Climate Change: What it means to Nepal?

Photo: Dinesh Panday

Climate Change: What it means to Nepal?

Author: Tek Jung Mahat, Environment Professional 

For this post, adopted from http://realisingchange.blogspot.com/2012/01/climate-change-what-it-means-to-nepal.html

As defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change refers to a statistically significant variation in either the mean state of the climate or in its variability, persisting for an extended period (typically decades or longer). Climate change may be due to natural internal processes or external forcing, or to persistent anthropogenic changes in the composition of the atmosphere or in land use. Magnitude and scale of climate change can be experienced in a particular region or at a global scale that affects the whole earth. In recent practices, especially in the context of international environmental deals, climate change usually refers to changes in modern climate, more preciously ‘anthropogenic climate change’, more generally known as global warming. IPCC concludes that most of the observed temperature increases since the middle of the 20th century was caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases(GHG) resulting from human activity such as fossil fuel burning and deforestation. It also concludes that variations in natural phenomena such as solar radiation and volcanism produced most of the warming from pre-industrial times to 1950 and had a small cooling effect afterward. These basic conclusions have been endorsed by more than 40 scientific societies and academies of science, including all of the national academies of science of the major industrialized countries (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming, 16 December 2011).

According to the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD, 2009), the temperature increase is widespread over the globe, with higher than average trends in many of the world’s highlands. On average the global temperature rose by 0.74°C over the last hundred years (1906-2005), with more than half of this rise, 0.44°C, in the last 25 years. Eleven of the twelve years between 1995 and 2006 rank among the twelve warmest years since 1850 when records of global surface temperature began. The number of extreme precipitation events like heavy rainfall and severe storms, appears to have increased, and there is some indication that there has also been an overall increase in precipitation, although the confidence in these estimates is lower than for temperature. As quoted by ICIMOD, according to IPCC’s Fourth Assessment (IPCC 2007): “Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations,” (about 436 parts per million CO2-equivalent in 2008).
According to ICIMOD, the rates of warming in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region (HKH), which include Bhutan, Nepal and parts of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar and Pakistan, are significantly higher than the global average. Within the region, the rates in the western Himalayas, eastern Himalayas, and the plains of the Ganges basin over the last 25 years are lower (0.01-0.03°C per yr), and those for the central Himalayas (Nepal) and the Tibetan Plateau (based on limited station data), appear to be considerably higher (0.04 to 0.09°C per yr and 0.03-0.07°C per yr, respectively). The measurements in Nepal and Tibet also indicate that warming is occurring at much higher rates in the high altitude regions than in the low altitude areas; the vast low elevation areas of India do not show any significant signs of warming. If the situation continues, all areas of South Asia are projected to warm by at least 1°C by the end of the century; in the Punjab area, a large part of Afghanistan, Badakshan, the western Nepal Himalayas, Himachal Pradesh, and the northern Tibetan Plateau, warming could be as high as 3.5-4°C. The rate of warming is likely to increase with increasing altitude, at least in Bhutan, Nepal, and Himachal Pradesh.
Climate change impacts
Climate is a dynamic phenomenon which has impacted many areas including forests to water supply to livelihoods, health, agriculture etc. and is always changing through a natural cycle, though the change is more because of human activities. Climate change is likely to have both positive and negative impacts on people’s lives, although the negative effects may prevail overall. Some observed changes include shrinking of glaciers, thawing of permafrost, later freezing and earlier break-up of ice on rivers and lakes, lengthening of growing seasons, shifts in plant and animal ranges, flash floods and earlier flowering of trees etc.(http://edugreen.teri.res.in/explore/climate/causes.htm). Below are few representative effects.
As referred in several mainstream literatures, at high altitudes and latitudes, crop yield should increase because of reduction in frost and cold damage but on the other hand irrigated lowland agriculture, found in all of the large basins receiving their runoff from the Hindu Kush Himalayan systems, is likely to suffer from the lack of water in the dry season. According to IPCC report 2007, by 2050 there will be 30% decrease in agricultural production in the South Asian region. In 2007, 100,000 hectares of rice paddy were lost to flooding in Nepal.
The another area would be health sector, which can be summarized as, direct impact in the form of drought, heat waves and flash floods, indirect effects due to climate induced economic decline, conflict, crop failure and associated malnutrition and hunger etc and indirect effects may be aggravated intensity of infectious diseases caused by changing environmental conditions.
