Interview | ‘In Nepal, climate change effects are stark in all three ecological zones’: Dr Dharam Raj Uprety, thematic lead, Practical Action Nepal

Shrutika Raut

  • Read Time 6 min.

Dr Dharam Raj Uprety has 18 years of experience working in climate change, and disaster risk reduction sectors. He works in climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction, early warning system and action research as well as natural resource management sector. Dr Uprety did his PhD from Austria, and a Post-doctorate from Czech Republic in between 2003-2008.

Uprety is currently working with Practical Action Nepal as a thematic lead for climate and resilience in South Asia, particularly India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Practical Action is an international organization that works with communities to develop resourceful, long lasting and locally owned solutions for agriculture, water and waste management, climate resilience and clean energy. Nepal Live Today recently caught up with him to discuss a wide range of issues.

To start with, what motivated you to work in the field of climate action?

All of my higher studies revolved around the environmental field. While completing my PhD and postdoctoral degree in Europe, I naturally started working towards climate issues because of its steady relevance and urgency. Especially after the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Bali, Indonesia, my attention was drawn to the field of climate change by my supervisor who attended the Bali Climate conference.

Also, looking at the drastic environmental effect of climate change around the world, I felt it was an urgent issue that needed attention. Since 2010, there has been an increase in natural disasters around the world in the forms of drought, floods, landslides, forest fires, among others, and they can all be traced back to climate change. I felt compelled to contribute in alleviating this problem as much as I possibly could, which is why I came back to Nepal to work in climate research and climate action.

What have you observed regarding the climate conditions in South Asia, especially Nepal?

There have been several adverse effects of climate change that can be seen all around the world. In Bangladesh, floods, typhoons and other disasters have wreaked havoc, making it one of the most vulnerable countries when it comes to climate change effects.

Similarly, there have been several impacts of floods and landslides seen in India and Nepal as well. Especially in the context of Nepal, we can see climate change effects in all three geological belts that represent a wide range of biodiversity and ecosystem. The melting of ice caps in the Himalayas could have an impact on glaciers and risk the bursting of several glaciers. There have been droughts, flooding, storms and landslides seen in the hilly and Tarai regions. Many crops are destroyed all over Nepal annually by the unpredictable weather conditions which we witnessed in post monsoon rainfall of October 2021. Infrastructures such as buildings, schools, hospitals, roads, houses, bridges have been destroyed, causing billions of dollars worth of damages.

“We need to work on climate change issues urgently before more severe effects are seen in Nepal’s financial, economic and day-to-day lives.”

If we are to look at statistics from 2010 to 2021, over eight hundred thousand buildings and infrastructures have been damaged by natural disasters, causing the loss of about forty one billion rupees. Out of that, nineteen billion dollars worth of damages has been caused by climate change related disasters alone. We need to work on climate change issues urgently before more severe effects are seen in Nepal’s financial, economic and day-to-day lives.

The effects of climate change are getting worse and actions being taken are slow. What can ordinary citizens do when it comes to climate change risks?

As a denizen of earth, we all need to work together in reducing our carbon footprint. We need to work to save forests, plants and wildlife as they are essential in balancing the ecosystem. We also need to work towards a more eco-friendly environment. The usage of fossil fuels needs to be lessened in favor of renewable energy.  Managing wastes can also be a huge contribution to a healthier environment. The usage of plastic and the mismanagement of waste has also been a huge cause of worsening climate change effects. There needs to be organized effort towards afforestation, recycling, compost management, sustainable development, etc.

Initiatives such as ‘one house one plant’ also need to be introduced in city areas to increase greenery in the city. This can help mitigate the dangerous effects of heat waves that plague urban areas as well as ensure a cleaner environment. All of the laws and regulations passed by the government need to be followed in real life as well, which is where the role of civil societies, NGOs and INGOs comes in.

What is the biggest challenge that you have faced while working towards incorporating climate forecasting with farming?

