Nepal-US relations: From conservation diplomacy towards climate diplomacy

Moving forward, Nepal-US engagements and actions must be scaled up and accelerated to tackle the effects of climate change. Climate diplomacy is the need of the hour.

Photo: US Embassy, Kathmandu

Sharad Chandra Adhikari

  • Read Time 6 min.

On March 31, during the official visit to the US State Department in Washington, we had a courtesy meeting with Deputy Assistant Secretary Kelly Keiderling and Secretary of Nepal’s Ministry of Forests and Environment Dr Pem Narayan Kandel. At the end of the meeting, when I was about to present a small gift on behalf of the Nepali delegation, Keiderling responded joyfully: “I think it’s the Himalayan rocks.”

This response is largely indicative of the warm sentiment of America towards Nepal.

During our meeting, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State took pleasure in discussing Nepal’s steps in biodiversity conservation, in particular its leadership role in international forums on issues concerning climate change. Nepal has been an example of global admiration for demonstrating leadership in combating climate change.

Meanwhile, there have been numerous high-level visits to Kathmandu from Washington, in recent months, in the context of the 75th anniversary of Nepal-US diplomatic relations. Indeed, 75 years of partnership between Nepal and the US come with valuable lessons of shared visions, cooperation and success. While diplomatic relations and cooperation has been central to US-Nepal ties, focusing on that alone might put other US support to Nepal in shadows. The US has been a reliable partner of Nepal in its conservation efforts. This article is centered on that issue.

Support in conservation sector

The US government had  provided support to Nepal to build Chitwan National Park—Nepal’s first national park established 50 years ago, which also coincided with the centenary of establishment of the Yellowstone National Park in the US. Today, CNP is not only enlisted as a World Heritage Site, but is also globally renowned for its biodiversity and wildlife.

Since the 1970s, studies and research on tigers have been ongoing in CNP. The National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), in collaboration with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, continues to carry out tiger research and monitoring closely, a program which once began with the support of the Smithsonian Institution. Collaboration with American universities and institutions continue and today these efforts have had a significant contribution in putting Nepal’s tiger population in the global map of recovery.

File – A Royal Bengal Tiger spotted in Chitwan National Park on Wednesday, July 19, 2017. Photo: RSS

Among others, Nepal also receives regular assistance from the US government in the areas of habitat conservation, restoration and expansion, wildlife study and scientific research. This support has been instrumental for us, whether it be in the conservation of our rhinos or increasing the number of other endangered wildlife. The ten-year-long Hariyo Ban Program funded by the USAID took important initiatives for the successful conservation of the protected mammal Krishnasar (blackbuck) in Hirapurphanta of Shuklaphanta National Park. Today the number of Krishnasars has increased remarkably. This is just one among the many examples. Overall the Hariyo Ban Program has advanced Nepal’s standing in biodiversity conservation, climate change adaptation, community development, gender equality and social inclusion and good governance. 

A one-horned rhino spotted at the Chitwan National Park. Photo: WWF

US assistance to Nepal has also been noteworthy in areas of wildlife poaching and crime control. Although there continue to be persisting challenges in this area, results on the ground have been expedited through regular capacity building, knowledge sharing, technological integration, and community mobilization and incentive measures. The US’s role in implementing the concept of landscape-level conservation, focusing on improved biological connectivity and ecological integrity between the Tarai plains and the hills will continue to be relevant well into the future.

As a matter of professional pride, US conservation relations in Nepal go right back to the inception of the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), the institution where I work. Among NTNC’s founding three foreign trustee members was also the legendary US conservationist, the late Russell E Train of the US Environmental Protection Agency, who was also the founding director of WWF. Clearly Nepal was high-held in the hearts of many a great even then.