Another important impact of climate change in the Himalayan country like Nepal is, Glacier Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF). The acronym GLOF is used for glacier floods caused by the drainage of naturally dammed lakes in the glacier, on or at the margin of glaciers. GLOFs are not a new phenomenon but with the worldwide receding of glaciers and rising temperature the probability of their occurrences has risen in many mountain ranges. Nepal has experienced several GLOFs originating from numerous glacial lakes, some of which are even based outside its territory. Although other natural disasters such as rainfall floods, earthquakes, landslides or wildfires have claimed the lives of thousands of Nepalese in recent decades, glacial lake outbursts are feared for the potential devastation from a single large event (Kattelmann 2003, ‘Glacial lake outburst floods in the Nepal Himalaya: A manageable hazard?’ in: Natural Hazards). In Nepal, 20 glacial lakes are currently at risk of bursting their banks, potentially leading to floods that would endanger lives, land and livelihoods. (Fighting floods in Asia’s water tower, January 2009, DFID)
Climate Change: Is adaptation an answer?
The extent of climate change effects, and whether these effects prove harmful or beneficial, will vary by region, over time, and with the ability of different societal and environmental systems to adapt to or cope with the change. For instance, some of the case studies done by Winrock International, show that the Ring Road Trolley Bus Project can save 547,000 tons of CO2 or 149,000 tons of carbon over the life time of the project. Similarly, Winrock has also shown that an 8 m3 biogas plant can save about 6 to 7 tons of CO2 per year. Although, there are over 100,000 biogas plants in Nepal, this number is less than 10 percent of the total potential number of biogas plants. The carbon saved by expansion of trolley bus or biogas plants can be traded in the global carbon market to finance part of the cost of the trolley bus project or replace the subsidy on biogas. However, in order to take advantage of CDM, Nepal needs to be prepared with studies, proposals and appropriate institutional mechanisms. (Climate Change: A Nepalese Perspective (Dec 2003), Clean Energy Nepal factsheet).
On a positive note, the process of adapting may create coping strategies not just to climate change but also to sustainable development. Adaptation reinforces and builds resilience, which is the key to both long and short-term survival. So there is a growing need of building resilience towards the impacts of climate change and according to the ICIMOD (e-discussion synthesis report), ecosystem management approaches are being promoted as a means of increasing ecological resilience, social resilience is about building the ability of communities or groups of people to adapt in the face of external social, political, and environmental stresses and disturbances. It is generally believed that an adaptive ecosystem management approach, combining adaptive management of both social and ecological systems, can improve the resilience of people and the environment and reduce vulnerability.
There is a growing concern of international community on the restless impacts of climate change on developing countries though they share very limited contribution in GHGs emissions. And such countries are trying to make best use of available international processes to mitigate climate change and develop compensation mechanisms to tackle the issues they are facing due to excessive use of fossil fuels of developed countries.
For example, there are number of international process and mechanisms to discuss on possible solutions to negative impacts of climate change. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) led Conference of Parties (COPs) is on the top of the list, which aims to bring together all parties (member states) to negotiate on how climate change can be mitigated? What measures can be taken to tackle climate change? What adaptation measures are possible? What kind of financing mechanisms can help improve developing nation’s battle against climate change impact? What kind of institutional, technical and technological transfer can speed up this process? What kind of voluntary and legally binding measures need to be adopted to make sure present climate don’t go further worse? etc. The climate debate is interestingly getting more and more complicated under the UNFCCC framework mainly after adoption of the Kyoto Protocol (KP) at COP3 in 1997. One of most important move in climate change arena, the KP outlined the greenhouse gas emissions reduction obligation for Annex I countries, along with what came to be known as Kyoto mechanisms such as emissions trading, clean development mechanism and joint implementation. COP 13 (2007 in Bali), COP 15 (2009 in Copenhagen), COP 16 (2010 in Cancun) and COP17 (2011 in Durban) are some important UNFCCC COPS that have come up with some concrete measures to tackle this problem, provided minimum ground to continue mutual respects among and between developing and developed economies, facilitate dialogues, enhance technical cooperation, increase funding and proactively promote research and development (R&D) activities while maintaining sustainable livelihood of people and reversing environmental damages. However it is important to note, none of them have provided a strong measure that can really help prevent the dangerous impact of climate change, i.e. the atmospheric concentration of GHG must stabilize at 350 ppm to limit the global temperature increases at 1.50C above the pre-industrial level by 2015. Geographically countries like Nepal are sure to witness extremely high threats from this as the mountain ecosystems are more vulnerable to climate change where there is a large knowledge gap in understanding the impacts of climate change, particularly on snow and glaciers of Himalayan region. Situation may go even worse as the people living in such places are economically weak, socially marginalised, least educated and surrounded with too many other problems. This eventually affects community resilience to climate change resulting to inevitable loss of life and property due to poor adaptive measures societies can afford. More in-depth research on mountain ecosystems and processes (cryosphere, forestry, hydrology, agriculture, rangeland, population and resource distribution etc.), including snow and glacier melt processes should be promoted to fill the critical knowledge gaps. Otherwise mountainous countries and institutions will never be able to find ‘fair’ place at international negotiations like UNFCCC COPs, and neither the mountain communities can have any solid basis to claim for desired compensation. Segregating knowledge from the sea of information is very challenging, however more challenging is to distil wise from thus segregated knowledge and build strong positions of mountainous countries for UNFCCC processes building on those knowledge and wise. This is why it becomes unavoidable option for mountainous countries to come together, promote south-south cooperation and eventually develop a strong alliance at international meetings and negotiations to secure the interest of mountain communities and developing economies.
