Now is the time to recognize that we are living in the midst of a climate crisis. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the past seven years have been the hottest on record. In 2021 alone – a year when the average global temperature reached more than 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels – record extreme weather events linked to climate change occurred around the world. Taking the form of severe floods, heat waves and droughts, these episodes claimed thousands of lives.
The recently released United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II report highlighted that many economic sectors are already affected by climate change, particularly with regard to water availability. One of the main highlights of the IPCC report is that adaptation becomes less effective with more warming. For example, water-related adaptation is reported to be most effective for a temperature change of up to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but the effectiveness of adaptation measures – such as changes in cropping patterns and cropping systems – will become low or negligible in scenarios where the average global temperature rises more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Unusual natural hazards
Many parts of Nepal have also recently experienced unusual natural hazards and disasters. The Melamchi disaster in June 2021, for example, involved a combination of extreme rainfall, landslides, flooding and sedimentation. Such compound extreme events can create cascading impacts in the mountains. The Melamchi disaster showed that such disasters can occur within a ‘system’, where one hazard can trigger another and the cumulative impact can be much greater than that of a single hazard. Going forward, the tightening grip of climate change on Nepal could signal that disasters like Melamchi are likely to become more frequent in the Nepalese Himalayas.
Beyond floods, Nepal is also highly vulnerable to drought. In recent years, drought has affected many sectors, especially the agricultural sector which is highly dependent on water. Farmers reported that winter crops are very sensitive to variations in winter rainfall. Given that winter and spring precipitation accounts for about 15 percent of annual precipitation, increased rainfall variability can have a significant impact on winter crop production.
One of the most visible impacts of these changes is that there has recently been less snowfall in high altitude areas. When snow does not stay long, soil moisture is not maintained for winter and spring crops. Climate change will exacerbate these drought conditions which, in turn, could trigger other socio-economic challenges, such as loss of agricultural productivity and rural-urban migration.
Despite high per capita water availability in Nepal, the country is yet to fully utilize its water resource potential to transform socio-economic development. One of the main challenges is that water resources are generally managed according to a sectoral approach rather than a holistic approach.
Sectoral silos can create unjustified barriers and difficulties in terms of optimal use of water resources for socio-economic development. Moreover, vulnerable groups, including women, children and marginalized communities, suffer the consequences of inefficient water management. Currently, the water needs of ecosystems are largely neglected, especially when water is used for other purposes in the upstream region.
Solutions at all scales
Nepal has yet to fully operationalize Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) as per the guidelines of Nepal Water Strategy 2002, National Water Plan 2005 and National Water Policy. water of 2021. The Bagmati River Basin Improvement Project is the first attempt to put the concept of IWRM into practice, as it includes a river basin organization with adequate capacity and a decision support system. Although IWRM can serve as a general guiding framework, we can also mobilize other water management approaches (depending on the local context), such as the water-energy-food-ecosystem nexus, integrated flood management and drought, nature-based solutions, improving water productivity and local water use master planning. These specific approaches may be better suited to address water management issues at multiple scales, from the farm level to the river basin level.
In Nepal’s new federal structure, local governments have the power and the role to deal with issues within their jurisdictions. The drying up of springs is a major concern at the local level. Fortunately, local governments can now take decisive action to rejuvenate draining springs and ponds by controlling human activities such as deforestation and uncontrolled construction of rural roads, and by conserving local water resources. Equally important is the restoration of abandoned local ponds, which can play a crucial role in replenishing rainwater and recharging local springs. Improved access to water resources for local communities, including marginalized communities and vulnerable groups, not only supports local livelihoods, but also helps reduce migration due to water scarcity.
Understanding the characteristics, quantity and trends related to available natural resources allows us to make more informed and evidence-based decisions. While we often brag about Nepal’s abundant water resources, the reality is that we cannot afford to average too much or too little water available at different times of the year. Instead, we need to figure out how to store and use the excess water from the monsoon season during the dry season. While man-made water storage facilities can help store excess water during rainy months, we should also consider natural storage options like groundwater, soil moisture, and wetlands. Nepal also needs reliable data and information so that this quantified information can be quickly and easily accessed at multiple scales. Continuous monitoring of natural resources can help us get a better idea of their condition and general health, and support sustainable management options.
Various organizations have piloted different approaches to address water issues at different scales across Nepal. In the future, solutions that have been tested and validated at a particular location must be extended to a similar ecological region, and a proof of concept must be developed. Only once these tested interventions are replicated in many places can the solutions serve a larger population through scaling up. But we have to be careful: rushing to reproduce the answers without first demonstrating a proof of concept can be short-sighted and counterproductive.
Nepal has a tremendous opportunity to utilize its natural resources and contribute to its overall socio-economic development. Given the challenges posed by climate change and other socio-economic changes, however, Nepal is more likely to achieve this transformation by considering the multiple benefits of the water, power, food and ecosystems in collaboration with multiple stakeholders at all scales.