The great Himalayan thaw

Hurricane Florence and typhoon Mangkhut, droughts and record-breaking temperatures this summer have highlighted the increasing threats of extreme weather events in a warming world. Although impact of climate change on weather is still not well understood, intense short duration rainfall events are becoming more frequent in Nepal and across the world.

Nepal is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change. For the country and its people to successfully adapt, it is necessary to better understand changing rainfall hazards so new strategies can be developed for farming, drought management, flood risk reduction, a healthier landscape and more robust infrastructure and services.

The inability of global and regional circulation models to capture climate dynamics over Nepal due to low spatial resolution means that it is difficult to project future rise in temperature and changes in rainfall.

Read also:

On thin ice in the Khumbu, Kunda Dixit

The models incorporate some differentiation between the country’s east, centre and west but do not account for the north-south topographic gradient of the Himalaya. This means existing simulations do not accurately represent the changes in monsoon circulation.

The higher elevations in the Himalaya involve three dimensions critical for the health of the water cycle of the Ganga Basin downstream: snowfall, snow and ice reserves, and glaciers. There is now better understanding of the risks of glacial retreat, but there is not much on-the-ground study of the impact of snow and ice recession on regional hydrology.

A report in 2014 by the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) said that there were 3,808 glaciers in Nepal covering a total area of 3,902 km2 with an estimated ice reserve of 312 km3. It said the total glacier area decreased by 24% between 1977 and 2010 and the estimated ice reserves by 29% (129 km3). This means that in the three decades since, the tributaries of the Ganga River were deprived of an average base flow of 123 cubic metres per second of water.

The rate of glacial melt in the Himalaya due to global warming is an inexact science. In 2007, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was dragged into controversy following a publication of a report that said Himalayan glaciers could all melt away by 2035. When several scientists questioned this proposition as unrealistic, the IPPC admitted that ‘the findings were based on poorly substantiated estimates of rate of recession and date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers and the clear and well-established standards of evidence … were not applied properly’.

However, the 2014 report of ice reserve depletion, if true, should make everyone sit up because of its serious consequences. Changes in snowfall patterns as well as melting of ice reserves mean serious risks locally, to the regional hydrological system and the hundreds of millions of people living downstream.

Not much has been done to make more realistic estimates of rate of ice reserve depletion and assess its implications. The institutional response to assess changing snow dynamics and its effect on the dry season flow of snow-fed rivers has been grossly inadequate.

Read also: 

The right climate for change, Editorial

Living through the Himalayan Flaw, Ayesha Shakya

There are very few stations that monitor snowfall at elevations above 3,000m. Snowfall is not regularly monitored even in existing stations, except episodically when international research organisations work in partnership with DHM.

This low priority corresponds to the inadequate budget allocated to DHM to be Nepal’s climate science institution. According to Climate Change Financing Framework, Rs393 billion (31% of its annual budget) is allocated to climate change. But the DHM’s annual budget at Rs714 million is only 0.18% of this allocation. In the previous fiscal year, the DHM could spend only 27% of even that paltry amount.

This low spending capacity is a reflection of deeper institutional challenges: inability to set priorities, systemic apathy, bureaucratic hurdles, societal inability to nurture a scientific ethos and the government’s unwillingness to transform DHM into a Nepali version of US Geological Survey to provide high quality climate services. Interestingly, it was USAID that helped establish DHM in early 1960s, but the department never really morphed into Nepal’s premier institution for research into climate impact.

The changing nature of rainfall hazards, as one of the determinants of climate change, have exacerbated vulnerabilities in Nepal. Continued low investment and apathy in buttressing the country’s climate science capacity also mean that Nepal and its people are poorly prepared for future disasters induced by climate change.

Ajaya Dixit is Executive Director of Kathmandu based ISET-Nepal. This is the first of his monthly column Climate for Change in Nepali Times, dealing with the impact of global warming in Nepal.

Read also: 

Climate Climax, Editorial

Climbing in Climate Change, Bhrikuti Rai

A lot riding on climate, Claire Li Yingxue and Stéphane Huët

"Climate change will fundamentally change Nepal"

Mountainous change, David Molden