Why Mountains?
According to ICIMOD, mountains cover around 24% of the Earth’s land surface and host about 13% of the world population. Mountains are the providers of essential ecosystem services and play the role of water towers to billions of people living in downstream slopes, valleys and plains – directly and indirectly. In Asia, the Hindu Kush-Himalayan (HKH) mountain system, also referred to as the third pole, contains the largest volume of snow and ice outside the polar region. The Hindu Kush-Himalayas, Andes, Alps, Pamir, and Atlas mountain systems all play a critical role. As a source of water flows and river systems, the world’s mountain watersheds support livelihoods and food security for almost half of the global population. Since the mountains are experiencing much higher rate of warming, they will be affected very badly and within relatively very short period of time. For the mountainous countries like Nepal, this finding may act as warning signal as things are changing so fast over relatively slow pace of development of preventive and adaptive measures.
Regional and International Process:
There are several regional and global initiatives launched to take forward climate change debate in the context of mountain countries and ecosystems. Few important initiatives include;
Government of Nepal’s (GoN) Mountain Initiative (2009 onwards)Realising the fact that despite significant role of mountain ecosystems, the mountain agenda is not addressed adequately by the UNFCCC deliberations to reflect the needs of mountain livelihoods and environments the Prime Minister of Nepal in his address to COP 15 said: “I therefore take this opportunity to call on all the mountain countries and stakeholders to come together, form a common platform and make sure that mountain concerns get due attention in the international deliberations. Let us make sure that our interests are prominently represented in future COP negotiations and let us make sure that our efforts towards adaptation obtain the required international support.” This initiative is known as Mountain Initiative (MI). A technical meeting of MI was organised in September 2010 by ICIMOD in support of GoN. To take this momentum at next level the GoN is now preparing to host a Ministerial Meeting of Mountainous Countries in Kathmandu, Nepal from 5-6 April 2012. Let’s wish good luck to this marvellous attempt of Nepal!
Indian Mountain Initiative (May 2011 onwards): Similarly India has also launched Indian Mountain Initiative (InMI) to ensure sustainable mountain development across Indian Himalayas, especially in the context of climate change. Led by the Central Himalayan Environment Association (CHEA), Nainital, IMI had its Inaugural meeting on 21 May 2011 at the Uttarakhand Academy of Administration (http://www.cheaindia.org/download/briefnoteon_sustainable_mountain_development_summit.pdf). ICIMOD has been providing technical input in promoting this idea since the preparation of the Inaugural meeting.
Bhutan Summit (2010 onwards): Bhutan Climate Summit for a Living Himalaya was successfully convened in Thimphu on 19 November 2011 with the aim of promoting technical cooperation among four participating countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Indian and Nepal. The Summit was successful in developing and agreeing a road map for adapting climate change in the Himalayas, particularly across the southern face of the Eastern Himalayas; highlighting the issues of climate change and its impacts on the Himalayas; fostering partnership and networking to facilitate sharing of information and experience; and in lobbying for bringing attention to the impacts of climate change on the world mountains. Prior to the main summit there were several rounds of thematic and technical meetings co-organised by Government of Bhutan and its technical partner ICIMOD in 2010 and 2011 to develop issue level understanding among the participating countries. ICIMOD, being a regional intergovernmental organisation working in all four countries partnering for this initiative has agreed to provide input since the beginning who organised the first meeting in this series in August 2010 at Godavari the Village Resort, Kathmandu, Nepal.
