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Perceptions of Climate Change in the Himalayas
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Ecological changes noticed in the high Himalayas indicate that global warming will have a serious impact on the lives and livelihoods of local communities. Communities in the Mustang and Manang Districts of Nepal have already begun experiencing unusual changes in weather patterns. Some of them are happy with these changes; for example, farmers have noticed improved apple sizes in recent years. But others face hardship; for example, water leakage into traditional houses has increased, which people feel is due to new precipitation patterns. These findings need to be validated by scientific studies, but the urgency to support affected communities is already clear. They need help to enable them to respond to the new challenges posed by climate change.
Most highland communities depend on cattle and sheep farming and, therefore, have serious concerns over the declining production of grass in the Himalayan grasslands. This is mainly due to moisture deficiencies resulting from reduced snow deposits. Local people have also noticed spectacular changes in their surroundings in the last couple of decades; hillsides that once used to be covered in snow throughout the year are now bare and dry. Stream flow and spring characteristics have changed dramatically in recent years, making it challenging to manage water supplies.
Local perceptions of changes
Many of the highland residents of Manang in the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas have observed heavy monsoon rains in recent years. This type of erratic monsoon precipitation is a new phenomenon. Previously, monsoon rains used to be of lower intensities and amounts, and heavy monsoon rains only occurred at lower altitudes. Intense rainfall has affected traditionally-built flat-roofed houses made of mud and stone. Roof leakage and wall erosion problems are a major concern for low-income families who cannot afford to regularly repair their houses.
Narendra Lama, a conservation officer in Manang, says, "problems from the leakage of rainwater through the roofs of traditional mud houses have increased in recent monsoons. The number of people seeking support from us to repair their houses has suddenly jumped." The rooftops are also traditionally designed to accumulate winter snowfall for meeting domestic water needs. Decreased winter snowfall could eventually lead to a shortfall in the village water supply.
Some farmers in Mustang, the neighbouring district to Manang, say that the changed climate has significantly impacted their lifestyles. They are confident that the climate has changed, not because they know much about global warming or reports of rapidly receding Himalayan glaciers, but because of their long experience with the realities of the local environment. For most of them the impact is positive. Farmers are growing new vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, chili, tomato and cucumber, which used to need greenhouses to survive. Local fruits have better sizes and tastes. New plants that only used to grow at lower altitudes can now be found. Many note the fact that their Himalayan district is greener than it was a few decades ago. Local residents say this is because of the changing climate rather than technological inputs or improved seed varieties.
Shenjing Gurung, a 53-year-old resident of Muktinath Valley (located at an altitude of 3500m) in Mustang District, is happy with the warming climate. He says "I have not experienced a long chilly winter in the last five or six years." Gurung is a mountain farmer, and in addition to the relatively warm and snow-free winters, he has noticed changes in the farming of vegetables and crops. When asked whether the changes were due to development interventions, Gurung says, "credit for the new vegetable varieties partly goes to development programmes that have been implemented over the last ten years and partly to the change in climatic patterns. Better tasting and larger apples are due to the climate."
Climate change affects different crops in different ways. These varying interactions between the climate and crops shape the perceptions that farmers have about climate change. For example, farmers engaged in apple farming benefit from the warming climate while those traditionally dependent on wheat, potato and other local crops and vegetables have suffered. Similarly, families dependent on tourism businesses benefit from the longer drought periods following the monsoon, as this helps increase the numbers of tourists visiting their areas. In contrast, some of those running agricultural businesses suffer due to variable precipitation patterns and reduced opportunities for irrigation.
Elderly people believe that weather induced hazards such as large avalanches, windstorms and hailstorms are increasingly common. In the summer of 2003, a herd of 36 yaks was killed near Jomsom. "There is no doubt that the region has warmed up in recent decades," says former District Development Committee Chairman and local businessman Nirmal Gauchan. He adds that the emerging mosquito problem in the Jomsom Valley, located at an altitude of 2700m, may be an indicator of the warming climate.
The implications of local perceptions
In many cases, stories from local people confirm findings from recent scientific studies, particularly about shrinking snow cover and retreating glaciers. A study conducted by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development and the United Nations Environment Programme in the year 2000 identified 3252 glaciers and 2323 glacial lakes in Nepal. An analysis of this inventory suggested that twenty of these glacial lakes were potentially dangerous. Excessive melting of glaciers increases the size of lakes, which can eventually burst out of their confines generating tremendous floods downstream.
Meteorological data for Jomsom from 2002 to 2004 also supports local views. Rainfall data indicates a decrease in winter precipitation and an increase in rainfall after the winter months. Snowfall in the post-winter season affects crop farming, but people have a strong belief that current changes in the rainy season are temporary and will eventually revert back to how they used to be.
The local observations described above provide a clear direction for future research and for development planning and disaster management programmes in the high Himalayas. More scientific studies are needed to validate these observations. However, some research on climate change impacts and the associated risks in mountainous regions has been conducted. Some of this is discussed in the following sections.
