Nepal: warming in the high Himalaya

By Bryan Walker 01/09/2009

NepalOxfam climate change reports keep coming.  This time it’s Nepal, a country about which New Zealanders who share Edmund Hillary’s values will care.  Oxfam spoke to people in fourteen rural communities across three ecological zones in that country.  What those people had to say is remarkably consistent with the current climate change projections.  But it’s not because they know what those projections are.  These are mainly poor people, often not well educated, and unlikely to be aware of the IPCC reports. Here are a few of the statements:

“There has been no rain this winter, and the monsoon doesn’t arrive on time any more. Four or five years ago we grew enough rice and wheat to eat for five months, now it is not enough for one month. Before we had lots of green vegetables, fruits and sugarcane, but now we can grow very little, only where there is water close by.’

“I have been here in this village for 40 years. I remember during the rainy season the river used to come up to our stomach and it was a problem to walk across the tracks and fields because the mud would come up to your knees. For three months we couldn’t cross the river. Now there’s been so little rain recently, it (the river) only comes up to our knees even in the rainy season. We are worried about the amount of food we’re growing; we have to work so much harder to grow the same things…”

’We tried everything, but rely on rainfall. Our fields need timely and sufficient rainfall as we do not have irrigation. But rainfall is beyond our control. Especially in last three to four years, there is much less winter rain. Many families have kept their land fallow in winter and migrate to cities and India for work. Returns from wheat production are less for farmers.’

’When I was younger there was enough grain to eat. Since 11-12 years ago it has been reducing. The river used to flood our land in the monsoon, that’s not happening anymore. We are cultivating the same crops we used to: rice and wheat; but today there is far less yield.’

’Unpredictable but intense rainfall is creating flood havoc. When we are expecting rain there is not a drop but sudden intense rain floods the village. It is increasingly important to prepare ourselves for floods as responses are becoming much more difficult.’

Oxfam pulls out the salient points which emerged from all the statements gathered:

â–  Warmer, drier winters with declining snow and increasing rain resulting in reduced soil moisture content and reduced crop yields.

â–  More intense summer monsoon rainfall events resulting in increased occurrence of floods and landslides destroying land, crops and infrastructure.

â–  Increasingly unpredictable summer monsoon with early or delayed onset or periods of drought resulting in lost crops or decreased yields.

â–  Increasing hailstorms resulting in destroyed crops.

â–  Declining water sources requiring people to travel further to collect water for consumption, domestic use and for livestock.

â–  More intense cold waves in the Terai plains.

The main impacts identified include:

â–  Declining crop production resulting in increasing and widespread food insecurity.

â–  Drastic declines in water resources, resulting in reduced crop yields but also increased workload for women and girls to collect water for daily use. Importantly people are also reported to be compromising their health by being forced to utilise unprotected sources.

The report comments that Nepal appears to offer a particularly stark case of a country where climate change is happening, and along the lines expected. Scientists and experts have documented and predicted that continuing rising annual average temperatures are exacerbated at higher altitudes. One consequence is glacial retreat across the Himalayas, which already poses increased risk of glacial lake outburst floods and more importantly forecasts a grim outlook for the millions of Nepalis and hundreds of millions of inhabitants of the major Asian river systems that rely on the seasonal melt-off of the Himalayan glaciers for much of their flows.

The report frequently moves from current observation to future prediction, which is a perfectly justified step when what is being observed today is in line with the direction of the predictions.  Indeed the reports from villagers help to fill in the detail of the broad picture provided by the climate science.

Oxfam acknowledges that there are inherent difficulties in attributing particular impacts to climate change. Nepal is a country with many existing vulerabilities to climatic extremes, as the denialists will no doubt be quick to point out. But climate change brings a magnification of these vulnerabilities, the full extent of which could only be demonstrated conclusively by years of recording.  If we wait for that we will have waited far too long.  I applaud Oxfam’s refusal to wait. They have strong ground for their claim that climate change is already under way, exacerbating poverty and inequality. They are right to point out the injustice that countries like Nepal are suffering the consequences of a situation that they have the least resources to cope with and bear little responsibility for creating.

Oxfam’s mission is more than to point out what climate change is doing.  It has to be concerned with helping poor communities adapt to the changes that are upon them. Some in Nepal are already attempting that. The report stresses what more urgently needs to be done by the Nepalese government and NGOs to support adaptation efforts. It would be nice to think the New Zealand government might add to its current level of aid to Nepal a permanent additional chunk in recognition that poverty reduction has got a whole lot harder when climate change is added to the mix.  One might say we large emitters of greenhouse gases owe it to them.

Hot Topic posts on earlier Oxfam reports can be found here (the Pacific) and here (the developing countries generally) .

Update: I’ve made reference to some similar work in Nepal by a Nepalese Agency in the comment thread that follows – comment no. 35