FEATURE: How Nepal’s mountain dwellers are adapting to climate change
Nepali journalist Saroj Dhakal interviews British Council Climate Champion, Saurav Dhakal on his experience of completing the Great Himalayan Trail and what he thinks is needed to promote climate compatible development in the region.
I recently had the opportunity to discuss, over a cup of ‘chai’, with the British Council Climate Champion, Saurav Dhakal, about what he learnt and discovered when completing the Great Himalayan Trail in 99 days between January – May 2012 as part of the Government sponsored ‘Climate Smart Trek’.
The 4-month trek, led by world record holder mountaineer Apa Sherpa, was a huge success in raising awareness of the effects of climate change on the Himalayan region, as well as highlighting the opportunity of eco-tourism.
For Saurav, the most immediate benefit from participating in the grueling trek was learning more about how people survive and have adapted to the harsh and varied climatic conditions.
At the top of the hills only a few people live, whereas at the base where there is a river and fertile land for irrigation, there are dense settlements. Many roads have been built haphazardly and they are not ‘climate smart’ in any sense (e.g. they get severely damaged by flooding). Furthermore, people living on the top are migrating to the base of the hills. These new settlements tend to be near the bank of the river where agriculture is most productive. However, this puts them at a highly vulnerable spot when the river changes its course due to monsoons and high rainfall.
Local people he met on his travels told Saurav that while mosquitoes and flies used to rarely be found in the upper part of the hills, they are now a common and unwelcome feature of life. They have brought with them new problems of dysentery and diarrhoea which are now increasingly common among the local people.
Farmers on the top of hills where there is ice have traditionally received a generous income from a cash crop called Yarsagumba which is a natural Himalayan stimulant that comes out of Caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps Sinensis) and is popular in traditional Chinese medicine. It grows in high altitudes in Tibet, Nepal, China and Bhutan at around an altitude of 300 – 5000 m. However, the cultivation of this worm is slowing down. The average harvest in Dolpa, a Nepalese district which borders Tibet and accounts for more than 50 percent of the trade with China, had decreased from 267 pieces per harvester in 2006 to 125 pieces in 2010. While overharvesting is an issue, increasingly warmer winters and a lack of snowfall, is also reported to have affected production.
However, there are some positive stories which Saurav could recount about examples of local people taking the initiative to adapt to climatic changes. For example, many villagers are now using ‘Poly-houses’ – an area covered by a transparent sheet – to grow their vegetables. Vegetables that could previously not be found in upper mountains and hills such as onions and chillies, and off-season vegetables, are now being grown within these Poly-houses. In addition, a number of villages that are near to a water flow have built themselves water mills.
While observing and learning about these changes, both negative and positive, that have occurred in recent years in the Himalayan region, Saurav was able to come up with a number of recommendations for how to foster climate compatible development in this unique eco-system.
Carefully plan renewable energy
In recent years, there has been a flurry of attempts by NGOs, the Government and others to introduce renewable energy into the region, such as water mills, solar and biogas. This brings many benefits, including preventing deforestation, but ensuring the new technology is used and sustainable requires a great deal of careful prior planning and thought.
In particular, the isolated nature of the villages and the distance from the nearest market means that replacing new parts is a challenge. There is also a lack of qualified people within the village to ensure even basic maintenance. The risk is that villagers will be forced to turn their back on these technologies and return to using wood as the primary source of energy.
Prioritise and protect local seeds
New types of seeds have been distributed and promoted within the villages, which are capable of producing higher yields. However, this has brought controversy. Traditionally, farmers get their seeds free of charge from their last year’s harvest. With these new seeds, farmers have to purchase the seeds every year.
For many farmers they prefer to stick with the local seeds which have a long history in Nepal. However, if their neighbours are using the new type of seeds, there will most likely be cross contamination of the crops. The result is that for both farmers productivity will be reduced.
This is a well documented problem, with countries such as India taking action. However, in Nepal, there is less awareness among farmers of the need to keep the crops separate, and the value of the precautionary principle.
Nurture indigenous and new knowledge
Adapting to climate change requires local communities to understand their risks and identify coping strategies. A massive awareness campaign at the grassroots level is a vital first step. Schools and young people are a valuable resource and a great means to penetrate the community with new information. But, it should not be all about educating people with ideas from outside the community. Many of the solutions needed can be found in their traditions and cultures – such as the use and design of water mils – but these need to be documented and adapted to suit today’s situation.
Understand and tackle migration patterns
Many of the most at risk people are those who have migrated in search of better employment opportunities. They settle by river banks and often in unsuitable housing making them highly vulnerable to the effects of flooding. Local and national Governments need to understand why these people are migrating and address the reasons that make them leave their homes. The communities themselves also need to be educated on the risks that they are taking and how they can reduce these.
Following his trek Saurav is motivated to keep up the campaign to raise awareness of these mountain issues, and a book of his experience on the trek is in the pipeline. Hopefully, it is not just the intrepid tourists and mountaineers who will get to learn about the beauty and challenges facing these remote communities.
Saroj has been a regular columnist with Kathmandu Post, one of the premier broadsheets of Nepal . He has written reports and publications on a wide range of climate change and development issues, and has previously worked as an analyst for the Asian Development Bank, the Asia Foundation and the editor of the Asian Journal of Public Affairs.
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Photo courtesy of Samir Jung Thapa.