Melting glaciers and glacial lake outburst floods
According to one recent study, Nepal’s temperature is rising by about 0.41 degrees Celsius per decade. Another study conducted in the vicinity of Tsho Rolpa Glacial Lake in Dolakha District suggests that mean temperature is increasing annually by 0.019 degrees Celsius with an increase in average summer temperature of 0.044 degrees Celsius. This is causing rainfall to increase by 13mm per year, while the number of rainy days is decreasing by 0.8 days per year suggesting that rainfall occurs in bursts. Consequently, river flow is increasing at 1.48m3/s per year, which is about 1.5 times higher than increases in precipitation. High increases in summer river flow provide further evidence that high summer temperatures are leading to fast glacial melt.
The rate of glacial retreat reached up to 1.8m per year in the 1970s and 2.4m per year in the 1980s. As a result of fast glacial melt, new glacial lakes have formed and those already existing have grown rapidly. This alarming highland trend threatens downstream communities and the environment due to the increased risk of glacial lake outburst floods. The occasional bursting of glacial lakes in the past has seriously damaged the lives and livelihoods of mountain communities. Such threats operate in conjunction with other changes to the patterns of river flow, spring water recharge, precipitation and vegetation types expected as a result of global warming in the Himalayas.
Rise in water-related hazards
Weather-related extreme events like excessive rainfall, longer drought periods, landslides and floods are increasing both in terms of magnitude and frequency. Mean annual precipitation is increasing, as is the occurrence of intense rainfall. This causes more erosion of soils and riverbeds and banks, as well as sedimentation on fertile land. More floods and glacial lake outbursts will destroy irrigation and water supply systems, roads, bridges, settlements and productive land. Flood-related deaths will increase. Land degradation will reduce crop productivity and put more pressure on remaining fertile land. In the dry season, increased evaporation will lead to water scarcity. Soil moisture deficits, droughts, fire and possible pest outbreaks will decrease crop yields. Climate change will have major impacts on ecosystems, land and water resources, health, and major economic sectors such as agriculture.
Increasing mountain community vulnerability
The vulnerability of mountain dwellers is likely to increase due to changes in rainfall patterns. Increased water-related hazards and a shift in the rainy season will affect household incomes, most of which depend on subsistence farming. Health effects could include the extension of ranges of vectorborne diseases such as malaria and encephalitis to mountain settlements. Progress in environmental management has been slow and natural resource degradation remains at the core of many problems. Climate change will add a new stress to ecosystems and socioeconomic systems already affected by poverty, natural resources depletion and unsustainable management practices. Climate change impacts on land resources will make management even more difficult if appropriate measures are not taken.
The looming water crisis
Mountains are a source of fresh water for the hills and plains and are, therefore, considered ‘water towers’. Erratic rainfall patterns means managing water is more challenging. Prolonged light rains help recharge groundwater but intense rainfall generates run off which leads to floods and landslides. Nepal also faces sedimentation problems. Widespread land degradation has reduced productivity. Hundreds of human lives and properties worth millions of rupees are lost every year to floods and landslides. As snowfall declines, springs and spring fed rivers show reduced flows. Water scarcity is expected to increase in winter and in the dry season.
Conclusions and ways forward
Variations in precipitation patterns have impacts on various aspects of local life. People report that these impacts are both negative and positive. The much-discussed issue of glacial melt is not a big concern for local people; they are more concerned with the shifting precipitation patterns and reduction in snow deposits that provide water reserves for use in the summer. Inadequate scientific monitoring makes it difficult to validate the observed changes.
Climate change is recognized as a threat to communities in the highlands and plains who depend on mountain resources such as water. Surprisingly, many people feel positive about climatic changes and are hopeful about the future of the environment. They expect future winters to be less chilly and summers to be humid and warm. The thought of less harsh winters due to a decline in snowfall brings a smile to the faces of elderly people, although some of them also fear that reduced water supplies will be problematic. However, most people are unaware of the real consequences of global warming. Communities who are most vulnerable to the affects of climate change are generally unaware of the nature of possible impacts. They are, therefore, less able to cope with changing situations.
Water management is undoubtedly the main challenge regarding local responses to climate change impacts. Reviving traditional practices and improving knowledge on how to harvest rainwater and snowfall provides one way of coping with this problem. Appropriate technologies, suitable for the local context, are also helpful. Before planning any interventions, a proper assessment of the impact of climate change on water resources is essential.
Empowering communities with information, technological skills, education and employment is the best way to address vulnerability. A sizable action-research project is therefore necessary to identify and document climate change impacts. Planning mitigation measures should also be a priority.
Nepal demonstrates diverse geo-physical and climatic conditions within relatively small areas. It is, therefore, an ideal place to study climate change impacts on natural and socio-economic spheres. Such a study would contribute towards a better understanding of the intensity and impacts of global changes. The first step in such a study would be to start monitoring rainfall and temperatures at the community level. Mobilizing local schools and communities to monitor the weather using rain gauges and thermometers could fulfill the dual purpose of enhancing local scientific databases and raising the awareness of students and other people about the importance of monitoring the climate.
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Tiempo Climate Newswatch