A hotter Himalaya
Scientists are loath to link individual weather events with climate change. But there is a growing consensus among climate researchers that warmer ocean and atmospheric temperatures have intensified storms.
Every year for the past few years, the planet has broken its own temperature records. There are, as we speak, continental scale wildfires sweeping across Siberia, North America, Turkey and record floods recently ravaged parts of Europe.
In Nepal, too, prolonged winter drought unleashed widespread wildfires. When the rains arrived, they struck with unusual ferocity in the Himalayan rain shadow.
Manang saw fires burn continuously for three months this winter. Monsoon cloudbursts then hit slopes recently scorched, reducing the soil’s absorptive capacity. The runoff fed into the Marsyangdi system, washing away settlements and infrastructure.
In Sindhupalchok, the combination of the destabilising effect of the 2015 earthquake, the wildfires combined with record-breaking precipitation turned the watershed into mud paste.
The latest aerial clips of the upper Melamchi valley show a massive collapse of glacio-fluvial and lake deposits by extremely heavy precipitation on 15-16 June.
Nepal now has a National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority (NDRRMA) to carry out hazard mapping, recommend settlement zoning, infrastructure planning and provide early warning. But a nationwide warning of ‘heavier than usual precipitation’ that it issued in June was of little use — more accurate, localised forecasting is needed.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1W2dlEu9egY&t=5s
Himalayan disasters pre-date the climate crisis, and they are all interrelated. Earthquakes unleash landslides that block rivers, which burst, releasing catastrophic floods. Avalanches bulldoze glaciers into populated valleys. The danger of these calamities are now compounded by the climate crisis and unwise human intervention.
The Melamchi flood has added more uncertainty to the project that was supposed to start supplying drinking water this year to Kathmandu Valley through a 26.5km tunnel. Although the tunnel itself appears to have been saved, the headwork structures are under metres of mud and the access roads have been washed away.
The fragile slopes upstream are still crumbling into the river, and this week’s heavy rains unleashed more floods adding to the damage from June. The project that has already cost $700 million is sure to cost even more, and will be delayed further.
There was also major damage in June in a dozen hydropower projects in Lamjung and Kaski. The 465MW Upper Tama Kosi project was saved only because a landslide dammed river in China in June did not burst. If it had, a project that will generate one-third of Nepal’s electricity demand would have been destroyed even before its inauguration.
The good news is that the news could have been much worse. The bad news is that these geo-ecological dangers in Nepal are sure to get worse because of climate change and poorly engineered road-building, rampant river mining, haphazard quarrying, etc.
Last month, a report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) being prepared for the Climate Summit in Glasgow in November was leaked to the press. It forecast that there will be an increased impact of the climate crisis on melting ice and extreme weather as well as on biodiversity loss, unsurvivable heat waves and ecosystem collapse.
The 2015 Paris Agreement suggested that global average temperatures have to be limited to only 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels in the next 30 years by reducing carbon emissions. It is already at 1.2 Celsius, and on track to exceed 2 Celsius by 2050.
Scientists say the Himalaya will warm up to 0.3-0.7 Celsius faster than the global average. This will mean that at present rates of atmospheric heating, our mountains will be losing up to two-thirds of their ice during this century.
The climate emergency will add to all the other problems we in Nepal already face. It calls for strategic long-term planning to adapt to the socio-economic and environmental implications of a hotter Himalaya. Nepal’s international partners have pledged $7.4 billion for a Green Recovery project to build back greener after the pandemic.
Nepal needs to switch to clean transport not just to do our bit to reduce emissions, but also to reduce the growing petroleum import bill and save the economy.
There is no time to waste debating whether this year’s floods were caused by climate change or not. Leave that to the scientists. Let us plan as if it is climate-related, act accordingly, and be prepared for the frightening consequences of a Himalayan meltdown.