Nepali Times Asian Paints

Horror story of a climate calamity

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017

The novelist Amitav Ghosh published his most recent non-fiction, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, before Donald Trump and his merry bunch of climate refuseniks assumed power in Washington. Yet, the key message of his book about the nature of empire in an age of globalisation that is driven by populism and climate denial is eerily prophetic.

The Great DerangementClimate change negotiations like the 2015 Paris Agreement threaten the global power status quo, and voters in some western democracies are convinced that this will result in an erosion of their power and wealth. Global disparities have widened in the post-colonial world. But to attain true climate justice, industrialised countries would need to cut their emissions by 80-90%, something that is politically untenable for petroleum addicts.

Since he was so accurate in predicting how climate denialism in America could lead to someone-like-Trump, we have to believe Ghosh when he draws a parallel between the carbon economy and militarism. The irony is that while the political-corporate complex in Washington backpedals on the environment, the American military sees increased instability around the world due to global warming. It is addressing the new challenge of ‘green security’ through greater surveillance of environmental activists and an ‘armed lifeboat’ mentality.

‘Corporations and energy billionaires’ are funding research to sow confusion about anthropomorphic climate change so that the corporate media underplays the dangers of warming by trying to be ‘balanced’. Such false equivalence has parallels in the way the US media covered Trump during the election campaign last year. Ghosh wrote these lines at a time when a Trump victory was not even a remote possibility: ‘The denial and disputing of scientific findings has become a major factor in the climate politics of the Anglosphere.’

Ghosh sees the laissez-faire philosophy of the pursuit of individual happiness that underpins Anglo-Saxon cultures as central to the climate crisis. Although he may be accused of extrapolating a bit, there is merit in the argument that ‘the rate of climate denial tends to be unusually high’ in the US, UK and Australia. It is the Anglosphere that is driving the global carbon economy of the anthropocene to protect the western ‘way of life’. Ghosh acknowledges that official denialism in these countries exist in direct contradiction to a growing citizen’s movement and global environmental activism.

The grip of fossil barons on the new US administration is so strong that it has failed to see the potential to make money from renewables. Under public opinion pressure, the Nordics are weaning themselves off petroleum: new car sales in Norway will be 100- per-cent zero emission by 2025, and one breezy day last July Denmark produced 140 per cent of the electricity it needs from wind farms and exported the surplus to neighbours. China has discovered that ‘green’ is not just synonymous with environment but also with ‘greenbacks’, and is already the world’s largest exporter of wind turbines, lithium-ion batteries and photovoltaics. Under Trump, America risks being left behind in the global race for green energy. India, for its part, will soon be the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and is relying on what Ghosh calls the ‘politics of attrition’ – the argument that the poor are more used to adapting to hardships than the rich. Ghosh forces us to think about the links between a world burning hydrocarbon energy to provide carbohydrate energy for 7 billion humans.

The less compelling chapters in The Great Derangement deal with Ghosh’s somewhat intricate attempt to unravel why novelists do not write about climate change. He asks: Where is the fiction about the facts of global warming? Readers may question why this navel gazing is even needed, except for an esoteric class in Contemporary English Literature. Ghosh admits that he himself has failed to incorporate in his novels the geological scale of the changes humans have wrought during the anthropocene. ‘The climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination,’ he writes, ‘intimately linked with the wider histories of imperialism and capitalism that have shaped the world.’

Trump’s efforts to roll back Obama-era gains on climate action show how fast politics can move. Global warming is also much more rapid than scientists predicted, with the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere crossing 406 ppm this month. Perhaps Ghosh needs to bring out a new edition of The Great Derangement, because however dire his prognosis, it has already been overtaken by events.

In 1998, after India conducted its first underground nuclear bomb test, Ghosh wrote a slim volume of non-fiction titled Countdown on how fallout from a full nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would contaminate the Himalayan icecap, turning rivers that irrigate half of Asia radioactive. A future update of Derangement could look at the accelerated deposition of soot from coal and diesel burning in the subcontinent, hastening the melting of Himalayan glaciers in Asia’s water tower.

List of climate change books

Second chance

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

It is hard to believe that it has already been two years since an earthquake devastated Central Nepal, leaving nearly 9,000 people dead, more than 2 million homeless and a country in a state of shock. Although the loss of life and destruction was tragic, Nepal got off lightly. Only 14 of the country’s 75 districts were affected, the frequency and duration of the shock waves meant that concrete structures were spared, and 25 April 2015 being Saturday saved thousands of school children.

