Andreas Schild: The problem with the Himalaya is that environmental science, meteorology and hydrology has never been of great concern. One of the consequences is that the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change hardly talks about this region. The basic data needed to make clear statements is missing. There are fundamental changes taking place: land use, land cover, biodiversity and people-resource dynamics are changing rapidly. But we have difficulties in explaining them in relation to a single factor like climate change.
But climate change has immediate consequences for cropping patterns: honestly, we are not sure how much climate change, the price of commodities, market situations and changing family structures are influencing this and which factors are more important. Talking to farmers, they perceive an increased tendency towards water stress and a higher frequency of extreme events.
We definitely see that the glaciers are receding, that there are changing rainfall patterns. Climate change skeptics are very quick to point to the fact that the Karakoram glaciers are growing, though even this is probably due to climate change?
The simplest objective indicator is the rising temperature in the mountains. The snowline is moving up. The first to observe these symptoms are the high mountain communities. A lack of snow means there is no drinking water in spring. Also scary is the reduction of permafrost: this phenomenon is well researched in the Alps but little assessed in the Himalaya.
But we have to see that the Himalayan countries, and particularly Nepal, are not only losers. They can potentially be winners, provided we have the right set of policies, programs and the determination to implement them.
How can countries like Nepal be winners?
The mountain regions and the Himalaya in particular are not major contributors to climate change. They can certainly reduce their contribution by switching to renewables, but the country can benefit from international carbon sink facilities. However, the importance of this is generally overestimated: so far international mechanisms do not favour small countries like Nepal. Nepal has a limited land area and a very mixed landscape. The contribution of a country like Nepal in mitigating climate change is globally of little relevance. Nationally and locally, like in the Kathmandu valley, it is of high relevance.
And how can we adapt better?
Assuming that mitigation will have positive impacts only in the second half of the century, we need to learn how to adapt to these changes from a mountain perspective.
In general we have to say that poverty, lack of infrastructure and basic services to the rural population are so important that any adaptation agenda is very close to the traditional development agenda: a sustainable one.
That said, there are specific measures possible and necessary. In the short term we have to be aware that changing rainfall patterns, melting glaciers and droughts create new vulnerabilities. Early warning systems, hazard mapping, creating awareness and capacity development are required immediately. Glacial lakes considered a hazard can become a potential source for storage and energy. Hydropower, ecotourism and conservation are unique assets which contribute to strengthening resilience and adaptation. But we should move a step further: climate change and global warming on one hand and economic development with the growing middle class on the other. But let us not forget the low-hanging fruits: remittances are four times as important as development cooperation funds in Nepal. Clever policies to tap these resources to target rural areas will give us a good start in adapting to climate change.
Do you see any bright spots, best practices?
I think the bright spots are the most precious goods of the mountains: water, landscape, biodiversity and above all the adaptive people. Nepal will be a water tower also when the glaciers are melting. Water: it will be probably the single most important natural resource for the mountains and for Nepal. Biodiversity: urbanisation means a growing market for specific products with a place and culture branding. Why not sell Marpha apples at double the price of apples from China? Landscapes: the landscape is a unique way to attract tourists. The art is to make sure that the development of this resource is benefitting the people and is adding to sustainability and adaptation.
Are we focusing too much on melting glaciers and is this diverting attention from more important issues?
It is important to emphasise the importance of glaciers: they are the most visible and easy to understand indicators of climate change. Glacial lakes with danger of outbursts have received the immediate attention of the donor community. The impression is that raising warning flags is more important than sound analysis. Up to now the danger and loss of life due to floods and landslides has been 100 times higher than that from glacial lake outbursts. So we have to understand the difference between potentially dangerous lakes and immediate danger.
In full retreat - FROM ISSUE #466 (28 AUG 2009 - 03 SEPT 2009)
Climate climax - FROM ISSUE #466 (28 AUG 2009 - 03 SEPT 2009)
A climate for change - FROM ISSUE #466 (28 AUG 2009 - 03 SEPT 2009)
Climbing to keep the Himalaya alive - FROM ISSUE #466 (28 AUG 2009 - 03 SEPT 2009)