The main threats from climate change vary across an ecologically diverse country. Researchers are working with villagers to identify and meet the local challenges in six Nepali communities. Research focus
To assess the vulnerability of rural communities in Nepal’s diverse ecological regions to help them develop their own climate change adaptation plans. The challenge
Nepal’s fame as a trekking destination, with some of the world’s highest mountains, belies the true character of this small, landlocked country. It is home to 150 ecosystems, 35 types of forest, and 75 types of other vegetation. This immense ecological diversity occurs within less than 200 kilometres, between the Himalayas near Nepal’s northern border with Tibet, and the tropical flatlands, known as Tarai, along its southern border with India.
With an economy based largely on agriculture and tourism, Nepal is particularly susceptible to the vagaries of weather. While climate change is bringing higher temperatures and more variable precipitation throughout the country, widely divergent and unpredictable weather events are occurring in the disparate regions.
The mountains have warmer summers and some areas receive less winter snowfall. This accelerates the melting of glaciers, which depletes the region’s water source while increasing water flow into the rivers below. In the Middle Hills region, the higher temperatures and drought have sparked fires and ravaged huge swaths of forest, leaving soil bare and susceptible to erosion. Sudden, intense rainfall has led to landslides and sediment being washed into riverbeds. The sediment reduces water quality and disturbs aquatic ecosystems. Further downstream, the displaced water leads to flooding on the Tarai.
In light of these current and projected extreme weather events, there is an urgent need for scientific information to help Nepal plan adaptation strategies. Complicating factors include the country’s wide ethnic, cultural, and language diversity, as well as the inaccessibility of many rural communities, particularly in mountainous regions.The research
In 2010, the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition-Nepal (ISET-Nepal) launched an IDRC-funded initiative to collect scientific data about the impact of climate change on Nepal’s diverse rural communities. The data could be used by local communities to develop their own adaptation plans, while increasing global knowledge of climate change.
The team selected six villages as study sites. All are in the Gandaki River watershed, roughly situated in the centre of the country, stretching from the Himalayas to the Tarai. Each community represents a different climatic region.
One village, Kagbeni, is perched on the northern slopes of the Himalayas, in the popular Annapurna Trek. This remote farming community provides lodging to tourists and also grows apples, which are dried and sold to trekkers. Until recently, the cold mountain temperatures ensured ideal conditions for growing high-quality, pest-free apples. Climate change, however, has brought warmer weather — and pests. The community began using agrochemicals, which leak into the local river, contaminating the drinking-water sources for communities downstream.
The main source of livelihood at another pilot site, Rupakot in the Middle Hills region, is fishing. However, sediment washed down from the mountains is displacing the water in the local lake and disturbing the fish habitat.
Researchers conducted several scientific analyses in all six communities to assess the impacts of climate change. They also collected information from national and municipal censuses, talked to local authorities, teachers, and community leaders, and conducted focus groups and structured interviews. Through continuous interaction with each community, the team produced digital maps to show such things as water sources, water channels, roads, administrative boundaries, temples, and tourist trekking routes.
A key aspect of the study involved assessing each community’s vulnerability to climate change and ability to respond. Researchers used a matrix to rank the climate change risks facing each community, as well as their potential responses. A numerical rating system summed up each site’s overall vulnerability.
The findings of the ISET-Nepal team greatly increased understanding of the current and potential impacts of climate change. The team presented each community with detailed maps and held meetings to explain the research results. They discussed their vulnerability findings as well as possible solutions. Villagers learned that other communities were experiencing similar changes, and that they were not alone.
The researchers found that all the communities depended to some degree on agriculture. “But there was a great range in extent and intensity, from subsistence farming to cultivation of vegetables for markets in cities,” says IDRC program officer Marco Rondon.
Communities with more non-agricultural livelihood options were found to be less susceptible to climate change. Other sources of income included ecotourism, fishing, handicrafts, medicinal herbs, and remittances from relatives working abroad. “Communities that rely on remittances, or other sources of income, are less tied to local climate change,”
Rondon points out, “unless the activities they depend on for income elsewhere are also impacted.”The village of Kagbeni was found to have relatively low vulnerability to climate change because tourism was a main source of income. But river pollution from agrochemicals and sewage disposal, and possible impacts on the tourism industry, could increase its vulnerability. The community has already begun to work on solutions, including regular testing of the river.
However, the fishing village of Rupakot was considered highly vulnerable. The local lake had already lost 40% of its water, and new diseases were threatening the fish. The village is also under pressure from urbanization. “People from nearby cities are looking to buy lake property for country homes,” Rondon explains. “This puts pressure on the people of Rupakot to sell their properties.”
The researchers provided their findings to other communities by offering courses to teachers in 16 districts of the Gandaki River basin, and contributing articles to a local magazine and newspapers. They also prepared a radio drama on climate change, which aired on local stations.
The team will continue working with the communities to develop their adaptation plans, as well as engaging government authorities to support the strategies. As this initiative makes clear, concrete evidence is a major stepping stone in helping vulnerable communities adapt to a changing climate.
Cecelia McGuire is a writer based in Perth, Ontario.
This article profiles a project supported by IDRC’s Climate Change and Water program, Forest and Water Management for Mitigating the Effects of Climate Change in the Middle Hills, Nepal.
Photo (right): IDRC/Marco Rondon
Livelihoods earned from tourism in Kagbeni, a popular trekking destination, are less affected by climate change.
Photo (left): IDRC/Marco Rondon
Fishing in the village of Rupakot is under threat as the local lake has lost 40% of its volume.