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In the Shadow of the Himalayas: Nepal Faces Climate Change

December 2, 2009

The Himalaya mountain range is warming at a rate three times faster than the rest of the planet, and the impact of this crisis is reverberating throughout Nepal. Snowcaps are receding, new lakes are making traditional animal herding routes impassable, landslides are becoming more frequent, and insects that previously were unable to live in the high altitudes of the Himalayas are flourishing and driving down crop yields. Despite some controversy over numbers, the catastrophic effects climate change could bring to the region are inarguable, and will be a leading priority as global leaders convene on Monday for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

A village sits at in the shadow of the Himalayas. It is estimated that more than 700 million people live near the Hindu Kush-Himalayan mountain ranges, and are vulnerable to effects climate change brings to the region. Photo by Mr. Helmut Blauth.

A village sits at in the shadow of the Himalayas. It is estimated that more than 700 million people live near the Hindu Kush-Himalayan mountain ranges, and are particularly vulnerable to the effects climate change brings to the region. Photo by Mr. Helmut Blauth.

In the run-up to the conference, the Nepali government has attempted to draw the world’s attention to the vulnerability of the Hindu Kush-Himalayan mountain ranges and the 700 million plus people that live in their shadow. However, these efforts must be coupled with political will from the government to also implement mitigating actions, such as advocating and supporting a complete switch to renewable energy to reduce the vulnerabilities of the results of an already-changing climate. Such actions would not only lessen the effects on the planet, but would also reduce Nepal’s dependency on petroleum imports and help to bolster the Nepali economy by supporting local renewable energy alternatives and spurring local job growth.

Receding glaciers and the resulting increase in the number of glacial lakes in the Himalayas are considered to be evidence of accelerated global warming.

Remnants of what was once a glacier in the Everest region of Nepal. Mr. Helmut Blauth.

Remnants of what was once a glacier in the Everest region of Nepal. Photo by Mr. Helmut Blauth.

In the context of Nepal, the increasing dangers of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) can have a larger impact, given the number of people who reside in proximity to these glaciers and are vulnerable to downstream flooding. Furthermore, the increase in glacial melts in the Himalayas also impacts the flow of major rivers that traditional, small-holder farmers have relied on for centuries to sustain their livelihood. But there has been limited effort from the government to tackle this issue. What little has been done, writes Smriti Mallapaty in the October-November issue of Himal Southasian “has gravitated toward adapting to the emerging emergencies, rather than a staged approach that investigates human action and thinks of ways to mitigate climate transformation.”

The same issue of Himal Southasian highlights the profound threat posed by climate change to the entire region of South Asia. Take the case of Bangladesh. Given its combination of severe resource constraints, major governance challenges, and geography, Bangladesh is considered one of the places most vulnerable to climate change and thus faces potentially devastating consequences. The threat of massive internal and external displacement is real: Over 20 million Bangladeshis living in coastal areas are at risk of losing their homes which, as Mark Dummett writes in a recent BBC article about his travels throughout coastal Bangladesh, could cause further migration to the nation’s already congested capital, Dhaka. Such movement presents a challenge to the stability of the state and the entire region by placing strains on its neighbors, all of whom face their own daunting climate-related challenges. Given the increase in energy consumption and the severe vulnerability of South Asian countries, such as Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and the Maldives, increased awareness about the critical need for proactive action aimed at effective mitigation and adaptation across the entire region is essential.

Undoubtedly, Nepal can only make a small dent in abating the harmful effects of climate change. But, considering its central physiographic location in the region and the severe impact that global warming is already having on the country, it needs to be one of the loudest voices at the table in Copenhagen and beyond.

The Asia Foundation funded a special October-November double issue (Vol.22 Nov 10/11) of Himal Southasian focusing on climate change and its effects on South Asia.

The authors are Program staff in The Asia Foundation’s Nepal office and can be reached at info@taf.org.np.

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