Nepal: Communities Struggle as Climate Impacts Threaten Public Well-Being and Livelihoods

Tsering Ghale, a local from Aamachhodingmo Rural Municipality-4 of Rasuwa district, goes to see the paddy seedbed every day. But he returns home in frustration, as the seedlings are drying up due to lack of rainfall.

As it has not rained in the district for around five months, the production of Himalayan barley, lentils and potatoes — the only source of food and cash income for his six-member family — has been hit.

“I am worried about what to feed my family,” said a concerned Ghale, who is the family’s sole breadwinner. “If there is no timely rainfall, neither will there be rice seedlings nor will there be rice farming.”

Lack of rainfall for about six months during and after the winter season, dry spells and extended rainfall in monsoons, snowfall in the Kathmandu Valley in April, growing wildfire incidents that are increasing in size, ferocity and speed, and dry landslides are among the weather events Nepal witnessed this year. And such extreme events have become more frequent and pronounced over the past several years.

“We don’t need further proof to say that the effects of climate change affect multiple sectors — environment, health, ecology, agriculture, forest and hydropower,” said Dr. Meghnath Dhimal, chief researcher at Nepal Health Research Council. “In our country, poor people have been bearing the brunt of the direct impact of climate change.”

Like Ghale, vulnerable groups — the poor, women and children — across the country have been affected by the direct and indirect impacts of climate change. Lack of snowfall during winter in the mountainous regions not only affected the production of agricultural goods but also hit tourism and hydropower industries, and also caused a drinking water crisis in many parts of the country.

“We reared sheep in the past, but due to shrinking pasture and water crisis, we gave up the occupation,” said Ghale. “If the erratic weather pattern continues, I will have no choice but to go abroad again.”

Health impacts of climate change

Among several impacts of the climate crisis on public health, the most visible is the rise in vector-borne diseases. Of the 520 dengue cases recorded so far this year, around 200 were reported from Darchula, a mountain district in far-western Nepal. Last year, dengue cases were recorded in all 77 districts of the country and at least 88 people died, while more than 54,000 were infected.

“Earlier, post-monsoon was considered the dengue season, but the deadly disease has become endemic now,” said Dhimal. “We have been witnessing dengue infections around the country. The window of the dengue season has been extended.”

“Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” a United Nations report, stated that at least six major vector-borne diseases affected by climate drivers have emerged in Nepal and are now considered endemic, with climate change identified as the primary driver.

The report also showed increasing evidence that climate warming has extended the elevational distribution of Anopheles, Culex and Aedes mosquito vectors above 2,000 meters in Nepal.

“Host animals in novel areas may be immunologically naive, therefore more vulnerable to severe illnesses,” the report stated.

Vector-borne diseases, or VBDs, are spread by carriers like mosquitoes, sandflies, kissing bugs and ticks. The report said that viruses like dengue, chikungunya and Japanese encephalitis are emerging in Nepal in the hilly and mountainous areas.

More forest fires

This year, Nepal witnessed massive forest fire incidents, which not only worsened air quality but also increased the number of patients with respiratory ailments at hospitals.

“This year, we witnessed the peak fire season earlier than usual,” said Sundar Sharma, an undersecretary at the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority who is also an expert on forest fires. “The fierce forest fires not only destroyed our forests, but also ecology and wildlife. They also increase the risk of landslides during monsoons.”

The IQAir, a Swiss group that collects air-quality data from around the world, ranked Kathmandu as the most polluted city in the world — with smoke and haze covering the valley, a few weeks ago.

Dry spell and extended monsoons

Last monsoon season, many areas of the midwestern region witnessed a dry spell.

Like most farmers in Nepal, those in Narayanpur Rural Municipality of Banke district depend heavily on rainfall for agriculture given the lack of an irrigation system. And, the water use is excessive in rice cultivation. An extended dry spell in the area brutally cracked large swathes of agricultural land, wilting the crops.

There was heavy rainfall in the harvest season (post-monsoon) that damaged the ready-to-harvest crops.

“There was a similar pattern in 2021 too,” said Dr. Indira Kandel, a senior divisional meteorologist at the Climate Analysis Section under the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology. “This type of weather — low rainfall during mid-monsoon and heavy rainfall at the time of harvesting — has become a regular pattern over the past few years.”

The U.N. 2022 report also stated that there is a good deal of evidence that springs are drying up or yielding less discharge, threatening local communities who depend on spring water for their lives and livelihoods.

Internal and external migration

Last year, hundreds of locals from Narayanpur, which witnessed dry spells during monsoon and heavy rainfall in the harvest season, were forced to go to India in search of livelihood opportunities. Flash floods in the Koshi Basin caused by short-duration extreme rainfall following a dry spell displaced hundreds.

Many people in hilly and mountain districts gave up animal husbandry and migrated elsewhere, due to the drying up of mountain springs.

“We have to wait for hours to get drinking water at public taps, as two springs the village relied on for potable water have gone dry,” said Ghale, a 45-year-old father of four. “I am not interested in going abroad again, but have no option. I have the responsibility of the family.”

Ghale worked at a U.S. Army base in Iraq, twice, in the past — from 2008 to 2014 and from 2018 to 2020.

What do experts say?

Experts say there is no need for further debate if climate change is indeed responsible for the growing problems being witnessed across multiple sectors. They say that the country is extremely vulnerable to climate change and has been experiencing changes in temperature and precipitation.

“We have been paying a huge price for climate change,” said Dhimal. “Even if we cannot stop climate change, we can cooperate and coordinate to cut its impact. The impact is more severe than we think.”