“Studies of financial burdens imposed on communities by climate-induced disasters are scant and inadequate”: Rajan Thapa

Rajan Thapa, a climate change expert whose team’s research paper was presented as evidence of climate change’s impact in Nepal at COP26, on misconceptions regarding the crisis, and the necessity of more research and media coverage.

Rhishav Sapkota

  • Read Time 6 min.

The 26th annual summit of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26 (Conference of the Parties), was held in Glasgow this year from October 31 to November 13. The global climate summit, chaired “impartially” by the United Kingdom, brought together world leaders, negotiators, government representatives, businesses, and civil society groups in the hope of reaching a consensus on how to address climate change.

Nepal, too, took part in the negotiations and meetings, promising to meet ambitious climate targets. The delegation led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba participated in the negotiations in the hope of putting focus on issues confronting low-income countries like Nepal that are particularly vulnerable to the worst effects of climate change. Its pledges included beginning to reduce emissions in 2022 with the goal of becoming carbon negative by 2045, putting an end to deforestation while covering 45 percent of its land with forest by 2030, and ensuring climate change protection for vulnerable groups by the same year. 

To better understand Nepal’s agendas and demands, Nepal Live Today’s Rhishav Sapkota spoke with Rajan Thapa, a climate change expert who was a member of the Prime Minister’s delegation to Glasgow and climate change advisor at DanChurchAid, a Danish NGO that aims to support the world’s poorest. Excerpts: 

During the COP26 negotiations, Nepal also presented the report of a research led by you that highlighted the evidence of climate change-induced loss and damage in Nepal. Could you give a quick run through to the scope of the report?

The report focuses on “loss and damage,” which refers to the negative consequences of weather events to which people are unable or unwilling to adapt. Loss refers to impacts that are irreversible or cannot be repaired or restored, whereas damage refers to recoverable but costly impacts. These effects are direct or indirect results of climate change.

We assessed the economic and non-economic loss and damage caused by landslides in Aathbis Municipality (Dailekh), Panchadewal Binayak Municipality (Achham), and the Barbardiya Municipality’s Babai floods (Bardiya).

We wanted to learn about the negative effects on local communities because international negotiations and the media coverage that follows them focus primarily on national cumulative effects. It was an attempt to shed some light on the plight of people who are witnessing the effects of climate change on the ground.

It is critical to replicate these types of studies throughout Nepal in order to gain a better understanding of the effects of climate change in our local communities. This not only assists us in better preparing for loss and damage mitigation, adaptation, and planning but also to convince the international community about our plight.

Why Dailekh, Achham, and Bardiya?

According to the Ministry of Forests and Environment’s 2021 Vulnerability and Risk Assessment Report, Panchadewal Binayak Municipality in Achham and Barbardiya Municipality in Bardiya are “highly vulnerable” to climate change impacts, while vulnerability of Aathbis Municipality’s  is “very high.”

We wanted to investigate the economic and non-economic (psychological and social) losses and damages caused by climate change impacts in the households of these municipalities.

What were the findings of the study?

We looked into landslides in Aathbis and Panchadewal Binayak in 2020 and the floods in the Babai river in Barbardiya. We discovered that nearly all respondents had experienced heavy rainfall as an extreme climate event in the previous twenty years. Landslides in Aathbis and Panchadewal Binayak, as well as floods in Barbaridya, have been the most frequent and intense in recent years.

The total economic loss for the 97 households we surveyed in the three municipalities was USD 388,355, averaging a loss of USD 4,176 per household. Although no injury or fatality were reported, post-disaster psychological distress was more prevalent among the respondents.

How effective were the governmental and non-governmental mechanisms in their response to these events?

Despite the efforts of the government and non-governmental organizations to provide solutions, we discovered significant disparities. In Barbaridya, the gaps ranged from USD 1000 to 2300 in landslide-affected households and from USD 70 to 13580 in flood-affected households. The affected communities in Aathbas and Panchadewal Binayak did not receive any compensation to deal with the aftermath of the disaster. As a result, many people were forced to flee to safer areas after taking out loans to buy land on which to build new homes. More than 87 percent of the respondents took loans in this process but studies of these kinds of financial burdens imposed on communities because of climate induced disasters are scant and inadequate.

There also seems to be a prevalence of a misconception in general understanding and media coverage that leads to people quickly associating climate induced disasters to climate change. What do you think is the case?

Climate change is not the direct cause of all climate-related disasters. We cannot be too quick to pass judgment on these disasters, but a careful examination of the pattern of these occurrences will undoubtedly aid in determining the causes of the case at hand. For example, the Mahakali river in Terai experienced the worst post-monsoon floods in 96 years. Even after the monsoon, we’re seeing an increase in short-duration, high-volume rainfall patterns across Nepal. These may be related to climate change, but further research is required.

You were also a part of the delegation from Nepal to the recent COP26. What were the major agendas that Nepal pushed?

We could safely say that a lot of preparation was done in the run up to the Conference on behalf of Nepal. We had prepared our position paper after repeated consultations and discussion among delegates. We pushed forward 3 major agendas:

Climate finance: We emphasized that low-income countries, such as Nepal, are the least prepared to adapt to rapidly changing climate and its consequences. In 2009, it was agreed that by 2020, USD 100 billion in climate finance would be mobilized annually. In this regard, the parties have fallen short. The COP 26 Pact, on the other hand, requires developed countries to at least double their collective commitments to developing countries from 2019 levels by 2020.

Khumbu Glacier, Everest Base Camp, Nepal on November 1, 2021. Photo: Shree Gurung

At COP 26, the parties agreed to launch the two-year Glasgow-Sharm el Sheikh Work Programme on the Global Goal on Adaptation (The GlaSS). This is a significant step that should be applauded, but mobilization of already established climate finance goals is something we should consistently push for.

Climate change induced loss and damage: We insisted that countries like ours receive financial assistance through a separate stand-alone mechanism. This issue had received insufficient attention until recently.

Although no general agreement could be reached on the establishment of a loss and damage financing mechanism, it was agreed that the Santiago Network would organize and fund technical assistance to deal with loss and damage caused by climate-related disasters.

Prioritizing our vulnerable mountains: At COP 26, Nepal pushed our demands for the prioritization and inclusion of our mountains, as well as the cryosphere, in the negotiations. The rapidly melting glaciers in our Himalayas necessitate immediate action. There were also bilateral talks between the United Kingdom and Nepal, during which financial commitments were made. The UK government agreed to give mountainous countries 250 million pounds. In addition, USD five million will be channeled through the UN for the same purpose in Nepal.

Khumbu Glacier, Everest Base Camp, Nepal on November 28, 2020. Photo: Shree Gurung

Lastly, what do you think are the problematic practices in media when it comes to covering climate related issues?

I’ve noticed that climate change and climate issues are only given priority in news coverage during and after climate-related conferences such as the COP26. Or, when floods are common during the monsoon, they get a lot of attention, but follow-ups on the structural causes of avoidable floods are scarce. Air pollution is covered in the winter, but follow-up stories are non-existent during the monsoon season. 

When it comes to associating climate change with almost all climate-related disasters, I also see a confirmation bias. As a result, consistent and in-depth stories on climate issues continue to be lacking in our media ecosystem, which does not help in inspiring the general public or the relevant authorities to take the necessary action to deal with climate-induced disaster.