be held in Dubai from 30th November – 12th December 2023.  MRMS involves planting 108 trees for each newborn child, symbolizing universal wholeness and completeness, deeply rooted in Indian spiritual traditions. Similar programme of planting two trees (one at home and one in the forest) for every baby born or adopted was started in Uganda, way back in 2008 and as a part of the same, over 15 million trees were planted in Uganda in just three years. The babies are provided with a certificate made from recycled paper, as a proof of such incredible environmental deed.

Back home, strict implementation of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and several centrally sponsored schemes like CAMPA, NAP, GIM, etc. and state’s initiatives such as 10 minutes to Earth, Smriti Van Programme, Mith/Mitini Tree, ban on green felling of trees, A Day for Mother Earth, free distribution of seedlings, etc. specifically aimed at protecting the existing forest or increasing green cover has resulted in 4.03 percent increase in the forest cover in Sikkim from 1993 (43.05 percent) to 2021 (47.08 percent), stocking 55.54 million tonnes carbon (0.77 percent of the country).

Today, it is been deeply felt by the group of practical scientists and barefoot scientists that the forest in Sikkim, though has increased in percent cover, its health is being degrading as can be realized from the increase incidences of human-wildlife encounter, invasive species, disease infestations, etc. which may be attributed to inappropriate conservation policies, unplanned developmental activities, pollution and climate change. Not only the forest, but the health and quality of our free-flowing river ecosystem has also been affected due to the above factors; the problem is aggravated further by the over exploitations of the river resources.

Culturally, it is revered by the Hindus since ages. It not only connects different culture but symbolizes divinity, motherhood, purity, life, source of life, cleansing power, femininity, forbearance, death, destruction, impermanence, movement of time, fertility, etc. The rivers are the vein of the earth transporting water and nutrients required to support life from mountains to the plains. It also transports carbon from atmosphere and land to the ocean where it is stored in deep-sea sediments for millions of years. This help reduce return of carbon to the atmosphere. A recent study by the scientists from the Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution estimated that the world’s rivers annually transport 200 megatons (200 million tons) of carbon to the ocean, equivalent to 0.02 percent of the total mass of carbon in the atmosphere. Another study by the scientists from Cambridge University have found that at peak flow, Mekong River in China transports as much carbon every single second as would be released by driving 10,000 km in an average sized family car. The transfer of carbon from the rivers to the ocean depends on the state of the free-flowing rivers.

A study has found that damming and diverting the free-flowing rivers would have significant impact on the local climate by alleviating the stream temperature.

It is to be understood that the health of the forests is dependent on the health of the free-flowing rivers and vice versa. It is equally important as forest, in regulating climate change.



Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi