Preparing for the inevitable

  • Flooding of the kind that we saw last August can happen again due to climate change
- MADHUKAR UPADHYA
For vulnerable countries like Nepal, even if the temperature were to stabilise at around 1.5 degrees, the changes we have experienced may continue for a long time and continue to affect the economy

Dec 12, 2017-In Nepal, addressing climate change (CC) is about more than reducing carbon emissions. It involves a host of issues related to the daily lives of the poor and the associated local economy which are hardly captured by economic indicators, and are often excluded from the larger discourse of economic prosperity and climate change. Water induced disaster is one such issue that has not received the attention it deserves. If one looks at the trend over the last three decades, one can clearly see that it has progressively gained strength to impact a larger area, weakening the very root of our economy and the wellbeing of a large section of the population.

A wakeup call

Government records show that the cumulative loss due to floods and landslides between 1983 and 2005 was about Rs28 billion. In August 2017, all major rivers from Jhapa to Bardia were flooded on the same day due to unprecedented rain, causing extensive damage to settlements, farms and infrastructure. The National Planning Commission did a study of the damage to plan for recovery and rehabilitation and found that the monetary loss amounted to Rs60.7 billion in that single year. The recovery cost has been estimated to be about Rs73 billion. The combined loss in agriculture, livestock and irrigation was about Rs35 billion. One could argue that the comparison over a long period needs to consider inflation and other parameters. The flood damage of 2017 should be taken as a wakeup call as floods of a similar magnitude can happen again due to CC. 

In the 1970s, floods and landslides were attributed to deforestation and hence considered to be a local issue. Today, they have become a global issue. However, attributing floods to CC will take a long time as scientists are still grappling to link the increasing strength and number of hurricanes in the Atlantic to CC. Furthermore, the CC discourse is dominated by energy economics. The Paris Agreement is largely about energy and emissions and commits to stabilise the rising temperature to 2 degrees, and if possible, to 1.5 degrees by reducing emissions. Even though loss and damage have been an important concern of vulnerable countries, the priority of the Warsaw International Mechanism has been slow-onset events such as sea level rise, salinisation, glacier retreat and biodiversity loss or drought. Rapid-onset events such as floods and cyclones have not yet become a permanent agenda item in global negotiations.

What is important to understand for vulnerable countries like Nepal is that even if the temperature were to stabilise at around 1.5 degrees, the kind of changes we have experienced may continue for a long time and affect the economy in more ways than we have seen. Our capacity to deal with extreme events is not as strong as one would like it to be. Further, our case is a mixed bag where extreme events are weakening our capacity to adapt to slow-onset events. Small farmers are losing confidence in farming as it has increasingly failed to meet their needs due to droughts, delayed or untimely rain and so on. Even those who have worked hard against the odds to carry on farming find it hopeless to continue when events like the 2017 floods destroy crops and land. The rapid-onset events that we have seen mean that the urgency with which we need to address them is becoming more obvious than ever before.

Scaling up efforts

In this time and age, we need to address the issue with a focused approach at home and take it to global fora as a crucial case of loss and damage. Reducing the vulnerability of communities exposed to such disasters should be a priority at home. The actions depend on the effectiveness of a combination of things, including an understanding of what actually is happening on the ground and what approaches will be effective in addressing them. The overall picture of climate impacts that past studies have revealed may have provided a basis for national policies, but they are in no way adequate to make plans to tackle problems at the local level. In the unique geography that we have, climate problems are more diverse than what we have been able to comprehend. Recent findings of the Central Bureau of Statistics on climate impacts provide a lead in developing local understanding. 

It is obvious that the state has many other priorities ranging from reducing the national trade deficit to safeguarding social security and increasing employment opportunities at home. CC may not be on the top of the list, but it is important to realise that the priority areas are all influenced by CC in some way, and hence, addressing it also means addressing those priorities in the long term. Internationally, Nepal should raise the issue of unprecedented floods and landslides that are potentially influenced by CC with increased emphasis in global fora in the same way that small island nations have done with regard to slow and progressing impacts. 

Nepal has the capacity to do so, and it has shown this capacity by being a leader in improving governance of climate finance. Nepal was awarded the South-South Cooperation Leadership Award in 2013 in recognition of its pioneering efforts in mainstreaming CC in planning and budgeting, which stood out as global in scope and exemplary in innovation. It is time to develop an understanding of the scale and magnitude of how CC has impacted key economic sectors. To this end, sector institutions must focus on building an understanding of how CC has hindered their efforts to achieve sectoral goals. Only an increased understanding of the impacts and the evidence generated to substantiate them will help to make rapid-onset events a permanent agenda item in global negotiations. 

- Upadhya is a hydrologist and the author of the book ‘Ponds and Landslides’

Published: 12-12-2017 07:41

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