Ngamindra Dahal, PhD, is a hydro-meteorologist by training with over 25 years of professional experience in diverse forms of water management in the Himalayas. Dahal has been the Chairperson of the Nepal Water Conservation Foundation for Academic Research since 2018 and is also serving as the Executive Member of the Board of Directors of the Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA) for the years 2021-2023. Dahal served as the Chief of Climate Change and Energy Division, at Asian Development Bank as the National Climate Change and Communication Specialist (consultant for Ministry of Environment of Nepal), and at World Bank as the Senior DRRM Specialist.
Recently, Nepal Live Today caught up with Dahal to talk about issues related to climate change. Excerpts:
Where does Nepal stand in terms of its commitment to climate change adaptation and mitigation and actions on the ground?
Primarily, Nepal’s geographic location on the southern lap of the Himalayas defines its physical setting that comprises inherently fragile geological formation as the world’s youngest yet tallest mountain range of the world. Nepal’s distinct climate and climatic vulnerability should be seen against the background of its unique topography. Nepal has the highest and lowest points separated by a distance of just 150 kilometers.
These distinct features make Nepal a highly sensitive zone to climate change where historical records of major climatic upheaval can be traced everywhere including in ice deposits, tree rings, river courses, rock samples, and mountain structures. In this context, we haven’t started preparing ourselves for the scale required for responding to the unfolding climate change with any meaningful actions on the ground. Rather the performances undertaken to date looks like ‘too little and too late’, fragmented, insufficient, and unresponsive for saving lives and livelihoods of the millions of climate-vulnerable populations. The majority of initiatives such as policy framework, plans, and pilot programs launched to date were undertaken with the international grants served as goodwill gestures. In the absence of a comprehensive evaluation of these actions, the impacts and effectiveness achieved through them are yet to be understood.
We have institutions, policies, and commitments toward climate change mitigation in place in Nepal but there is little to show on the ground for the outcome. Where do you see the gap?
Climate mitigation refers to the actions aimed at reducing or avoiding greenhouse gases that are about switching from fossil fuel to renewables-based energy systems. In Nepal’s case, the top greenhouse gas emitting sectors are agriculture, transport, and domestic cooking. On contrary, the 45 percent forest cover of the country’s territory and hydropower-based electricity are the two strong pillars that would help Nepal to achieve net-zero emissions earlier than any other country of our size. Therefore, our major concerns have been the widening adaptation gaps and irrecoverable losses and damages caused by climate change-induced events.
How serious are our government agencies about addressing climate change risks? How do you see the role of international agencies in this regard?
When we see the issues of climate risks and measures to address them through papers, they are well acknowledged but poorly mapped to set up immediate ground actions. The majority of technical and financial support received from international agencies has gone to developing documents such as plans, programs, and projects required to fulfill Nepal’s obligation to Paris Climate Agreement and other multilateral environment agreements. The dark side of the story is that those expensive plans have remained unfounded and unimplemented despite the urgent and immediate needs of the climate vulnerable and affected communities. The National Adaptation Program of Action (NAPA) can be taken as a good example.
Addressing the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow in Nov 2021, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba said that around 80 percent of Nepal’s population is at risk of natural and climate-induced hazards. Is the issue so serious?
Yes, he was absolutely right. We have many compelling cases to prove this. The world has seen that the snow from the Himalayas is rapidly disappearing. However, we haven’t been able to tell the world with clarity how serious the impacts are. The ancient civilizations developed across the rain shadow zone of the Himalayas are collapsing steadily after the South Asian monsoon started climbing high to cross the main range of the mountain in the late 20th century. Just to cite a recent example of 2021, the early phase of a monsoon storm jumped high to cross the Annapurna and Langtang ranges that led to historical floods in Mustang, Manang, and Sindhupalchok of Nepal.
The slow progress on loss and damage agenda in the subsequent climate negotiation has exposed the vested interests of the developed countries who are unitedly blocking its path towards adopting as a third pillar in fear of adding financial obligation and moral burden on them.
