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Climate change is leading to abandonment of villages and ‘forced immobility’ across Uttarakhand

Extended monsoon season. Concept.
Monsoon rains have driven flooding across the country. Image credit: Ashwin06k [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]
Vulnerable to both slow- and rapid-onset climate change hazards, threats facing the northern state of Uttarakhand are resulting in climate migration challenges such as abandonment of villages and ‘forced immobility’, according to new research. 

Insights from the state published by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre note that climate change-related weather factors have seen disruption to ecological resilience, local coping strategies, and agrarian livelihoods. The majority of the state’s population is situated in rural hill areas where traditional rain-fed agriculture remains a staple of income and diet. 

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre also state that Uttarakhand’s out-migration is attributed to a variety of reasons, among them the increasingly severe impacts resulting from climate change. These changes are forcing parts of the state’s population to migrate from hills to plains, resulting in uninhabited villages which are left abandoned. 

Deemed ‘ghost villages’, these uninhabited areas of Uttarakhand feature houses and fields that have been left once almost all move on. Yet there are some individuals who remain. For example, in Uttarakhand, climate change’s relationship with social inequality and gender relations rears its head. Immobility is often tied to a lack of financial resources, social networks, or social obligations with women staying to navigate family obligations and men leaving for farming work. 

Climate change-related weather factors forcing change 

Behind this forced migration is an understanding Uttarakhand is now subject to more heat and more rain. Both challenges – coupled alongside co-stressors like deforestation, unplanned housing on hill slopes, and lack of road connectivity – are leading to pressures on the state’s population. 

“Our mountain springs are dry; we don’t have water to drink. I wanted to take my medicine but there was no drinking water in the house. I had to wait for my grandchildren to return from school, then they ran to the village common pool water area to fetch me some drinking water,” a woman from the Nainital district was quoted as saying. “Such is the situation here. If it doesn’t rain, then we face problems. If there is water, there is life, and without water, there is nothing. I wonder how long we can live here, if it continues like this we too will be forced to migrate.” 

Then there is the increased rain, often seen in the form of ‘cloud burst’ events – extreme heavy precipitation events. The most notable example of this is the Kedarnath Catastrophe in 2013 when torrential rains caused the banks of the Chorabari lake to collapse, resulting in flash flooding that brought about heavy losses to infrastructure, agricultural lands, human and animal lives. Importantly, these events render locations on hill slopes extremely vulnerable. 

Across recent years, measurements have shown that the average annual rainfall is projected to increase continuously. Whilst this is important, the frequency of rainfall provides greater understanding of the long-term forecasting with projections showing an increase in consecutive dry days, thereby indicating an increase in heavy rainfall events which are projected to increase between seven and seventeen percent across Uttarakhand. 

Addressing displacement through policy implementation 

Ultimately, to be able to mitigate and adapt to the medium-to-long term, governments must ensure there are adequate frameworks in place to deal with the effects of climate change displacement. This is clearly something that is being considered. 

“Adaptation and disaster resilience have become very important [in the wake of climate change]…we are preparing our policies with a structured exercise [along with] a great alliance of 130 directors and departments,” said Prakash Javadekar, Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

And so from the hills of Uttarakhand where increased rainfall threatens the population to the Bay of Bengal where coastal erosion is leading to displacement, this adaptation policy implementation will remain critical with many states already bearing the brunt of exacerbated weather-related events. 

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