Because of the effects of climate change in Nepal, there has been an unpredictable pattern of weather. That is why we have had to make many changes and developments in the climate and weather forecast. Just last year, the sudden onset of monsoon caused several crops to be ruined in many regions of Nepal, especially in Tarai areas. The loss was estimated to be about eight billion rupees in total. We are working jointly with the government towards a system of weather forecasts that informs farmers when to plant crops and when to harvest so that losses in agricultural fields can be minimized. The regulation of such a system would require joint efforts from the concerned stakeholders such as army, police, media, government as well as ordinary people. As flood forecasts are well recognized globally, we need to move and advance our early warning system to make it multi-hazards early warning. Several initiatives are currently ongoing from the government and non-government sectors to make multi-hazard early warning systems.

The destruction of crops is just one among a multitude of other issues created by climate change. Recently, there was an incident in Jumla where about 80 sheep belonging to five farmers were killed by a lightning storm. Many have lost their lives during plantation and herding. This could be minimized if there was a system of effectively informing farmers and animal rearers about possible weather conditions in different areas of the country. The biggest challenge we face while working towards this goal is technology, communication, coordination and awareness.

“Our country is an agricultural country. We need to be able to make sure that we are agriculturally adept, both technologically and in terms of human resources.”

 It can be tough to bring the concept of climate forecasting to every community in Nepal due to linguistic and cultural barriers as well as the remoteness of some areas. We still have a lot of work to do in these areas. Luckily, steps are being taken by local governments for risk and disaster management. It is quite challenging to work in a systematic and regulated way by incorporating so many communities. But we need to work towards resolving this situation anyway. 

Weather forecast technology isn’t accessible to most Nepali people. How can we ensure continuous updates are provided to farmers all over the country?

In Nepal, phones, Wi-Fi, computers and the internet are not accessible to all. In those cases, we need to focus on what means of information distribution will work best within the communities we are working with, which can be radio, TV, local bodies,  NGOs and INGOs. We also need to empower the risk and disaster management organizations within the communities to make them more capable of ensuring safety during calamities. The most important thing is to make sure there is communication with the communities through the most appropriate means. Being dependent solely on technology can be quite risky.

How essential is it for Nepali farmers to be familiar with the changing weather patterns caused by climate change?

The biggest effect of climate change can be seen in agriculture. So it is crucial for farmers to be familiar with and updated on the fluctuating weather and climate situations. Agriculture is the backbone of civilization, and about 70 percent Nepalis rely on it for their livelihood. Any issues faced by the agricultural sector will affect everyone, which is why it needs to be considered as an urgent matter of concern. All information regarding agriculture needs to be overseen in an efficient way so that everyone can access and understand information. Hence, continual updates regarding weather are essential for Nepali farmers to keep up with in order to ensure good agricultural outcome. 

“The biggest effect of climate change can be seen in agriculture. So it is crucial for farmers to be familiar with and updated on the fluctuating weather and climate situations.”

What do you have to say to the Nepali youths attempting to work in and revive agriculture in Nepal?

There is so much diversity in Nepal in terms of geology, flora and fauna. The Himalayan, hilly and Tarai regions all have their unique ecosystems and potentials. Our lands have the capacity to grow any kind of plants or crops due to its vast range. However, we don’t see this diversity being utilized to its fullest extent.

Most Nepali people choose to work in blistering heat in the Gulf countries, or travel to America, Australia or Europe with the dream to build a life for themselves, only to die far away from home and everyone they love. We need to motivate the youth to be entrepreneurial and do something in Nepal and for the betterment of Nepal. There is so much potential to be uncovered here, all we need is innovation, motivation, and willingness to work hard.

Our country is an agricultural country, and we need to be able to make sure that we are agriculturally adept, both technologically and in terms of human resources. Our government needs to realize the importance of youth in national development and take steps to ensure that youths don’t have to move away to look for job opportunities. The revolution in the agricultural sector leads to economic revolution, and the economic revolution leads the nation to economic development.