Climate denial in the Himalaya

Gurla Mandhata mountain (7,700 metres) south of Mount Kailsh. Locals in Tibet say that mountains are getting less snow in recent years. Photo: NABIN BARAL

“It isn’t as cold as it used to be a few years ago at this time of year,” says our Tibetan guide Mingmar Tashi as we walk near Mt Kailash to the source of the Karnali, Nepal’s longest river. 

This is the biggest tributary of the Ganga by volume, and Nepal’s longest river. It originates in Tibet’s Burang county where in late September residents were all busy harvesting and moving livestock down valley for winter.

But winters are changing. Chinese studies show the Tibetan plateau is warming three times faster than other parts of the world. In southwestern China the mean annual temperature increased 0.12 degrees Celsius per decadefrom 1961 to 2010. Other studies project that by 2050, the mean temperatures in the Hindu Kush Himalayas will increase by 1-2Celsius, even 4-5in some places. 

Read also:

Part 1: Faith to reality

Part 2: Dams and dreams a journey down the Karnali

“Snow in the mountains in Tibet is declining and I can see that clearly,” says Mingmar Tashi. A recent Lanzhou University study confirms this: snow-cover in Tibet has decreased at altitudes above 2,000m above sea level, but increased at lower altitudes.

Aitan Bhandari from Mohoti, Bajura harvests paddy. This area was hard hit by drought in last few years but due to adequate rainfall this year the production was good. Photo: NABIN BARAL

Rising temperatures will lead to more rapid snowmelt, with severe impacts on people living in the region. Flow of rivers that originate in the Tibetan Plateau will be affected, impacting agriculture and hydropower projects. 

Changes in hydrology in high altitude areas are poorly understood due to high meteorological variability, lack of accessibility and complex interplay between climate, glaciated areas and hydrological processes. Nevertheless, available research shows that seasonal snow cover impacts the water storage capacity of glaciers in a warming climate. 

Read also:

Part 4: Dancing with the river

Part 5: A Karnali portrait 

“Global warming may lead to either rising or decreasing river flows, depending on the state of glacier retreat,” stated a recent study published in the proceedings of US National Academy of Sciences , comparing glacier melt and river flows in Nepal and Chile.


A 2015 report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development(ICIMOD) reviewed the impacts of climate change in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, including Nepal: ‘The changing probabilities and magnitudes of extreme events can place additional risk on power generation infrastructure (dams and hydropower plants) as well as secondary infrastructure (roads and transmission lines). Further, hazards associated with shrinking glaciers, such as glacial lake outburst floods, can jeopardise large infrastructure investment.’  It added that since most of the agriculture in mountains is rain-fed it makes farmers highly vulnerable to rainfall variability. 

Devi Fadera, from Srinagar village in Nepal’s Humla district bordering Tibet, was in a rush in early October to harvest golden fields of ripening rice. “The weather is becoming more uncertain every year, so I have to harvest during these sunny days. Who knows what will happen tomorrow,” he says.

A woman collects yak dung to be used as cooking fuel in Kardung village in Tibet. This is the first village on the bank of Karnali River in Tibet and is also called Mapcha Khambab. Photo: NABIN BARAL

There has been very little rainfall in the region over the last three years. The drought of 2016 was the worst in the last three decades, but there was sufficient rainfall this year. “Rain was sufficient this year, so the paddy was good,” adds Fadera, whose harvest only feeds his family for six months in a good year. 

From Fader’s farm, the Karnali can be seen at the bottom of a deep gorge, and there is no way to bring any of that water up for irrigation. Most of the villages along the river depend on monsoon rains. When the food runs out, mule trains bring supplies from elsewhere in the country, but that doesn’t really help much. People in this region have the lowest purchasing capacity in Nepal. Malnutrition is common, and only 0.9% of the land in Humla is arable. Most men migrate to cities or India to work to supplement their income.

Dirgha Shahi was hurrying to Kermi in Upper Humla to get some flour transported from Tibet’s Burang county. The only way to get food from the southern plains of Nepal is via air, and that is expensive. The abundant rainfall in 2018 brought only misery to Shahi. 

