Nepal's silent emergency: springs going dry

DRYING UP: Toni Hagen's famous panorama of Pokhara taken in 1955, and last week from near the same spot at Pokhara airport (below). Snow cover on Machapuchre and the Annapurnas are dramatically depleted. Photo: TONI HAGEN

On a recent domestic flight to western Nepal, our ATR-72 broke through the thick smog at about 3,000m after takeoff from Kathmandu. The ocean of grey-brown pollution blanketed the Tarai , and stretched right across to the southern horizon. Out of the right-hand window, the Annapurnas rose above the carpet of smog, with Mt Machapuchre appearing like a black pyramid devoid of snow.

Even though it is nearly 7,000m high, and in the height of winter, Mt Machapuchre’s snow has melted away. The Himalaya has seen unprecedented melting due to rising average global temperatures, and soot particles from pollution that reduces the reflective power of the snow.

Climate change has also brought changes in weather patterns. On this trip to Bajhang, I was told winter rain and snow have been deficient for ten years in a row. Snow, when it does fall in the higher mountain settlements, is only ankle deep, and is already leading to seasonal water shortages. Rainfall comes in bursts, is erratic, and the steady, relentless rain of the past is a fading memory. Natural ecosystems and biodiversity, water resources, and agriculture have been heavily impacted.

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Ongoing land-use changes brought by demographic shifts as well as haphazard excavation of the mountains for roads and other infrastructure have taken their toll. Across Nepal spring sources are depleting. Of the 1,115 springs investigated in Tanahun district, 63% had reduced flow by an average of 21% between 2004-2014. A preliminary analysis of 693 springs over ten districts of the Far West showed 187 had their average discharge decline by 60% between 2013-2016.

Linking spring depletion to changing rainfall patterns and climate change is difficult because of inadequate rainfall measuring stations in Nepal and the lack of focused scientific studies. Nepal needs at least 1,400 rain gauges all over the country to provide accurate rainfall data, we have little over 500. But lack of data does not mean there is no impact -- water scarcity is forcing hill families to abandon their homes.

As this crisis unfolds in the Himalaya, 6,000km away in Katowice of Poland last month leaders and scientists from 196 countries agreed on guidelines, known as the ‘Paris Rulebook’, to begin operationalising the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. The Rulebook lays out methods for how countries can develop and communicate their plans to reduce carbon emissions, how they adapt, track finance they provide and receive for climate action, and how they can review progress and set targets.

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Climate politics is hard, driven primarily by the current US administration’s decision to exit from the Paris Agreement. The final declaration in Katowice did not welcome the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.50 which had concluded that warming beyond 1.50 Celsius in the next 30 years could bring catastrophic and irreversible change to life on the planet.

The Rulebook also specifies which gas to measure, which methodology to use and the kind of information required in a country’s report to be submitted to the UN climate body every two years. It did not, unfortunately, raise collective ambitions, and as emission reduction pledges currently stand, average global temperatures will probably rise by 2 degree Celsius by 2050.

For its part, Nepal lacks the foundation to translate the Paris Rulebook to action. Creating these mechanisms could demonstrate the country’s collective climate ambition, but judging from our past, we are likely to provide only lip service. Nepal’s elected leadership shows little interest in creating a scientific base for improved understanding of local climatic and natural dynamics, which is key to adapting to the changing climate.

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Our current preoccupation is to excavate hill slopes with non-engineered roads as the harbingers of progress. Roads do improve connectivity and mobility, but without a well thought through strategy supported by robust safeguards in our geologically fragile landscape, upkeep as well as social and environmental costs will simply keep rising.

In 2016, Nepal imported 8,328 excavators, bulldozers, cranes and trucks. The number jumped to 12,712 in 2017. During this same period, diesel imports increased 1.4 times. Nepal’s emissions of greenhouse gases maybe small, but its annual growth rate is already the highest in South Asia. Despite official rhetoric of a green economy, Nepal is turning brown.

The link between the Paris Rulebook and the snowless Machapuchre massif is closer than we think. But just as devastating is the silent emergency of our springs going dry. Given the entrenched interests dominating global climate politics, it is hard to envision dramatic systemic shifts needed to keep the destruction of global climate in check.

Yet, the Rulebook is the first step on a new global journey to implement the Paris Agreement and avert the catastrophe of a more than 2 degree warming by 2050. We must increase our collective ambitions, and turn back the curve of global carbon emissions by 2030.

Ajaya Dixit is Executive Director of Kathmandu based ISET-Nepal. His monthly column Climate for Change in Nepali Times deals with the impact of global warming in Nepal.

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