Documenting climate change along Nepal’s Gandaki River, from peaks to plains.
An Oxford University and ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) team embarks on an expedition to Nepal’s Gandaki Basin to explore ways in which climatic changes are contributing to vulnerability in the mountains, hills and floodplains of Nepal.
A team from Oxford University recently travelled to Nepal to join the Himalayas to Ocean (H20) expedition. This initiative, a partnership between Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) , will see the project team follow the course of the Gandaki river, documenting the impacts of climate change along the way. The journey will start in the mountains of Mid-Western Nepal in Mustang, before heading downstream to the hills of Gulmi, and finally, the floodplains of Nawalparasi. The project will complement research on the ground by communicating change in novel, engaging ways, using creative audio-visual approaches that blend photography, video, and sound to capture stories from those at the frontline of climate change. It aims to raise awareness about the varied and complex ways in which climatic changes are already affecting communities and are contributing to their vulnerability.
The Hindu Kush-Himalayas serve as freshwater towers, feeding the ten largest river systems in Asia and the rich cultural and ecological systems riparian to them. It is estimated that the Himalayas support drinking water, irrigation, energy, industry and sanitation needs to 1.3 billion people living in the mountains and downstream1. In Nepal in particular, water is a plentiful resource, with major sources found in glaciers, rivers, rainfall, lakes and ponds. Agriculture is a major water intensive source of livelihood; 81% of the working population engage in agricultural occupations2.
In past decades, however, the Hindu Kush Himalayan system has come under increasing threat due to growing pressures posed by population increase, urbanisation and poor planning. Compounding these factors is anthropogenic climate change. The Hindu Kush Himalayas are estimated to be warming three times faster than the global average, contributing to glacial retreat3. By 2050, parts of the Himalayas could see a 4-5C warming. However, the impacts of climate change in the Himalayas extend far beyond the melting of iconic glaciers. A growing body of research, led by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) among others, has indeed shown shifts in the hydrological cycle, with monsoon rain becoming more erratic, and extreme rainfall events becoming less frequent but more intense in nature. Such changes in hydrological patterns are likely to contribute to an increase in natural disasters such as floods, landslides, droughts, springs drying up, fires and storms.
As a relatively small landlocked country with a complex topography, unstable terrain, and irregular climate, Nepal is already one of the world’s most disaster prone countries. The expected increase in natural catastrophes under climate change scenarios will incur a growing burden on communities across Nepal, in particular in rural and impoverished areas where people’s capacity to adapt will be severely limited. In August 2017, Nepal recorded its worst rainfall in 15 years, which led to catastrophic floods in the south part of the country, killing over 150 people and displacing over 21,000 families, leaving them without adequate water access and sanitation. Although the links with climate change are unclear at this stage, these floods events follow an increasing trend of record precipitation, record temperatures and increasing frequency of natural disasters.
In response to these challenges, individuals, communities and organisations are coming up with innovative ways to minimise exposure to those hazard, and cope, adapt or build resilience to them. A recent publication by ICIMOD finds that communities in the Gandaki Basin have been using traditional knowledge, practices, and technologies already for quite some time to cope with adverse climatic stresses4. These include, for instance, the use of different soil and water conservation methods such as drip irrigation and technologies to retain soil moisture, and changing cropping patterns and crop composition. However, being largely reactive, these ‘autonomous’ mechanisms are being challenged due to the scale and intensity of climatic changes. As such, planned adaptation has become an important climate and development strategy in Nepal and across South Asia. Some examples of planned adaptation measures include, climate-smart farming, improved irrigation, soil and nutrient management technologies, and improved access to climate resilient seeds and technologies. Planned adaptation also means strengthening community-based institutions including insurance systems, and improved climate information services. The H2O team will explore these issues further during their expedition.
The expedition team is composed of students and professionals working on issues of environmental change and water security from the School of Geography and the Environment (Alice Chautard, Yolanda Clatworthy, Justin Falcone); professional filmmaker Ross Harrison, who has already produced a short film on change and resilience in the Himalayas; sound engineer Nicholas O’Brien; and humanitarian story-teller Sushma Bhatta from Nepal.
You can find more about the expedition on the H20 website, or by following the team on Twitter, and Facebook.
- Karki, M (2012) Sustainable mountain development 1999, 2012 and beyond: Rio +20 assessment report for the Hindu Kush Himalayas. Kathmandu: ICIMOD
- FAO (n.d.) Nepal at a glance.
- Xu, J; Grumbine, R; Shrestha, A; Eriksson, M; Yang, X et al. (2009) The melting Himalayas: cascading effects of climate change on water, biodiversity, and livelihoods. Conservation Biology 23: 520–530,
- B.R., Pandit, A. (2016). Classication of adaptation measures in criteria for evaluation: Case studies in the Gandaki River Basin. HI-AWARE Working Paper 6. Kathmandu: HI-AWARE
A version of this post was originally published on the Himalayas to Ocean blog.