Together against climate change

Moving forward from here, Nepal and the US will require to work hand-in-hand to tackle the issue of climate change. Seen in this context, climate change and climate finance have the potential to redefine Nepal-US future relations. In response to the climate-related impacts and opportunities, Nepal-US relations must look to better address adaptation-related challenges and initiate mitigation measures. Given the country’s vulnerabilities, in the long run this direction will be in the greater interest for Nepal itself. Here we can work hand-in-hand with climate-vulnerable communities, implement disaster risk reduction programs, develop preparedness and community resilience, and build local capacities with inclusive societies.

Without swift action climate change is expected to have overriding consequences in the Himalayas. The effects of snowmelt, glacial retreat, and the intensity of hydrological cycles puts at grave risk large communities, cultures and civilizations, together with compromising the biological diversity of entire regions. As many as 1.4 billion people in Asia are estimated to be affected by the effects of climate change in the Himalayas, which serve as a source of many great river systems, and are popularly known to be the water towers of Asia.

Indeed, how do we avoid this increasingly precarious situation is our biggest concern as a nation. How do we protect our mountains? How do we protect this heritage and civilization? And how to protect our biodiversity? All of us need to be sensitive to this reality. That is why, with the swift passage of 75 years of Nepal-US relations, moving forward, our engagements and actions must be scaled and accelerated to tackle the effects of climate change better. That is why climate diplomacy is the need of the hour. In an age of globalization, a prosperous nation like the United States must harmonize a far reaching perspective for a developing country like Nepal. Here our relations ought to be increasingly defined specifically for the preservation of a collective civilization and a global natural heritage.

How America can help

US leadership will be important in supporting Nepal’s national policy, strategy, plans and programs related to climate change and will help in the timely realization of our collective climate goals. Whereas on the one hand, conservation diplomacy will become much warranted, the future will increasingly find climate change diplomacy taking center stage.

Nepal lies in a geopolitically sensitive and strategic location between China and India. Both neighbors account for the largest populations, have massive manufacturing bases, and are energy-intensive countries. This means that in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and paving future development pathways Nepal faces imminent challenges. Facing these will require resetting priorities, mobilizing knowledge and skills, and pushing up nature-focused investments and agendas into the Himalayan nation. From this perspective, America can be an opportunity for Nepal.

For a highly vulnerable mountainous country like Nepal with limited resources, US support in the days ahead will continue to influence the development trajectory. Only if we are able to protect and save our mountains, can Nepal be a true leader at the international level on climate change.

Challenges to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss are aplenty. With the topography and poor preparedness of most rural communities in Nepal, climate change adaptation-focused programs require better implementation, and must provide for community livelihood and resilience building capacities. Nepal-US cooperation in building these capacities can be far reaching. We are rich in biodiversity and the US is a leader in science and technology. Combining these two, Nepal as well as the rest of the world can benefit immensely. The use of American technology in the field of information and communication can further synergize our untapped potential. Carbon trading continues to be an area of opportunity for Nepal to strengthen environmental-economic cooperation with the US.

In short, this means that there are immense challenges, together with opportunities, in dealing with the climate dilemma. For a highly vulnerable mountainous country like Nepal with limited resources, US support in the days ahead will continue to influence the development trajectory Nepal takes. Only if we are able to protect and save our mountains, can Nepal be a true leader at the international level on climate change, a sentiment that was so dearly shared by the Deputy Assistant Secretary Keiderling during the meeting.

To garner global attention on this issue, Nepal needs to launch the ‘Save the Himalayas’ campaign. It may come across as wishful thinking, but Nepal has the potential to declare itself as a ‘Green Zone’. The US support in this will lend to our campaign the international agency required and a platform to share our voice and vision of the future. In fact, this is what climate justice should be about. That is why in the post 2022 agenda, Nepal-US relations must be poised to pivot from an era of conservation diplomacy toward climate diplomacy. Because reaching this consensus together will be integral to all of our brighter stars.

Sharad Chandra Adhikari is Member Secretary at National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), an autonomous and not-for-profit organization mandated to work in the field of nature conservation in Nepal.