Climate change and the end of the Indus Valley Civilization
First published: Biodiversity of India
The states of Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan and Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat in India had a great river named Saraswati (now the Ghagra Hakra river) flowing through their lands, four thousand years ago. The world’s first large civilization – the Indus Valley Civilization – arose on the banks of the Saraswati and the Indus rivers. At its peak in 2000BC, cities of the IVC such as Harappa and Mohenjo Daro housed over two hundred thousand people. The civilization was thriving – it had culture, a symbolic language, trade, city planning and a central rule of law. However, the civilization mysteriously vanished around 1500 BC. Hundreds of thousands of people disappeared, cities were lade bare and large swathes of land turned into deserts. Very few traces of this civilization are to be found in the next stage of India’s history – the Vedic civilization. What happened to all the people of the IVC? Why did such huge cities crumble to dust? Although several hypotheses have been proposed to address one of the biggest historical mysteries of all times, one leading explanation involves the role of climate change.
Many experts today believe that the IVC disintegrated after the Saraswati river started turning dry. Satellite imagery of the region along the Indo-Pakistan border clearly shows existence of vast underground channels where the mighty Saraswati once flowed. Most currently known sites of the IVC line perfectly along these channels, suggesting that these massive cities propped up along the banks of Saraswati. It is also believed that there was a general weakening of the monsoon system around 1500BC. It is believed that hordes of people migrated from the IVC and went towards the Gangetic plains or to Central Asia. Research has also shown that the new centers of activity arose east of the Saraswati a few hundred years after the Saraswati dried up.
Human civilization has existed in India for the past fifty thousand years – ever since the first pre-humans migrated out of Africa and proceeded towards the southern coastline of India. Millions of migrants and conquistadors have since entered India through the northwestern frontier. Most decided to stay here – the country had plentiful rivers, a beautiful landscape, fertile soil and an amazing biodiversity. The cultural evolution over the past two thousand years saw much of this nature get integrated into the lifestyle of the people. Right from having gods bearing pythons and elephant heads to finding medicinal uses of leaves and roots, from worshiping the rivers as deities to considering the earth as the Mother (Dharti Mataa), India’s nature got richly integrated into its culture. India, not just the country, but also the concept, exists because of its nature. As the example of the IVC shows, you destroy India’s nature and you’d have disintegrated its civilization.
This scenario is no longer a historical, or for that matter, a futuristic one. It is very much a problem this generation and the generations to come have to deal with. Climate change today is a reality. According to several scientific reports, India and its 1.5 billion people and countless species will be among the worst affected by climate change. Himalayan glaciers, for example, provide water to one third of the world’s population. These glaciers are the sources of our rivers like the Ganga, the Indus and the Brahmaputra. What happens when the water starts running low? On the other side of the country lie the mighty Western Ghats. Rivers like the Cauvery and Krishna have their sources in the Western Ghats. These megadiverse ranges are the most human-inhabited biodiversity hotspots in the world. Predictions suggest that changing patterns of the monsoon winds will significantly change water availability and the ground water table in these regions. What will that mean for the people living in these areas? How will it affect the rich flora and fauna?
Questions like these are no longer hypothetical but very much a reality. This is no longer a time to take petty, superficial actions and put a plaster over the developing cracks. We are no longer dealing with petty issues like bringing CO2 emissions down to pre-1990 levels or signing nominal accords with foreign countries. We are certainly not dealing with petty divisions of language, caste and religion. We are at one of the biggest crossroads of the Indian civilization today. The scenario is much the same as what the people of the IVC faced four thousand years ago. We can either let the India of today degenerate into chaos or we can take bold actions with a sense of urgency. The kind of India our children inherit tomorrow is very much dependent on what action we take today. That is what we must all realize.
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