2 years earthquake

There were important lessons we could have learnt about preparedness for the inevitable Even Bigger One. Post-earthquake reconstruction provided the perfect opportunity to reverse the out-migration of young men. Political parties had the chance to prove that they had the welfare of Nepalis foremost in their minds. The aftermath of the earthquake should have shaken us enough for parliament to finally set up the Disaster Management Authority to deal with future calamities. We squandered it all.

Relief and rescue could have been better managed if there were elected local councils accountable to the people. Finally, there is a glimmer of hope that we may have elections on 14 May for village, district and municipal bodies. But as the second anniversary approaches, there isn’t much more to add to a similar editorial we wrote last year in this space on the first anniversary.

The only difference is that the lack of urgency on the part of the state is even more glaring. Mired in politics and competition to take credit for relief, political parties have cancelled themselves out – leaving the people to largely fend for themselves. The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) has been bogged down by the NC and UML taking turns to oust and induct their own chiefs.

The NRA headed by Govind Pokharel got off to a fine start in 2015, and won the confidence of donors. But after it came to power, the UML replaced him with its own flunkie. Pokharel was recently reinstated, but he is being made to jump through hoops by political appointees within the NRA.

The agency has become a convenient lightning rod for blame, to let a lethargic government machinery off the hook. The NRA has only a coordinating role, and needs a nod from the Ministry of Finance for every paisa; all reconstruction work is coursed through other ministries where there is little coordination. In a candid interview last week, Pokharel told us that this was not the NRA he had envisaged in the 2015 Post Disaster Needs Assessment report. We endorse his call for the NRA to be able to manage its own funds.

And speaking of funds, Nepal has actually received less than a third of the $9.38 billion the NRA estimated it needed to rebuild homes, public buildings and infrastructure. Of the $4.1 billion pledged by donors in 2015, only $2.73 billion has actually materialised (most of it in loans). This is not even enough for the housing grant of Rs 300,000 per family, which itself is inadequate to rebuild. The NRA has come up with a new affordable design, but there seems little interest.

The main takeaway on the second anniversary is: International help has fallen far short of pledges and is much less than the amount actually needed, a lot of it is not going through the NRA, and (as in other spheres of development) the government has failed in coordination.


Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

Only in Nepal perhaps does the leader of the fourth-largest party in parliament who was just installed as Deputy Prime Minister sit on the asphalt in protest. Photographs this week show Kamal Thapa with a befuddled Nepal Army bodyguard behind him confronting riot police who later fired tear gas and baton charged supporters of his RPP.

3 (2)

Thapa was there to challenge the Election Commission refusing to accept his party’s manifesto that calls for the restoration of a Hindu monarchy in Nepal. It was no coincidence that the RPP protest this week came right after the dramatic power consolidation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP in state elections last week, and the installation of a saffron chief minister in Uttar Pradesh. It just went to prove that there must be some truth to the apocryphal adage that when it rains in New Delhi a politician in Kathmandu unfurls an umbrella.

After the BJP came to power in 2014, there has been an epic struggle between Modi’s advisers in the PMO and the Indian foreign policy establishment for policy and control. Some of that is also a result of strained relations within the BJP, particularly between Modi and the Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj. This tension has sowed some confusion about Indian policy on Nepal for the past three years.

Indian visitors in Kathmandu have sent conflicting signals while meeting Nepali leaders on issues like Nepal’s secular, federal and republican constitution. The external affairs bureaucracy in India with its intelligence agencies have been the architects since November 2005 of Nepal’s peace process that is now culminating with the constitution. The weakening of the secular Congress-Left could mean that the ascendant Hindu-Right shakti peeth in New Delhi will try to reboot its policy on Nepal.

The new Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is the high priest of the patron deity of Nepal’s former royal family in Gorakhpur. He has been disparaging about Nepal’s secular constitution, and has openly spoken about restoring the Hindu monarchy. Other BJP advisers have also made no secret of their antipathy to a secular and republican Nepal.

Political infighting in Nepal, the intractable confusion over amendments to the constitution, and some would say even the five-month blockade of Nepal in 2015 were a manifestation of secular leftists and Hindu revivalists working at cross-purposes in New Delhi’s corridors of power. Kamal Thapa and the Khum Bahadur Khadka faction of the Nepali Congress appear to be just foot soldiers in this proxy war.

