Climate change and its implications on South Asia, specially Nepal’s mountain communities


By Subash Chapagain, Kathmandu
9 September 2016

A recent agreement between United States and China to ‘ratify’ the Paris climate change agreement has become a beacon of hope for environmental activists, campaigners and climate journalists from across the globe. Signed at the G20 summit in Hangzhou, the deal would force signatory nations to keep global temperature below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. According to the agreement, rich countries will provide climate aid to poorer and vulnerable nations beyond 2020.

However, following a similar meeting in Paris last year, the international community had agreed to keep the world temperature “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”.

Mustang, Nepal. Picture: Rishav Adhikari

This half a degree of temperature has far greater consequences for our ecosystems, economy and life than one can imagine. According to Carbon Debrief, the world will experience climate extremes of significantly more devastating magnitude and frequency under the 2°C warming as compared to a ‘safer’ 1.5°C. For instance, global occurrence of heat extremes is projected to last for 1.5 months annually under 2°C while it will be just 1.1 months under the 1.5° C target. Freshwater availability will decrease by an alarming 17 percent under the double-digit rise, as compared to 9% under the 1.5 percent. Production of major staple crops like maize and wheat are also anticipated to witness similar decline with the larger margins.

Amid such ominous projections, inhabitants in the most vulnerable regions, the river basins of the Hindu-Kush Himalayan region that host 1.3 billion human lives for instance, are already reeling under repercussions of the rising temperature. Agriculture and food production in this region, mostly rain-fed and subsistence-oriented, are always in a state of constant threat. This is even more pronounced in an underdeveloped nation like Nepal, which is one of the least emitters of greenhouse gases (0.025%).

Nepal’s agricultural sector is small-scale, traditional and subsistence-oriented. Yet, agriculture alone contributes about 35% of the national GDP and it employs some 70 percent of the total workforce. At the current rate of greenhouse emissions by global economic giants, this sector will reap some momentary gains from warmer temperatures and melting ice because it will boost water supplies which is much-needed for irrigating the vast plains across the river basins. But over time, glacial retreat and the ensuing uncertainty about summer monsoon’s start and end dates will reduce crop yields and cause food insecurity. Imja, Thulagi and Tsho Rolpa glacial lakes that lie in the Himalayan region of Nepal are in risk of rapid outburst, a recent study by ICIMOD suggests. Many Nepalese and Indian settlements and agricultural lands downstream of such snow-fed river basins are extremely vulnerable to the threat of glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFS). Since the Hindu Kush-Himalayan range is admittedly of extreme seismic instability, the earthquake hazards make GLOFs even more likely to occur.

Indigenous communities and peasants in Nepal have identified climate variation to be the main responsible factor for their declining crop and livestock production. Decline in rainfall from November to April adversely affects the winter and spring crops. This is of grave concern as most of these farming communities from the Himalayan foothills are entirely dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. Rice, wheat, maize, barley and potatoes are the mainstay crops of this region which are highly dependent on the amount and patterns of rainfall, especially the monsoon. For the last few years, farmers from across the South Asian region have reportedly experienced significant shifts (both: early and delayed) on the onset of monsoon. The subsistence farming economy is affected due to changes in the reliability of stream flow, a more intense and potentially erratic monsoon rainfall, and the impacts of flooding. Such hydro-ecological imbalances not only mar the production of staple food items but also other tropical fruits (banana, papaya, mango) and crop (pulses and beans). This eventually affects the whole livestock and agro-based industries.

Climate change parameters – temperature, rainfall pattern and humidity – have a profound impact on the development and distribution of pests and crop diseases. Increase in temperature and CO2 will lead to an increase in the population of pests and severity of diseases in presence of host plants. It augments the rate of reproductive cycle of insects and pests. This increased insect population in turn will lead to excessive dependence on pesticide which of course causes more harm to ecosystem and public health. Pests and diseases in the plains ecosystem may also gradually shift to hills and mountains. Some pathogens of important crops from Terai zones are known to have adapted in hills and mid-hills (for example rust and foliar blight) that may adversely affect the agricultural production.

On the other hand, ramifications of a growing population demand and freshwater scarcity are likely to further intensify food insecurity and loss of agro-biodiversity. According to news reports on several national dailies, water resources in the hilly districts of Khotang, Kavrepalanchok and Illam in Nepal have suffered a rapid drying. “It’s a shame that water is becoming more expensive than food items these days. There used to be a lot of ponds and streams but they’ve disappeared gradually in last few years,” sad locals have been quoted as saying. What is more, this trend of drying groundwater sources is beginning to show up in the Terai lowlands as well. This raises an alarm bell on the entire region’s livelihood since the western belt of Terai contributes more than half of the country’s agriculture productivity – being the most fertile region in Nepal.

The habitat shift of Himalayan snow leopards is often cited as a reference to better explain the underlying subtleties of climate change impact on biological systems. Also, deteriorating forests and eco-systems have poised danger to some of the endangered flora and fauna across the Himalayan belt. This could be detrimental to the vast biological reservoir that our diverse topography houses. From food to public health to natural ecosystems to tourism – global temperature rise is devastatingly detrimental to all realms of human existence.

The phenomenal climate changes in the Himalayas would be a catastrophe for all of South Asia. It is not just the future of a few mountain communities at stake, but the lives of nearly 1 in 5 people in the world, all of whom rely on the Himalayas for water. Nepalese rivers alone provide water for 700 million people in India and Bangladesh. If there is less snow in the Himalayas, if the monsoon rains decrease, if the glaciers melt with the climate change, then all South Asian agricultural sectors, industries, water supplies and cities will suffer.

With evidence piling up, the whole world needs a collective commitment towards reducing greenhouse emissions; it needs an honest dedication to keep the temperature rise well below 1.5 degree celcius rise. Beyond mere paper agreements and consortia, international communities should join hands to highlight issues underlying the global warming and urge for timely political interventions so that we won’t have to leave behind a semi-apocalyptic planet to generations to come. In this regard, the world needs a revolution – a revolution that enables each and every one of us to feel accountable for whatever good or evil that’s happened to Mother Earth’s natural system and environment, and ultimately to human livelihood.

The writer has a Bachelor in Biotechnology from Kathmandu University and is currently co-authoring Kaagmandu Magazine covering agriculture, environment and sustainable development.

Disclaimer: The writer is solely responsible for all aspects of this article. – Editor,

2 thoughts on “Climate change and its implications on South Asia, specially Nepal’s mountain communities

  1. Udeeptta Rajbhandary

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    Very well written! Kudos to the writer, my friend, Subash.
    Yes, people should be aware that half a degree celsius rise in annual temperature is not a joke neither it is a small increase. Regarding the effects of the speedy climate change on agriculture and livestock, it now seems urgent for a serious study to be done to assist the shift in cropping calendar that matches the changing climate. It is now time that the learning presented in papers be implemented in reality.

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