August 24, 2023
KATHMANDU – A commonly asked question in the aftermath of damaging floods in recent years, including that of 2021 which devastated efforts to bring drinking water from Melamchi to Kathmandu, is how Nepal should envision its future development projects and their safety in light of growing climate uncertainties. From a broader development perspective, that’s quite a valid question needing a viable answer. But there are other critical areas of concern, such as water and food security, and their future we must ponder given the growing climate impacts on both agriculture and water resources that affect everyone.
Thanks to El Niño this year, the Tarai is reeling from an acute water shortage. The central part of the flatlands, where no river is fed by snowmelt, has suffered the most. Roughly 80 percent of the paddy transplantation had been completed by the end of July hoping a timely monsoon rain, however, the paddy has been drying out. The shallow pumps have gone dry, compelling people to draw water from even deeper groundwater sources. The Department of Hydrology and Meteorology had warned that the monsoon this year would be below average, and global forecasts had also suggested a reduction in rainfall by as much as 40 percent in some areas between June and August. The local and provincial governments should’ve taken these warnings into account while formulating their programmes and budgets and planned necessary countermeasures.
Now, communities in these drought-stricken areas look to their local governments to help address the water shortage. Sadly, there isn’t much the federal or provincial governments can do except provide some funds to install bigger pumps, which will only be a temporary solution. Coupled with ever-depleting groundwater—a major source of water in the Tarai—lack of rain in June and July has hampered crop production during its peak season. Janakpur, for instance, recorded 182.4 mm of rainfall, which is less than 20 percent of two months’ (June-July) average of 697 mm.
Parched paddy fields
The paddy crop is very susceptible to unpredictable rainfall. Thus far, farmers who depend on rainwater don’t believe they’ll be able to harvest any crops when the monsoon slows down, as the crops will die due to lack of water. In 2022, farmers in western Nepal, after having planted crops with the aid of water pumps, didn’t believe their crops would yield any harvest in the absence of adequate rain and abandoned their farms to find work across the border during the monsoon. It seems we’ll see a repeat of this in 2023.
Despite having a drier monsoon, the threat of floods from sporadic yet devastating rain damaging whatever has been planted remains. So far, there have been reports of inundation in the far western Tarai. Downpours similar to the one we witnessed in Mustang can’t be ruled out in the days ahead. In light of these circumstances, our government’s efforts should be focused on assuring our food security.
Climate impacts won’t discriminate—they will be felt across the world, over all geographies and economic backgrounds (although there will be disparity in recovery—richer countries will have the resources to rebuild stronger and better infrastructure as opposed to their poorer counterparts); events from the past few weeks alone are enough to remind us of this. Heat waves have decimated crops across Europe. Uruguay is reeling under a drought.
Similarly, India has suffered massive crop losses in the last two years; tomatoes have never been in such short supply in recent memory. Heavy rains have been wreaking havoc in the mountain states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhanda. Crops have been damaged in Punjab and Haryana. These events diminish prospects for food import. Similar scenes of floods and destruction were reported in other countries, from Italy, China, Mexico and South Korea to Norway and Slovenia. Wildfires continue to engulf large swaths of Russia, Canada, Rhoads (Greece) and Portugal. The small town of Lahaina in Hawaii has been 80 percent destroyed by wildfires, with over 100 casualties so far.
International commitments to cut down emissions have not been respected, as echoed recently by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. He warned that we have crossed the phase of global warming and have entered the phase of “global boiling”. Moreover, contrary to those commitments, new oil and gas licences are being issued to oil companies to further expand production. Any protest campaigns against oil exploration are being met with brute force. Furthermore, the progress made at COP27 in prioritising loss and damage may not reach a conclusion because (i) The extent of the damage is far outpacing proposed funds, and (ii) The US Climate Envoy John Kerry has asserted on multiple occasions that under no circumstances would the US be willing or, in fact, able to pay climate reparations to countries in the Global South. If a climate reparations fund is somehow established and a mechanism to access it is put in place during the forthcoming COP28 summit, the amount may not match the scale of the climate crisis-induced damage we will see in the years to come.
Broadening the definition
Such blatant disregard for consequences and lack of political concern will mean that Nepal will have to address its vulnerabilities largely on its own. However, aside from focusing on net zero and clean energy—which are vital for climate mitigation despite our nominal emissions—key areas like food security, through sustainable and resilient domestic production; and water security, through appropriate policy and programmes, have been neglected or abandoned. In fact, we’ve failed to engage the public in any significant climate action because the popular consensus on what constitutes climate action is narrow and limited. Climate action must come to mean food and water security along with disaster risk management. We must be the ones to determine our own goalposts and develop the strategies to hit them on time. Examples of such actions woven around managing monsoon runoff by prudently laid out diversion channels and water collecting ponds have proven effective in saving land from erosion, stabilising landslides, and improving farm productivity.
With the Global North’s unwillingness to abandon perpetual economic growth in favour of the planet, the only future we can look forward to would include hotter months, more heat waves, and increasingly alarming and erratic weather events. Unpredictable and erratic monsoons have already begun impacting our food production and water resources; it will get more acute in the days ahead. The emerging global and regional supply chain disruptions seem to further shrink our prospects for food import. We must act now to ensure our food and water security. The question now is: Will our government act in the interest of the people and take the necessary steps to assure its citizens that the imminent crisis will be averted?