ICIMOD’s Mountain Day (4 December 2011): ICIMOD participated in the recently concluded COP17, Durban, in a substantive way, leading an international team to organise the first ever Mountain Day on the sidelines of COP17. The rationale and objectives of the event were to a) highlight the urgent need to raise awareness and sensitise UNFCCC COP17 delegates on the implications of climate change in the mountain regions; b) to share the emergence of stronger scientific evidence and implications; and c) to stress the need for policy actions to ensure the critical contribution of mountain ecosystems in climate change adaptation, mitigation, and sustainable development. In this regard, ICIMOD joined hands with its global partners particularly GIZ, the World Bank (WB), The Mountain Partnership Secretariat, and UNEP.
Dr Rajendra K Pachauri, IPCC Chair, gave the keynote speech and Dr Pema Gyamtsho, Agriculture, Environment, Forest Minister, Bhutan; Dr René Castro Salazar, Minister of Environment, Energy and Telecommunication, Costa Rica; and Mr Hem Raj Tater, Minister of Environment, Nepal, participated in the panel discussion. Dr David Molden, Director General of ICIMOD, welcomed the participants and shared the Call for Action. A number of top policy makers from ICIMOD’s regional member countries and global development partners including the WB, UNDP, and UNEP also participated in the discussions. Also taking part were COP17 delegates from more than 14 mountain countries – including 6 of ICIMOD’s Regional Member Countries.
Mountain Day concluded by issuing a draft call for action which made a strong plea to mainstream the role of mountains in global processes, including the UNFCC COP, and to support adaptation in mountains for improved livelihoods and sustainability by introducing appropriate policies and creating specific financing windows. ICIMOD took this opportunity to release three technical publications on mountain climate change. These were, The Status of Glaciers in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan Region; Snow-Cover Mapping and Monitoring in the Hindu Kush-Himalayas; and Climate Change in the Hindu Kush-Himalayas, which have broken scientific ground in the understanding of climate change in the region.
Mountain Forum (MF) and Mountain Partnership (MP): Formed in 1996 and 2002 (respectively as follow up to ‘Rio Summit’ and World Summit for Sustainable Development -WSSD), MF and MP are global initiatives advocating Mountain Agenda internationally in partnership with key regional and global initiatives on mountains. In the Asia- Pacific region, these initiatives are managed by the Asia Pacific Mountain Network (APMN) – a knowledge sharing platform connecting mountain regions and communities through dialogue and networking. Managed by the ICIMOD, APMN captures, enriches, and disseminates information on mountain development issues in and for the Asia-Pacific region. APMN acts as the Asia-Pacific node of Mountain Forum (MF) and decentralised Mountain Partnership Asia-Pacific Hub, and has shared resources including dedicated web page, experts database, e-dialogue platform, thematic and geographic discussion lists, online library, calendar of events, survey and e-election tool. APMN also publishes biannual Asia Pacific Mountain Courier, occasional e-dialogue synthesis reports, mountain development briefs and publicity materials.
Rio+20 (June 2012):  In the 20 years since the 1992 Rio the development challenges have become multi-dimensional; the paradigms regarding policies, economic growth are increasingly being influenced by issues of social equity and good governance,   the challenges from climate change, and the global support to programs in Climate Resilience and Adaptation are slowly complimenting broader development agenda which values natural resource endowments or ecosystem services contribution to rural including mountain development and poverty reduction. Rio+20 is a very important moment to redefine Mountain Agenda considering progresses made and challenges evolved over last two decades.
At the end: This is high time to concentrate our works and prepare best to derive maximum possible benefits from upcoming COP meetings as well as the Rio+20 meeting later this year. Climate change and sustainability issues are not sole responsibilities of few countries or organisations and hence need collective efforts.
Disclaimer: Information provided in this article are taken from various websites and publications and wherever possible the source is quoted. This article (Author: Tek Jung Mahat, ICIMOD) was originally published on http://hamrakura.com on 3 January 2011. For this post, adopted from http://realisingchange.blogspot.com/2012/01/climate-change-what-it-means-to-nepal.html
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