“It was continuous from July and August. Too much water destroyed our vegetables, especially beans,” he says.

Rangmal Thapa of Sarkegadh in Humla takes out rice stored two years ago from underground. Locals store rice by digging a hole nearby their homes for emergency use in the case of famine or other disasters. Photo: NABIN BARAL

Maheshwar Dhakal, chief of the Climate Change division at Nepal’s Ministry of Forests and Environment admits that it is difficult for the government to integrate climate change into its plans. “However, we have been providing support to several vulnerable communities through local level adaptation projects like Nepal climate change support programme which has its major focus in the Karnali region,” he adds. 

Roads construction was the most visible development activity during our 1,100 km journey down the Karnali from Tibet via Nepal to India. But in Nepal the roads are poorly planned, poorly constructed, and there is thought to the debris as it tumbles down the mountains. 

In Tibet there is a massive construction spree of huge embankments, highways and urban infrastructure. In Nepal, addressing environmental concerns during construction is not a priority. The government’s project to link the southern plains in Banke district to the northern border in Humla has cut through the mountains. 

Dynamite blasts were a constant menace as we walked, drove and rafted for down the Karnali River. Geologist Karen Bennett who was a member of our team is shocked to see the unnecessary level of destruction. 

Rampant road construction along the Karnali river. Karnali corridor highway which is under construction will link Nepal's Dailekh to Hilsa in Tibet border. Photo: NABIN BARAL

“Roads are necessary, but the situation is worrisome,” she says. Most of the settlements along the river corridor are built on landslide-prone areas, and people have built over previous landslides. These are inherently unstable, and improper road construction increases their vulnerability. 

Incremental investment during construction would have saved the billions that will be needed for future maintenance. Bennet says: “If such haphazard construction continues, villages along the Karnali will suffer badly.”

Rampant road construction has already led to serious problems in recent years. The Karnali Highway linking Nepal’s western border with Tibet was on the drawing board for two decades but moved forward after 2015 when the job was given to the Nepal Army. One of the biggest projects in the country, the 500-km road will link India and China. But it is being built with no attention to basic principles of road engineering in mountain regions.

Construction of Karnali Coridor in Nepal's Bajura. Haphazard construction has increased vulnerability of the communities in the fragile landscape. Photo: NABIN BARAL

All rural municipalities in Nepal have a mission to link each village ward with roads in the next few years. “In the next three to five years we will have all the villages linked with rough roads,” boasts Devraj Devkota, mayor of Panchadeol rural municipality in Nepal’s Accham district. 

As the hills and mountains are excavated, most of the debris is thrown directly into the river. “This will create geological instability and will have severe impacts on aquatic species,” warns Deep Narayan Shah of the Central Department of Environmental Science, Tribhuvan University. 

Blacktopped highways from Tibet have reached the Nepal border, and Nepal is also focusing on enhancing road connectivity with its northern neighbour and all the main corridors are along the major rivers: Sun Kosi, Trisuli, Kali Gandaki and the Karnali. The Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are already connected with Nepal by road. Experts say there is also a need to connect people and governments to be prepared for disasters and the impact of climate change. 

Chudari Village in Bajura sits on the landslide debris on the bank of Karnali River. Several villages along Karnali river are on similar kind of old landslides. Photo: NABIN BARAL

Rajan Kotru, from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, headed the Kailash Sacred Landscape conservation program, the first of its kind involving all three countries in the region. Asked about what he had achieved over the last five years, his answer was diplomatic: “We were able to lay the foundation for dialogue between countries and people at local level. There is also a greater realisation that coming together will benefit all and is necessary.”  

Despite this realisation cooperation between Nepal, India and China on river basins is negligible. Nepal shares a 1,400 km border with China and Nepal’s Foreign Ministry has several bilateral mechanisms to talk with China, but none of them involve water resources, even though Nepal’s rivers originate in Tibet.

Nepal’s relationship with India on water issues is also sensitive. There is no real cooperation, just formalities, and even so there is no mention of the impact of climate change on shared water resources. 

The story is jointly published by Nepali Times and The Third Pole. Subsequent instalments of this five-part series will appear from 8-11 January.