Paradigm shifts will be the only way to offset the effects of climate change

By Raju Chauhan, Program Coordinator

Originally published in The Kathmandu Post

Mountains are boons for a least developed country like Nepal, as they hold a huge potential for tourism, mountaineering, mountain sports, hydropower development, and biodiversity. But while they represent one of our most important natural assets, they will be greatly impacted by the phenomenon of climate change. Climate warming is more pronounced in high altitude regions—especially ones that are home to eight out of 14 of the tallest mountains in the world.

A study carried out in 2015 by a team of Italian scientists shows that maximum temperature increases are higher and more significant in regions that have an elevation of 1500 metres and higher. The warming has directly increased the rate of snowmelt and glacier retreat, thereby increasing the numbers and sizes of glacier lakes. As a result, mountain communities are at high risk from disasters such as avalanches, landslides and Glacier Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF). Whether it be the avalanche-induced flash flood in the Seti river, GLOF in Dig Cho, or the landside-induced dam in the Arun and Sunkoshi rivers, Nepal has already witnessed the consequences of mountain disasters. But  it is more terrifying to observe that such events have become more frequent in the recent years.

Mountains are often characterised by their unique diversity—both in terms of culture and species richness. But the changes in the climate has threatened our natural diversity. Montane species commonly respond to climate change through what is known as ‘range shifting.’ Research conducted by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Mustang, indicate that mountain conifers have been shifting towards mountain peaks at the rate of 5.2 meters per decade. Locals of Taplejung, Khumbu, Manang and Langtang have reported that the spotting of species like Snow leopards, Red pandas and Danphes have been less frequent than it used to be in the past. Shifting and changes in the vegetation characteristics of rangeland have also risen as challenges for livestock holders in the mountain region. Yak herding—once a tradition of people of Khumbu, Makalu, Dolpa, Manang and similar regions of Nepal—has significantly changed because the quality of rangeland has experienced considerable degradation. The barter system, a practice of exchanging medicinal herbs from the mountains with cereals and grains of the hills has almost stopped as availability of such herbs, has decreased due to changes in temperature and precipitation patterns.

Climate-induced disasters will jeopardise mountain businesses and livelihoods. For instance, unpredictable and extreme weather patterns will undoubtedly lower the interest of tourists to visit mountain areas. And events like the 2014 Everest avalanche, that killed 13 sherpas, will reduce mountaineering activities—ultimately affecting revenue generation of the country. The harsh topography and lack of mountain-friendly technologies have always been obstacles for mountain farming. In recent decades, the situation has been exacerbated by the erratic pattern of precipitation—which has resulted in droughts and desertification, heavy snowfall, hailstorm and waterlogging. Evidence form Dailekh, Jajarkot, Mugu and Humla indicate that climate-induced loss of productive land and productivity, and inadequate imports of food will eventually lead to hunger and starvation.

People have started migrating towards lowlands for safer and better futures, creating a community who are now increasingly being recognised as ‘climate migrants.’ A report published by National Planning Commission in 2013 states that environmental stress, particularly water scarcity, is a pressing concern and has directly affected and displaced many people who depend on agriculture-based livelihoods. There  have also been events where natural disasters have made people homeless and landless, forcing them to migrate to even more vulnerable areas. If the government fails to divert its attention to this issue, climate change-induced migration could potentially emerge as a national crisis.

To prevent such a predicament, climate change measures must be taken to mitigate and adapt to the changing climate. Doing so warrants national and international efforts. For starters, the impacts of climate change can be mitigated by increasing energy efficiency, shifting towards renewable energy, and designing people friendly cities. The already observed impacts can be adapted by developing and using climate resilient and environment friendly technologies and infrastructures, mobilizing national capacity and resources, and accessing climate funds.

Installing early warning systems and subsequently having an effective information communication system could help prevent disasters in these regions. Mountain issues have to be mainstreamed into national policy and international negotiations. At local levels, agricultural practices such as Sloping Agriculture Land Technologies that are suitable for mountain soil and landscapes should be identified and promoted. Indigenous mountain technologies should be preserved and season and off-season businesses and income generation activities should be identified and initiated.

Shifting to new ways of thinking will be the only way communities and governments can offset the ongoing effects of climate change in mountain regions.