April 8, 2022
JUMLA – Below the towering hills of Jumla in western Nepal, covered by coniferous trees, flows the Tila river.
As one navigates the meandering dirt track along the river, the agricultural fields segregated into small plots by traditional irrigation canals expand all along the river basin.
These expansive fields were golden in October last year, ready to be harvested after months of effort.
Farmers had dried out their crops in the fields. Some had even finished threshing and saved the seeds in a tent.
But a flash flood in the Tila river would sweep everything away within minutes.
“Our efforts of six months were swept away in six minutes. The torrential rain destroyed all the crops,” says Dhan Prasad Chaulagain, a resident of Tatopani-5, Lamra, Jumla.
Unprecedented changes in the weather pattern resulting in rare freak rain causing damage estimated at billions have become more frequent in Nepal, bringing severe consequences for the country.
In remote mountain regions like Jumla where the communities practise climate-sensitive indigenous agriculture, the impacts of climate change are even more pronounced with a direct threat to food security.
The incessant rain that lasted for two days hit the Jumla community hard, damaging apple orchards, walnut and apple nurseries, and indigenous crops such as maize, beans, millet and paddy.
The flash flood also destroyed 23 irrigation canals, 10 power plants, 12 schools, 33 small factories and watermills. Villages in Jumla were in total darkness for two weeks, some even for three months.
Historically marginalised, the people in Jumla who’ve endured years of drought and famine had only recently discovered a niche market for their agricultural produce both at home and abroad but the community faces newer uncertainties with newer challenges.
“The rains have traumatised us,” says Chaulagain, who oversees the management of traditional irrigation canals in Lamra.
“All our investments were gone. We barely had food to eat. Only God knows how we made it through such loss.”
While mitigating the increasingly volatile climate hazards is not at the hands of the people, climate experts emphasise the need for data and research for climate action in the region so that mountain communities are prepared to adapt to the new realities in the wake of erratic weather patterns.
“We can’t stop the floods or incessant rains. What we can do is forecast the weather. We should inform the public that ‘this might happen in the upcoming days; even if it’s unexpected, we need to be prepared,’” said Archana Shrestha, director general at the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology.
“But for that, we need to have weather forecasting stations across the region to gather data and information.”
A total of 282 meteorological stations are currently in operation across Nepal but there are only 12 weather stations at higher elevations (above 3,000m) including one in Jumla which has two other stations at 2,300 and 2,310m.
According to Shrestha, given Nepal’s extreme topographical variations, climate data is crucial to project forecasts and better adapt and respond to the climate crisis.
“Weather is extremely variable in the mountainous region, and that is why we need to install more weather stations in such regions if we want more accurate and timely data,” said Shrestha.
That data is crucial to assist communities and policymakers in climate-sensitive decision-making in a vulnerable country like Nepal has long been prescribed by scientists.
Three days before the freak rains last year, the Meteorological Forecasting Division correctly forecasted the “once-in-a-hundred-years” event that saw massive flooding in Jumla and many parts across the country.
Focusing on agriculture, the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology and the Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC) also released an Agro-Met Advisory Bulletin outlining the impacts of weather for the forthcoming week after consulting agriculture specialists and relevant organisations, as part of their regular forecasting.
Despite such week-long forecasting available for agriculture, farmers usually find themselves off-guard.
Climate specialists say many target groups did not receive the message and those who did couldn’t comprehend the information.
“Despite extensive reporting by various media outlets on our predictions for the October rains, we failed to reach the target audience. Many farmers don’t have the internet or access to such communication,” says Indira Kadel, senior division meteorologist at the Climate Division in the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology.
“In our discussions with various local farmers who suffered losses, we found that many farmers failed to incorporate the information in their agricultural decision-making despite the forecast news.”
Climate experts, thus, realise the need for impact-based weather forecasting. Such information, they believe, can help the public in decision-making—whether to cover their fields or not, whether to dry their crops that afternoon, whether to carry an umbrella that day, about potential landslides, or about slippery roads.
“It isn’t sufficient that we release weather reports based on traditional models, where we simply say what the pattern looks like. We should also explain how the predicted weather will impact health, agriculture, industries and our daily lives,” Kadel told the Post.
Additionally, experts also stress the need for technology that gives a fortnightly or a month-long weather forecast for agricultural decision-making.
“For example, if we can tell the farmers that rain is probable, they can decide not to irrigate the fields or delay using pesticides just so it doesn’t get washed away,” explains Kadel.
All of this boils down to installing weather stations.
However, installing a weather station is neither cheap nor easy. It demands both financial investments and skilled human resources for installation and operation.
For a high-resolution model that can give accurate information, with a small margin of error, investments must be made in modelling and developing observation networks.
According to Kadel, models developed internationally do not apply in Nepal and require mathematical modelling based on Nepal’s geographical context.
Additionally, observation networks that allow an exchange of climate data at national and international data hubs have to be developed for both prediction and verification of any predicted data.
“There’s no denying that this is expensive. We need powerful computers and skilled human resources to write complex mathematical equations and operate the systems,” adds Kadel.
Climate reports have repeatedly iterated that the mountain ecosystem in Nepal is extremely vulnerable to the effects of human-induced climate change. Given the climate emergency that Nepal is facing, climate experts stress investment to fill the black hole of crucial climate data.
“We are directing a lot of funds in post-disaster response, but if we invest in a predictive model, we can prevent and adapt better,” says Kadel. “If the installation of these technologies can benefit various sectors collectively, then why not invest in them?”