Declaring an emergency
The Sagarmatha National Sambaad held this week was a dress rehearsal for a bigger international event slated for April, Nepal’s own version of Davos. Fittingly, the theme for the national gathering was ‘Climate Change, Mountains and the Future of Humanity’.
The title may be grandiose, but that is because at the rate of warming, mass extinction is an imminent threat. Thresholds agreed on in Paris in 2015, and forecasts in last year’s Himalayan Assessment brought out by ICIMOD may have to be revised because the rate of polar ice melt predicted for 2050 is already beginning to happen.
The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen from 300 parts per million (ppm) at the start of the Industrial Revolution in 1820 to 415ppm today. Cascade effects like the loss of albedo as Arctic ice melts, the undermining of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf by warm ocean currents, methane from melting permafrost in Siberia means global warming is not linear.
Greenhouse gas emissions from the mass burning of fossil fuels in the past 200 years have warmed the atmosphere by 1.3oC. Another 1.5oC increase will happen in the next 30 years. And due to a phenomenon called ‘elevation dependent warming’, the Himalayan mountains are expected to warm 0.3oC faster than the rest of the world.
Himalayan ice will be nearly gone during this century. The impact on biodiversity, weather, stability of slopes, society, economics and ultimately politics, will be catastrophic. There is just not enough time to adapt.
Which is why it is important for Nepal to take the lead in drawing global attention to the unique crisis faced by the Himalaya, for this does not just affect us but 1.2 billion people living downstream from Asia’s water towers.
While global CO2 cutbacks are put on fast-forward, Nepal and other countries in the region need to quickly come up with ways to reduce risk, and to manage the severe disruptions in natural systems that are sure to gain pace in the coming decades.
Even without the climate crisis, Nepal faces enormous environmental challenges. Our rivers are ravaged by sand mining, mountains are mauled by excavators, infrastructure is undercutting gains in forestry. Air pollution in urban areas exceed accepted international standards all year round, waste management is a mess, plastic litters the countryside.
The climate emergency is happening in parallel with an unprecedented transformation in all spheres of life. Nepal used to be known as a predominantly rural, agriculture-based society. Not anymore.
Agriculture now contributes only 27% of the economy. More than 60% of Nepal’s population lives in urban corridors.
But 70% of Nepalis still rely on biomass for cooking and heating, which gives us the advantage of being poor – there is still time to leapfrog directly to a green economy, bypassing fossil energy.
The proliferation of household biogas plants that has reduced the pressure on forests, but only 3% of the population use it. There is vast untapped potential to extend this, as well as utility-scale biogas plants. Making electricity accessible and affordable will enable more families to switch to electricity for cooking and space heating, reducing our per capita carbon footprint by bringing down LPG imports, as well as improving indoor air quality.
It is no use anymore blaming historical emissions by industrialised countries and rising fossil fuel use in neighbouring India and China for melting our mountains. if we do not move towards clean energy ourselves. Cutting air pollution will not just improve our health, but also reduce soot deposition that accelerates glacial melting.
There is a tendency in Nepal to blame everything on the climate crisis. Food deficit in the Karnali, outmigration, or floods in the Tarai, pre-date the climate crisis. If we address those structural issues, we as a nation automatically become climate resilient.
Nepalis emit only 0.2 tons per capita per year of fossil carbon (Qatar does 40) whatever we do will not make a big dent. Nepal needs to switch to a green economy and renewable energy not to save the planet, but to save our economy from the mounting burden of petroleum imports.
We need a government with single-minded focus on creating jobs with renewable energy projects and tourism development In the final analysis, everything rests on improving governance, and setting far-sighted goals and vision to be prepared for this global emergency.
10 years ago this week
An editorial 10 years ago this week delved into people in rural Nepal still dying of easily preventable diseases because of the lack of doctors, hospitals and affordable drugs. Sadly, that editorial could have been written today as the world deals with the coronavirus.
Excerpt from Nepali Times #489 of 12-18 Feburary 2010:
This is still a land where people die of simple, preventable causes. A lung or stomach infection, easily treated by modern medicine, can be fatal in rural Nepal. We know what to do to improve public health. Apart from more work on awareness, the country needs more hospitals and affordable drugs. Half the doctors in Nepal practice inside the country's Ring Road, so more needs to be done to retain them in district hospitals by giving them incentives to do so.
Diseases like TB, malaria, encephalitis, typhoid, diarrhoea and pneumonia can be treated with drugs. But they are not just medical problems. The root causes of sickness in Nepal are societal discrimination, economic disparity and political neglect. These cannot be treated with medicine.