Underreporting the climate emergency

Nepal is suffering more frequent disasters, but the way they are covered in the country’s media does not link them to the global climate emergency. And impact of global warming on the Himalaya is rarely reported in detail in the international press.

The country is among the Top Ten in the world most at risk of climate change, even though its carbon footprint is among the lowest in the world.

The Nepali media has been reporting on environmental issues since the 1990s, but coverage of nature, conservation, or sustainable development is often relegated to the feature pages. Rarely are links drawn between policy failures and the over-exploitation of natural resources or the need for changing Nepal’s energy mix.

In the past few years, climate change related news appeared in most media outlets, but mostly linked to news pegs like Climate Summits in Copenhagen or Paris, the release of reports by high profile organisations working in this area, or pronouncements by politicians. Field reports about the impacts of climate change on Nepal's people are rare.

The content of climate-related news has changed over the years. In the 2000s, there were explainers about climate change and reports about its impact on the country’s agriculture and water security. In the past decade, however, coverage has shifted gradually towards adaptation and mitigation measures.

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News of environment, conservation, and disasters like landslides are event-based, with scanty trend analysis and their links to the climate crisis underplayed.

On FM radio stations, to which nearly a third of mainly rural Nepalis tune in regularly, there are news items about the environment but almost no mention of the impact of the climate crisis on weather and agriculture.  The Community Information Network (CIN), which groups over 360 community radio stations across the country, has plenty of news items in its flagship Sajha Khabar program, but there is no mention of how the climate crisis impacts Nepal.

A news report about heavy monsoon rains in 2020 and another report about a deadly landslide in Sindhupalchok in 2020 cover the events without citing the emerging scientific consensus linking them to the climate crisis.

Findings in a NEFEJ survey show: ‘During summer and rainy season, news related to floods and landslides become prominent, and the news related to fire get priority in the autumn seasons. The newspapers, however, have not provided sufficient news and reviews on the ways to mitigate such natural disasters. The opinion, analysis and editorial on these issues are almost non-existent.’

Things are not much better on television. State-owned Nepal Television, which has the greatest reach, aired several environment-related programs in the past few years, but none of them were specifically about climate change.

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"We produce environment related programs in collaboration with other stakeholders like the Ministry of Forests and Environment, or NGOs. They are produced as per need and available funding, and are not regular," admits Alka Chudal, head of programs at Nepal Television.

NEFEJ confirms a similar case with print media. The non-profit used to itself produce two environment-focused magazines, Hakahaki and Face to Face, but folded when DFID funding ran out.

"In 2019, we had to go online because we did not have sufficient funds to continue publication," says Kosmos Biswokrma, president of NEFEJ.

There is some interest in climate change in online media, with concerns about its impact on women and indigenous communities.  The frequency of women writing about the topic is also higher than in most mainstream publications.

However, the English language press contains more technical information about climate change, and reports are often written by experts. In contrast, the majority of Nepali language reports are prompted by high profile events or translated from agencies. The Nepali language media is more focused on ground-level stories about environment, agriculture, forestry, disasters, which often leave out the bigger picture of climate change.

Information on climate change in Nepal is therefore urban-centric, with the English language press providing more context and coverage to the issue.

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Stories going out of Nepal on international media show a similar trend. The focus is often where the thrill is: Mt Everest, disasters, melting glaciers, with little emphasis on the impact on weather, springs going dry, and climate refugees.

There are some exceptions, however, like the 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report about the projected melting of the Himalayas by 2100, which received wide international coverage. And a page 1 New York Times story on climate-induced water scarcity that forced an entire village in Mustang to relocate.

International media reports about Nepal are often done by non-Nepali journalists who parachute in to report on a conference. More prolific wire services carry stories written by Nepali journalists, but the impact of climate change on Nepalis is often underreported.

"Climate change itself is often understood as carrying a donor agenda, limited to projects. The perception is that work will be done only if there is funding," says Pragati Shahi, an environmental journalist. Indeed, ‘climate change’ therefore ends up being viewed as a problem to be solved by technical experts, and not something that concerns the people.   

"There are usually the same people who go to COPs (Conference of Parties) or other such summits every year, and they speak in jargon. They are the ones who write in the media or are interviewed by journalists,” says climate expert Ajaya Dixit. “People hear words they don't understand, creating a gap between official agencies and the people.”

Sewa Bhattarai is a consultant for the Road to COP26 Project, which is funded by FCDO and implemented by the British Council. 

Read also: Climate climax, Editorial