Nepal’s cultural, linguistic, religious and ethnic diversity is Nepal’s national identity. How Nepalis want to define themselves should not change just because there is a new power balance in New Delhi.


Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

Nepal’s poverty rate may have gone down, the Human Development Index may have improved, but five km from the centre of the nation’s capital, two-year-old Buddhi Maya is dying of hunger in her mother’s lap. She is severely wasted, weighing half of babies her age.  Her parents migrated to work in a Kathmandu brick kiln from Dang to pay off a debt from the Poverty Alleviation Fund to buy two goats. A scheme designed to reduce poverty has pushed the family to starvation.

The plight of Nepali overseas migrant workers gets a lot of attention, but what of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers like the Biswakarma family? Desperate and destitute, they move to the cities to earn enough to feed their families and repay debts, but instead get caught in a vicious cycle of poverty.

Then there is the story of Shambhu Kumar Ram in Saptari, whose death last year got much media attention. The 14-year-old probably died of a combination of medical problems and opportunistic infections exacerbated by malnutrition, but it exposed a whole raft of issues that all tracked back to poor governance, deficient service delivery and the gross negligence of the state in protecting citizens.

Both deaths were probably preventable. Stunting has been nearly halved in Nepal in the last 15 years, but in that time the proportion of stunted children has stayed almost constant at 15%. The direct cause of preventable child deaths may be hunger, but it is a result of an uncaring state, a dysfunctional health service and the lack of a social safety net. The buck stops at public officials who don’t give a damn, who are trying to remove a competent Health Minister to make way for bhagbanda politics.

To change this, we need the three elections envisaged in the constitution. The first is local elections which haven’t been held for 20 years and are now slated for 14 May, and will install elected members of village, district and municipal councils. This will re-instill accountability in those who hold public office.

Unfortunately, the fate of local elections still hangs in the balance because of obstructions by Tarai-based parties which want amendments to the constitution be passed first. Local elections are held even in totalitarian states, and there should be no connection between a future federal setup and voting for village and district councils.

The amendments could be more important for the other two provincial and federal elections, and can be sorted in the weeks ahead. For now, our strong recommendation is that we go ahead with local elections and cross the other bridges when we get to them.

The clever metalsmith

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

Akal Man Nakarmi (pictured below) passed away last week at age 71 virtually unnoticed by a nation preoccupied with the constitution and elections. Self-effacing and shy, it was just like the man to slip away quietly without letting anyone know.

akal man nakarmi

His first name and surname described him accurately. Akal means ‘clever’, and Nakarmi is the Newari occupational name for traditional metalsmiths. He was clever with his hands, could work on iron, copper and bronze and shape them into anything as if it was wax.

I first visited Nakarmi’s family-owned workshop called Kathmandu Metal Industries in Chhetrapati with his partner-in-innovation, Swiss engineer Andreas Bachmann, in the 1980s. We walked through a warren of narrow alleys where the sun never shined. We stooped through a low door and entered a courtyard strewn with transformers, turbines and tools.

Nakarmi’s ancestors crafted copper and iron utensils, forged statues of deities. Bachmann and Nakarmi had been working on using the same lost-wax technology to make bronze Pelton turbines for micro-hydroelectric power generation. At one point, there was such high demand for these Peltric Sets that Nakarmi’s workshop couldn’t keep up with demand.

Within a decade there were more than 3,000 micro-hydro plants all over Nepal. Farmers rushed to install them with soft loans from the Agriculture Development Bank, which tried to do for electricity what it had successfully done with indigenously-designed biogas plants.

A whole section of Nakarmi’s workshop was devoted to an assembly-line for the Multi-purpose Power Units (MPPU) which converted traditional water mills by upgrading the wooden paddles with more efficient curved metal blades and ball-bearings. The systems not just processed food, it also produced power through an induction generator. Within a decade, nearly half the 30,000 or so traditional ghattas (pictured below) in Nepal had been converted into MPPUs and were even exported to Bhutan, Ladakh and Sri Lanka.

ghatta 1

Bachmann and Nakarmi produced a monograph in 1983 in which they provided meticulous drawings to show how traditional water mills could be upgraded and upscaled for rural electrification and agro-based industries. The MPPU kit came in three easy-to-assemble modules. Farmers could not just grind corn, but run threshing machines, saw mills and lathes during the day time and have electricity at night.