The same storm completely damaged the intake of the Melamchi Drinking Water Project- an expensive project of national pride built over the past 25 years with ADB loans. Another record-breaking excessive rainfall in the month of November 2021, which used to be the driest month of the year, devastated entire Nepal causing losses of ready-to-harvest paddy worth Rs 12 billion.
Least Developed Countries (LDCs) called for a loss and damage agenda at the Glasgow Summit, but it wasn’t addressed properly. What do you think could be a way forward?
The agenda of loss and damage is still underway to emerge as a third pillar to respond to climate change in addition to the existing two pillar-based mechanisms- adaptation and mitigation. The slow progress on the loss and damage agenda in the subsequent climate negotiation has exposed the vested interests of the developed countries who are unitedly blocking its path towards adopting as a third pillar in fear of adding financial obligation and moral burden on them. The climate-vulnerable developing countries are emphasizing their early progress for dual purposes- first, getting recognition of the problem itself, and, second, securing financial and technical resources required to compensate for the enormous losses at least partially. Nevertheless, Nepal together with the developing world must push this forward for the same reason as this is closely associated with their right to survival and existence. This can be done through generating scientific robust data and knowledge in support of the agendas under the loss and damage. I believe that the agenda will move a bit faster in the days ahead.
Scientists say that rapid warming in the Himalayas poses a serious threat to the food, water, energy, and human security of the entire region. How could countries like Nepal cope with such a situation?
As said earlier, climate change is causing damage to our life, livelihoods, natural heritage, and cultural heritage at different scales and forms. Individuals, households, communities, and business sectors are coping with the situation rather silently with reactive approaches, which are considered the least effective way to address the issue. This should change. Only planned and proactive responses can help minimize losses and build resilience capacity. Our government institutions are simply not prepared in terms of capability and accountability towards the most vulnerable and affected one.
Nepal together with the developing world must push this forward for the same reason as this is closely associated with their right to survival and existence.
In Nepal, agriculture is among the most affected and vulnerable sectors to bear the damages and losses because of high exposure as well as sensitivity. The hardship of individual farmers is enormous from maintaining the soil productivity, moisture (irrigation), and accessing inputs—fertilizers, seeds, and pesticides to live with the neck-breaking market chain. Two-step approaches may help. First, the local governments may position themselves to create an enabling policy environment to capacitate farmers for increasing and diversifying products and productivity at varied scales. Second, the provincial and federal government institutions help farmers to add value and access secured markets to sell their products without falling victims in the hands of exploiters. Equally important is that they work out creating buffers to save primary producers from the climate shocks and surprises as well as those from the markets.
Climate change has been one of the priority agendas for the international community for the past couple of decades. But there seems to be a disconnect between what global leaders preach at international fora and the implementation of projects on the ground. What needs to be done?
We should understand that the leaders use the international platform to push the agendas of interests in favor of their countries. Nobody is concerned with our agenda and problems unless we take it forward ourselves. Raising the agenda alone won’t serve the purpose. Pushing them to need systematic plans, strategies, consistent approaches, and a committed leader who can work with timelines and targets. This is where we are falling behind. We are yet to demonstrate our ability to press our agenda forward in whatever way possible. Bangladesh is faring far better than Nepal and can be an example or role model to follow.
Nepal recently held local-level elections. How do you think newly-elected local leaders could be encouraged to take up the issue of mitigating climate change impact at the local level?
I think the recently-elected local leaders are far better than the previous set because of the changed realities and experiences. They need support and training to identify, priorities, plan, perform and deliver on pressing issues with systematic actions. One example. The establishment and operationalization of weather monitoring and early warning systems in each municipality can be a great support to the farmers and leaders not only to plan their agricultural activities but also to reduce multiple risks of climate change. We need the bottom-up approach, not the top-down policy we are following so far.