Think globally in Glasgow, and act locally

Chanaute after the flood on the Melamchi River in 2021. All photos: RAJU PANDIT CHHETRI

On 15 June, the Melamchi River north of Kathmandu saw a massive flash flood, killing 25 people and sweeping away 200 houses and 360 hectares of farmlands.

Another debris flow on the river on 31 July added to the destruction and misery. The disaster was unprecedented in the Melamchi Valley, and caught residents, trout farms, shops along the banks by surprise. Before the communities got a chance to fully rise from the massive double-earthquake in 2015, the region was hit yet again with another disaster.

As a resident of the Chanaute, I lost close relatives and neighbours to the flood. My own house and farmland were destroyed. The river sliced through the bazar town, and its 56 houses are now ruined and abandoned. The hopes of my hard-working community have also been dashed.

Local entrepreneurs, small shop owners and farmers whose arable land have turned into a boulder-strewn wasteland are shattered. Damage to roads and bridges hascut the valley’s connection to the outside world. Nepal’s most expensive water supply project has been damaged.

Any individual extreme weather event is difficult to directly attribute to the climate crisis. But the intensity and unpredictability of this year’s monsoon has been unprecedented. Manang and Mustang were hit by flash floods at the same time as Melamchi – even before the monsoon officially started. And even after the rainy season was formally over last week, parts of the country were hit by record-breaking rainfall.

For the past decade, my career has taken me to numerous international climate summits where we have discussed strong national and international advocacy to address the impact of the climate crisis – especially on developing countries like Nepal.

At international climate negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), I have observed climate-vulnerable countries make urgent pleas for ambitious action in tackling the climate crisis. Small, low-lying island states like the Vanuatu, Tuvalu and the Maldives have tried to show the urgency of it all – rising ocean levels will soon submerge their countries.

The Philippines and Bangladesh continue to raise concern about the increasing intensity and frequency of typhoons and cyclones. Fragile mountain regions of the world are trying to get their concerns on the agenda.

Next week, heads of state from around the world will start arriving in Glasgow for the 26th annual climate summit of the UNFCCC (called COP26). Recent impacts of extreme weather events around the world (wildfires in Siberia and the western US, heat waves in Canada, floods in Europe, landslides and floods in Japan, India, China) are likely to focus everyone’s mind on the climate emergency, and the message that we are all in this together.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate impacts to avert and minimise some of the loss and damage will be at the forefront of the negotiations.  However, as the incoming president of COP26, the United Kingdom and the leaders of the industrialised world will have to face a new reality – to address the destruction unleashed by the climate crisis with rehabilitation, migration and financing.

Industrialised countries have long brushed aside these issues, diluted their commitments to merely focusing on the weaker goal of reducing greenhouse gas emission, and providing token climate financing to allow low-income countries to adapt.

In fact, addressing the loss and damage from disasters like the one that hit Melamchi and parts of the Himalaya will be one of the main pillars of the COP26 in Glasgow. Nepal’s delegation will be led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, and he is expected to speak about this year’s climate-induced disasters starting with winter drought, nationwide wildfires, and floods.

Nepal will have strong moral grounds to persuade world leaders that low capacity vulnerable countries need help to deal with a crisis that is not of our making. Himalayan glaciers are shrinking and receding fast, extreme weather trends are more pronounced, and this is impacting on infrastructure projects and threaten to undermine decades of progress in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

A 2020 study by ICIMOD and UNDP has shown that 47 glacial lakes in the Kosi, Gandaki and Karnali basins are in danger of bursting. Although 21 of these lakes are in Nepal, the others also drain into tributaries of rivers flowing into Nepal. These are ticking time bombs.

Glacial lake outburst floods have been hitting Nepal’s Himalayan valleys with increasing frequency. In 2012, an avalanche on Annapurna unleashed a catastrophic flood on the Seti River that killed at least 70 people. In 2014, a deadly post-monsoon blizzard spawned by Cyclone Hudhud swept through the mountains catching many trekkers unawares. The Tarai have seen increasingly destructive floods in the past five years, and Bara district was hit by a rare tornado in 2019 that killed dozens.

In Glasgow, Nepal will have to make a compelling case for loss and damage compensation for disasters like these. COP26 will be a make-or-break summit for reducing global carbon emissions by 45% by 2030. Nepal will also need to do its bit to achieve its updated Nationally Determined Contribution target to reduce emissions by 2030 by switching to renewable energy, and attain net zero by 2050.

Glasgow will be an opportunity to link global targets to local impact, and to find ways to address the disproportionate destruction caused by climate crisis on the poorer parts of the poorest countries.

Raju Pandit Chhetri is a resident of Chanaute in Nepal’s Melamchi Valley and works on climate change issues.