Nakarmi won the Rolex Award  and the Right Livelihood Award, but he kept quiet about them.  He preferred to work away in his workshop right till the end of his life. “All I did was use indigenous knowledge of Nepali farmers, and I just made the system more efficient by adding ball bearings and shaping the paddles,” he told me once.

ghatta 2

Nakarmi never spoke long enough to expound on his philosophy for life, but if he did perhaps it would come closest to the ‘Small Is Beautiful’ concept put forward by E F Schumacher in the 1960s: small, decentralised and self-contained energy systems that do not waste resources, do not damage the environment, are cheap and can be built and maintained locally.

Schumacher showed that human civilisation can reduce its ecological footprint with the use of appropriate and benevolent technologies that do not waste the planet’s finite resources. The path ahead for humankind, he said, was to do a lot with less. Nakarmi did not talk about it, but he designed practical solutions and set an example for the world long before we had even heard of peak oil or climate change. If we had heeded Nakarmi perhaps we would not have to suffer power cuts for so long.

Today in Nepal, we have moved into the age of national pride projects. Soon, there will be high dams on Nepal’s major rivers that feed power to ever-rising consumer demand in the cities and maybe even for export. Grid power has replaced many of the micro-hydros and MPPUs that Nakarmi helped build.

But for a time, during the innocent early days of development when Nepal was still dark, Akal Man Nakarmi was a beacon of light that showed us the path to eco- and people-friendly development.


Thursday, January 5th, 2017
Pic: Kumar Acharya

Pic: Kumar Acharya

Sixty years ago, when Swiss geologist Toni Hagen walked across the length and breadth of Nepal he used to ask villagers what they wanted most. The reply was almost always: a footbridge. Rivers divided Nepal into an archipelago of isolated valleys, especially in the monsoon. Nepal’s trail bridge-building campaign is a success story which we will talk about some other time. But when Hagen returned to Nepal in the 1980s and again asked mountain dwellers what they wanted, the demand was for motorable roads.

Today there is scarcely a part of Nepal where an excavator isn’t in action digging a road. More roads have been built in the past ten years than in the last 60. Humla is the only district that is still not connected to the national highway network, and even that not for much longer.

If Toni Hagen were alive and once more asked villagers in the mid-hills of Nepal what is their most pressing need, it would most certainly be: water. The more arid western districts of Achham, Dailekh, Jajarkot, Pyuthan were always synonymous with water shortages. But in the past two decades areas never before associated with the lack of water like Ramechhap, Kavre and Dolakha are reeling under acute water scarcity.

As our reporter found out in a recent visit (page 14-15) water shortage continues to be the biggest worry in Nepal’s mountain villages. While erratic rainfall and drying up of perennial springs have had a severe impact on agriculture, water scarcity has also spurred out-migration from the mid-hills.

Entire villages are emptying as farmers sell their homesteads and move to Kathmandu, while city folk are migrating in the opposite direction buying up viewpoint property as investment. Many terraces are barren not just because there is no one to till them, but also due to the water shortage.

Most villages located along ridges have always suffered from lack of water as soon as the rainy season drew close to. This year, despite a healthy monsoon that ended late, even water sources located next to community forests have dried up. Desperate villagers (mostly women because the men have left) have to walk hours to fetch water. Vegetable patches have wilted. Children are dropping out of school to help carry water. Districts may have been declared open-defecation free, but there is no water in the latrines.

Many reasons have been put forward for this Great Desiccation. Across most of the 12 districts affected the 2015 earthquakes disrupted aquifers, drying perennial springs especially along the higher slopes. The haphazard construction of roads, and urban sprawl have also diverted natural recharge points for ground water.

It is tempting to blame it all on climate change because that lets the government and local officials off the hook. It was the state’s responsibility to provide alternative sources of water even before global warming made the problem worse. This was not a new problem: Nepal’s mid-hills have always suffered prolonged drought, flash floods and water shortages. Despite irregular monsoons and extreme weather patterns, the monthly rainfall graph across Nepal hasn’t changed much in the past 20 years. If the total precipitation is the same, why are springs going dry?

Gigantic sponge

Global warming is melting the Himalaya, and glaciers are receding at an alarming rate. Water stored as ice along the Himalayan arc and on the Tibetan plateau is the fountainhead for 1.2 billion people from China, Southeast Asia and South Asia. But snow melt provides less than 20 per cent of the net flow of rivers that originate in the Himalaya, the rest are fed by springs. In fact, the Himalaya is not so much the water tower of Asia as a gigantic sponge that stores water under its mountains. That sponge seems to be going dry.

