Interview Madhukar Upadhya

  • Himalayas aren’t as strong as Alps; we should know challenges they pose

Jul 3, 2017-

For a largely agrarian economy like Nepal’s, monsoon is a lifeline. But for many Nepalis, monsoon is also a source of mayhem, as it causes floods and landslides. There have already been a few fatalities this year. And the blockage of roads has caused untold inconveniences to tens of thousands, not least because of the regular landslides along the disaster-prone Muglin-Narayangadh stretch. Shashwat Acharya and Chandan Kumar Mandal spoke to Madhukar Upadhya, a watershed practitioner and climate change expert, about the significance and implications of monsoon, the way Nepal should deal with various climate-related vulnerabilities such as water shortages and floods, and the opportunities and challenges on these fronts, including for the newly elected local level governments. 

The fact that monsoon remains a lifeline for Nepal need not be overstressed, but could you put in perspective how important it is for our economy and ecology? 

Monsoon is the life sustaining system for the entire year. We get monsoon rains when the weather is very hot. The hottest temperature and the maximum moisture are the basic things that sustain our ecology. That’s why you see different varieties of plants and insects at this time. This is the time when nature is in full energy, which helps sustain life until the next monsoon. If one monsoon fails, not only do we lose the quantity of water, but also the energy stored in different entities like food. The country’s GDP went up this year largely because of a good monsoon. 

 

But the fact that that our region gets most of its rainfall for only three months (June to September) surely poses challenges to managing our water resources?

It works to our disadvantage in that we get so much water [during the monsoon] that we don’t know how to handle it. Consequently, we suffer lots of floods, erosion and damage to infrastructure. At the same time, however, the rain we get during these three months is stored in the natural system, which we call watershed. It supports our river systems, fills our ponds, and provides us with water that we need for the rest of the year. Rains also flush the system; they cleanse the environment and bring the pollution level down. 

Floods and landslides have been there since time immemorial. As people evolved, they adapted to them, for example, by not settling in disaster-prone areas. But in the last few decades, people started moving into vulnerable areas due to various socio-economic pressures. The three cities of the Kathmandu Valley were built away from rivers. Areas close to the Bagmati, Bishnumati and other rivers were cultivable lands. But in recent years, we have moved closer to the river banks—even encroached on them. So the rivers cannot take their natural course, causing floods. 

 

So the impact of natural disasters is man-made to some extent?

Sure. We haven’t built infrastructure that suit our conditions. The road to Jiri that the Swiss helped us build was small and fitted the mountain conditions. But our other roads in the hills are very big and are suited to the conditions in the plains. When people talked about building a four-lane road to Tatopani in the aftermath of the blockade, I couldn’t help laughing. The mountains in the Himalayas are not as strong as the ones in the Alps. We don’t seem to have grasped the opportunities and limitations of our mountains. 

Landslides are age-old natural phenomena, but we have worsened them by our approach to road construction. The  sorry state of Muglin-Narayangadh highway is a typical example. I’ve heard there are 30 landslide areas along the 36km section. 

What kind of impact did the April 2015 earthquake have on Nepal’s geology and environment?

The earthquake caused the mountains to shake violently, and there were many landslides. There are reports of the Kathmandu Valley having shifted by about 10 feet to the south and elevated by about 3 feet. Similar shifts might have occurred in the mountains, resulting in landslides well into the future. 

Another thing that the earthquake affected is our water sources. Immediately after the earthquake, there was high discharge of water from springs and rivers, making people happy. But it didn’t last long. The aquifers were changed in a way that they couldn’t hold much water. There was news recently of water sources drying up as a result of the earthquake. 

How should we tackle these challenges?

The land has become weak in many places. Infrastructure projects like the construction of roads and irrigation canals have to be approached with greater care. As far as water shortage is concerned, we have to think of ways to make our reservoirs and aquifers hold more water. Unfortunately, we haven’t been doing that. We’re acting as if things are back to normal since there are no more tremors. At least the local governments that existed then should have reported about the areas facing water shortages. 

Nepal is located in a region that’s highly vulnerable to earthquakes and climate change impacts. As one of the least industrialised countries, what can it do to guard against these vulnerabilities? 

Our greenhouse gas contribution is so nominal that we may not be able to do much in terms of mitigating climate change impacts besides joining hands with other countries. But there is much we can do in terms of adaptation. According to a recently published Central Bureau of Statistics report (National Climate Change Impact Survey 2016), three quarters of the respondents said they are facing water shortage problems. In some places, it’s the result of the earthquake, but in other places, the reason could very well be climate change. Unlike an earthquake, water shortage is a problem whose intensity rises gradually. Adaptation measures have to look into the sustainability of the local economy, such as food production. But we’re dealing with the lack of local food production in a wrong way, namely by importing foodstuffs bought with money we receive from remittances. As such, we are adapting to our problems in a way that increases our vulnerability. 

 

What other lessons are there to be learnt from the CBS report you mentioned?

It’s an official recognition of the impact of climate change in the country. In a way, it depicts an alarming picture. Conducting research is okay, but a new study only gives us new data. We have to start using information that we already have. The whole approach to local and national development planning and adaptation has to take into consideration what we already know.  The new local governments have been given lots of authority and resources. They have to make judicious use of them as well as of the knowledge about climate change that is already available while planning their adaptation measures. 

It is a remarkable development that the local people no longer have to depend on the authorities at the centre to make decisions affecting their lives. Every local government has to have a measurable target to reduce the number of youths from its jurisdiction leaving for foreign employment. It has to have programmes to engage youths. That’s where the issue of water availability comes in. Whether it be farming, fishery, 

poultry farming or cottage industry, water is key to local sustainability and adaptability. Local governments in different ecological regions have their own challenges and opportunities, but they can all contribute in their own ways to, for example, reducing the country’s trade deficit or meeting the national climate change target. 

There still are denials of climate change from powerful quarters. What does that mean for the future of the planet in general and of vulnerable regions like ours in particular?

There will always be some climate change deniers. But whether or not our water shortage is a result of climate change, the fact remains that we are facing a water shortage. So we have to address the problem. I have been monitoring the area of Panchkhaal since 2007. It’s getting dryer and dryer every year. There was a small river called Jhiku Khola that used to flood. But for the last seven or eight years, there is hardly any flow of water. Some farmers have stopped farming in the winter. The problem of droughts and floods is not limited to our region. Even California witnesses droughts and Europe suffers floods. 

Published: 03-07-2017 07:50

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