Not climate smart


Countries are watering down commitments for fossil fuel phase-out at COP28 in Dubai, and this means future infrastructure in the Himalaya will be at greater risk of climate-induced disasters, making them more expensive to build.

The Sikkim disaster this year and the flood that damaged the Melamchi project in 2021 are signs of calamities to come. The accelerated melting of Himalayan ice means the disasters will have trans-boundary origins and impact, needing countries to cooperate in early warning and mitigation.

An outburst flood from the South Lhonak glacial lake in Sikkim in October swept away a 1,200MW hydroelectric plant, bridges and highways, amounting to over $2 billion in damage. A massive debris flow in 2021 knocked out the Melamchi water supply scheme, Nepal’s most costly infrastructure project.

Both disasters were triggered by cloudbursts on moraines already destabilised by melted permafrost. There are similar mega projects being built along the Arun and Marsyangdi rivers with identical risks.

At the beginning of COP28 last week, hosts UAE announced with much fanfare the Loss and Damage Fund to compensate countries for climate-induced disasters. But the $700 million pledged so far is a mere 0.2% of the estimated $400 billion developing countries need annually to deal with climate disasters.

“After rejecting the Loss and Damage mechanism for decades, developed countries are finally committing money, but it is a drop in the ocean,” environmental campaigner Bhushan Tuladhar told us from Dubai, where he is attending a COP after 20 years.

“With 100,000 delegates, it’s got bigger but we are still discussing the same things, it’s quite frustrating. What we do the rest of the year is more important, interactions need to be turned into action,” he added.

In his speech at COP28 last week, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal called the climate crisis “an utter injustice” to countries like Nepal. But just before he flew off to Dubai, Dahal called for an amendment to Nepal’s Forest Act to make it easier to fell forests for infrastructure.

Nepal’s forestry target is at risk, and the country has failed to meet its goals on electric transport. At the rate petroleum imports are growing, we are off-track to meet our national net-zero commitment by 2045. This makes Nepal’s moral case for Loss and Damage compensation weaker.

“Given the increased risk of climate change in the region, we need new technical know-how to redesign Himalayan infrastructure for our future projects so that they are resilient to climate disasters,” admits Kenichi Yokoyama, who heads the South Asia Department of the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Yokoyama oversaw the Melamchi Project when he was ADB’s Nepal Country Director from 2012-2017. Melamchi is currently undergoing costly repairs to the tunnel intake to reduce the risk from future floods.

On Wednesday in Dubai, ADB Vice-President Themes Fatima Yasmin and World Bank Vice-President for South Asia Martin Raiser announced a collaboration on the proposed Upper Arun and Dudh Koshi hydropower projects. Nepal’s installed capacity is reaching 3,000MW, and projects under construction will double this in the next three years.

Not climate smart NT

Many of these projects are being built in series along river basins like the Arun, Bhote Kosi and Marsyangdi. Experts say they need thorough risk assessments that take into account extreme weather events, geological vulnerabilities, and potential cascading effects.

“We need to incorporate climate-resilient design features, such as flexible structures and early warning systems,” says economist Barsha Dharel who specialises in climate-responsive infrastructure.

She adds: “The additional safeguards should be paid for by a combination of national budgets, private sector financing, multilateral and bilateral funds and partnerships that share insurance and risk financing to cover potential Loss and Damage for infrastructure that is more climate resilient.”

Other experts say large expensive infrastructure was always incompatible with fragile Himalayan geology, and climate-induced risk has made them more vulnerable.

Water expert Madhukar Upadhyay argues that smaller decentralised projects are more cost-effective, would spread the risk and can be built and repaired locally.

“We have rivers with some of the highest sediment loads in the world and given unpredictable high-intensity short-duration precipitation here, when it rains it pours,” explains Upadhyay. “But our infrastructure design is more suitable for temperate climates.”

Indeed, the increased danger from future climate disasters is not just to infrastructure but also to the livelihoods of Himalayan peoples from extreme weather. Capping global average temperature at 1.5°C above industrial levels by 2050 was already too hot, but the world already reached near that level of warming this year. Worse, the Himalaya heats up 0.7°C more than the plains because of what scientists call the ‘altitude effect’.

The Himalaya is the source of water for 2 billion Asians downstream. The region is a climate and geopolitical hotspot, which is making it difficult for countries bordering the mountains to collaborate.

China has become a global leader in renewable energy with over 2564.05 GW of total renewable power installation but is still investing in coal power. China has produced 8 million electric vehicles in the past 12 months.

India has committed to increasing its share of non-fossil electricity generation capacity to 50% by 2030, and converting 30% of all vehicles to battery power by 2030. But it is also increasing its thermal power generation.

India and China are both members of the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) which marked its 40th anniversary this week ahead of International Mountain Day on 11 December.

For ICIMOD Director General Pema Gyamtsho from Bhutan, there is no alternative to cooperation on a Himalayan scale to cope with future climate calamities.

He told us: “Emissions from fossil fuels as well as the benefits of clean energy transcend national boundaries. So, a collaborative approach among countries bordering the Himalaya is a must.”

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.

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