Whatever the cause, there are certain things that can be done immediately to reduce the water stress of Nepal’s villages. Some of these are featured in our reportage: farmers in Kavre are already harvesting rain from rooftops in underground tanks to tide over the family’s water needs till the next rainy season, collecting monsoon runoff in ponds so they recharge the aquifers. Besides making it mandatory for new buildings to be earthquake resistant, the government should also require them to have rainwater harvesting.

But, as we see in Kavre, much of this already is happening out of necessity. It is too late to blame climate change, we need to catch rain wherever it falls.

The power of one

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

When the stench from the Bagmati started getting too much to bear and the banks of Kathmandu’s sacred river became a garbage dump, many of us just covered our noses, averted our gaze and blamed government. Then, top bureaucrat Leela Mani Paudyal, led a citizen’s movement to collect trash every Saturday. In two years, Bagmati cleanup became a campaign that lifted hundreds of tons of rubbish. Paudyal is now our ambassador to China, but the momentum of his work continues.

Yet, there were those who accused Paudyal of tokenism. As Chief Secretary he should have solved the structural problem of urban garbage disposal instead of collecting the trash himself, they pontificated. Couch intellectuals wrote op-eds accusing him of (horrors!) trying to be popular.

Three years ago Kulman Ghising was sacked by the UML’s Energy Minister Radha Poudel for being too honest. When the Maoist Centre Energy Minister Janardan Sharma brought him back to head the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA), Ghising stopped load-shedding in Kathmandu within three weeks. Capital hasn’t had power cuts for the past two months. As we reported in this newspaper last week Ghising simply stopped corruption in the distribution of electricity to favoured customers, and he would not have been able to prevail had he not got the political backing of Energy Minister Sharma.

We have become so conspiratorial in this country that even consumers who are now enjoying 24 hours electricity are cursing NEA Managing Director Ghising because (Oh, no!) he succeeded. It seems we are so disillusioned that many of us will believe the wildest rumours, doubt the most honest, besmirch the most righteous. We make sweeping generalisations about all policemen being corrupt, all bureaucrats being on the take, all politicians being greedy and power-hungry, all journalists being deceitful. And we believe our own misrepresentation.

To be sure, there is lots to be cynical about. Two million survivors of last year’s earthquake are facing their second winter under tarps. In the heart of Kathmandu the Rastra Bank building and parts of the Singha Durbar secretariat are still in ruins. Parliament has not conducted business for two weeks because of a political deadlock over the constitution, yet its ‘honourable’ members just gave themselves a hefty raise. It has become a national trait to blame others (the rival faction, the other party, the neighbouring country) for our own failings, we excel at playing the demanding victim and cannot bear to see our own kind get ahead.

Happily, there are many like Leela Mani Paudyal and Kulman Ghising in this country, quietly and honestly doing their work without undue regard for reward or publicity. The comedy duo Sitaram Kattel and Kunjana Ghimire (‘Dhurmus-Suntali’) put the government to shame by raising money and personally building a new village for earthquake survivors in Sindhupalchok. Last year, it was the tireless teamwork of Govind Raj Pokharel and Swarnim Wagle at the National Planning Commission that allowed the Needs Assessment Report to be completed in time so that the National Reconstruction Authority could be set up. Pokharel could easily find himself a cushy international position, and Wagle gave up a job at the World Bank to return to Nepal. Similarly, there are dedicated young innovators like doctors devoted to service like Bikash Gauchan at Bayalpata Hospital in Achham,  social media trailblazer Sumana Shrestha, politician Anusa Thapa, advocate Om Aryal, human rights activist Mohna Ansari, some of whom have been profiled in this issue.

For every kleptocrat heading a public sector enterprise, there is another with integrity and vision to take the organisation and the country forward. As the Melamchi tunnel nears completion after a 25-year delay, the water utility responsible for distribution is moving fast to upgrade the water supply network despite blatant interference from Nepali Congress politicians, as we reported earlier this month (#835). In the transportation sector, Sajha Yatayat has been revived to provide reliable and comfortable buses for Kathmandu and has prevailed despite a route mafia enjoying political protection and patronage. After decades of going nowhere, Nepal Airlines finally has political support from Minister of Tourism Jivan Shahi  of the Nepali Congress, himself a pilot, and committed former DDC Chairman of Humla.

There are many other men and women who have shown through dedication and determination that it is possible to build a better future for this country.