A thick pall of smoke hangs over much of northern India. For weeks residents of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, have not seen the sun. Smoke blankets areas of Bangladesh and the mountain kingdom of Bhutan. The pandemic has spread South Asia’s woes far and wide.
Forest fires sweep across the north Indian states of Uttarakhand – the country’s most forested state – and Himachal Pradesh. Further north in Nepal, fire is destroying thousands of hectares of forest. The fires, most of them out of control, are blamed in part on farmers burning stubble in their fields in order to plant crops.
But climate change is also a factor: over the past two years the level of rainfall across northern India has been considerably less than usual, while average temperatures have increased. Snowfall in the Himalayas has been well below average. As a result, say officials, much of the area has become tinder dry and fires have been spreading at lightning speed, leaving several people dead.
The conflagrations lead to the release of vast amounts of climate-changing greenhouse gases, the air pollution causes widespread health problems, and biodiversity is lost.
“On average about 10 million funeral pyres are lit each year in South Asia, the majority in India”
Smoke from the fires also causes fundamental changes high up in the Himalayas. Glaciers in the world’s highest mountain range are melting at considerable speed. This can lead to flooding in the short term and, in the long term, water shortages.
Higher temperatures are one reason for the melting, but soot from fires and other pollution is another important factor. When smoke particles fall on snow and ice they form a dark blanket which causes the absorption of more sunlight which, in turn, leads to further melting.
The Himalayas are particularly prone to such soot pollution. The Indo-Gangetic Plain to the south of the world’s highest and biggest mountain range is one of the most densely populated areas on Earth.
Winds carry the smoke from millions of household fires – many of them burning animal dung – high up into the mountains. Particulates from industrial pollution are also deposited on the snow and ice. Hindus burn the bodies of their dead on funeral pyres, and the smoke from these fires is also carried up into the Himalayas.
Role of rituals
Shamsh Pervez, a researcher at the Pandit Ravishankar Shukla University in India, says that on average about 10 million funeral pyres are lit each year in South Asia, the majority in India.
Organic carbon released during funerals and in the course of other religious rituals contains a number of light-absorbing compounds, many of them toxic, Pervez says.
In a study carried out some years ago by academics in India and at the Desert Research Institute in Nevada, it was found that smoke from various religious rituals makes a significant contribution to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere: it also causes further melting of glaciers in the Himalayas.
In the present Covid pandemic – hitting India and Nepal in particular – the number of such funerals is increasing. It’s estimated that wood from more than 50 million trees is used to fuel funeral pyres in South Asia each year.
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