Climate Change | Climate Urgency | Climate Finance | Climate Disaster

Disasters loom large in Nepal as the planet overheats. Yet it cares less?

The recent IPCC Report 2021 and the intensifying climate events alarm a terrifying bell that we are beyond reversals now while further intense effects loom large. Nepal, which is systemically vulnerable to climate disasters, yet, conspicuously less bothered despite the in-house urgency and global clamor, must get ready quickly.

- By Sabin Jung Pande |

Photo by NOAA on Unsplash
Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

If the mounting scientific evidence and recent surge in climate events worldwide are precursor to anything, it has to be the fact that more pronounced disasters are coming for the planet and humankind.

The earth system has exceeded the critical juncture now. The Hindu Kush Himalayas, South Asia’s prominent freshwater resource, are disappearing. So are the Andes range, and the Greenland, and West Antarctic ice sheets. The Amazonian ecosystem of the Amazon rainforest, the largest tropical rainforest in the world, is choking under its own carbon emission exacerbated by global warming and wildfires in a feedback loop. The warm-water coral reef ecosystems are also rapidly declining, driven by rising sea surface temperature and overexploitation. 

Inevitably, there has been a staggering surge in intense climate-related disasters in recent years as observed by climate scientists. 

Climate disasters strike worldwide
The period of 2014 to 2017 marked a period of great distress for the natives of Central America’s Dry Corridor - a tropical dry forest region. A prolonged drought exacerbated by El Niño (an unusual warming of sea surface temperature in eastern Pacific Ocean) resulted in food emergency and human crisis in many parts of the region, in particular Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The parched earth in the corridor drove considerable exodus towards the US

In 2019, South American countries - Paraguay, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil - experienced torrential rainfall triggering floods and landslides. Earlier, countries of South America, mainly Peru, faced persistent rainfall between 2016 and 2017 causing devastating floods and mudslides, which was preceded by Pacific Ocean warming along the South American coast (Coastal El Niño event) from 2014 to 2016.

In late 2019, Australia saw one of its deadliest wildfires that scorched its earth for months (photos here). It is estimated the wildfire killed or affected nearly 3 billion animals. In June 2021, heat waves in Canada killed over 500 people with temperature soaring up to record 49.6C, while heavy rainfall induced floods devastated many parts of Europe killing over 175 in Germany alone and over 40 in Belgium in July – three wealthiest countries of the west.

The same month China’s Zhengzhou experienced extreme rainfall killing at least 33 people. Zhengzhou is home to one of the largest assembly plants for iPhones (the plant was not impacted). According to the UN Climate Change (UNCC), Zhengzhou received the highest daily rainfall since the weather record began, the single day precipitation equaling eight months of rainfall. 

As we write this, Turkey is overwhelmed with flash floods with the death toll reaching over 80 while Greece is burning with raging wildfires. 

Scientists have been able to link many more deadly disasters across the globe, intense than ever, with climate change.

The IPCC 2021 says climate change inevitable and irreversible
Now, the new (sixth) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has come out with some stark warnings about global warming and the planet.

Described as “code red for humanity” by António Guterres, the UN secretary general, the report asserts that we’ve likely missed the bus at keeping global warming below 1.5 degree Celsius and that 2 degree Celsius remains very possible within the next two decades unleashing widespread extreme weather events and devastation in forms of heavy downpour and intense floods, heat waves and hurricanes and prolonged drought.  

The 3,949 page report, contributed by 234 climate scientists, attributes the unprecedented change in climate that has occurred in thousands or hundreds of thousands of years to anthropogenic (human) activities and clearly warns that some of the climatic change effects are inevitable and irreversible now. 

Source: IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Referring to the report, Guterres further commented, “It must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet.”

IPCC’s previous report, the fifth one, came out in the year 2014, but it was since the late eighties, when its first report came out, that the IPCC has been warning about the catastrophic potential of global warming. 

Nepal awaits hazardous climate blows
Nepal is one of the systemically vulnerable countries to disasters. Between 2000 and 2019, Nepal was one of the most affected by climate change, says German Watch’s 2021 Global Climate Risk Index, ranking in the top 10 with Puerto Rico, Myanmar, Haiti, the Philippines, Mozambique, the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Thailand.

From disaster risk reduction, preparedness and management including humanitarian works, to post-disaster rebuilding and recovery, things have been evidently shoddy at all fronts in Nepal, which is attributable to a number of its socio-political and economic conditions. 

Earlier, despite scientific red flags and predictions that a deadly earthquake is inevitable, Nepal failed to gear up before the devastating 2015 earthquake struck. It lost thousands of lives, many parts were reduced to dust and poverty rose substantially. Economic recovery, and reconstruction and rebuilding thereafter have been snail-paced, while the current pandemic has further worsened its economy. 

In between, there have been many other disasters - as climate change or not – Nepal has been a hotspot for natural hazards, which further compounds its existing socio-economic problems. 

Just a few months back, the ill-fated disaster-prone hilly region of Sindhupalchowk experienced another setback when flood and debris flow at Melamchi River wrecked everything on its way and beyond. What’s worse, the disaster has spoiled one of the long awaited projects – Melamchi Drinking Water Project, which spent more than 20 years in the making. Besides, billions of investment and a generation and millions of hopes hang in thin air now. Among many other factors, experts have traced the disaster's root to global warming too.

At the Terai region, Nepal faces floods every monsoon with the unruly Himalayan waters crashing to the parts of India and Bangladesh too, affecting millions of lives. With erratic monsoon patterns and intensity now, the region must brace itself for future calamities such as floods and droughts and subsequent poverty, hunger and disease. 

All these calamities pose great risks to Nepal’s economic frontiers such as hydropower infrastructures, tourism industry and agriculture sector.

Source: IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C | Confidence level for transition: L=Low; M=Medium; H=High; VH=Very High

Now, with the floodgates open, Nepal is at the threshold of facing more pronounced disasters and crises. Assuming if only the mountains show further acceleration in melting than the existing level which is already at frightening level, it will take no time to destabilize the entire mountain ecosystem, the reliant communities, their livelihood and way of life, the connected tourism industry and the rivers downstream - all those enormous loss of biodiversity, natural heritage, lives, culture and wealth for what Nepal has little to do with. 

Photo by Callum Shaw (@callumshaw) on Unsplash

Historically, Nepal’s carbon footprint has been minuscule with less than one percentage in the global share of fossil fuel CO2 emissions. The share of four countries alone - China, US, India and Russia - in the fossil fuel emission in 2018 was over 50 percent (55.1%) while EU (including the UK) accounted for additional 9.1%. Another study, in 2017, has linked a mere 100 active fossil fuel producers – firms such as ExxonMobil, Shell, Aramco, BHP, Billiton, CNPC and Gazprom - with 71% industrial GHG emissions since 1988.

What must change?
Firstly, it is absolutely ridiculous climate change and the looming crisis has failed to stir up Nepal’s political leadership who are yet to spare a word to the public on the dire IPCC report. The topic, which also encompasses national security concerns, has hardly made its way into parliamentary business. Out of touch of world and ground realities but immensely invested into their own selfish political bubble and squabble, there is little hope from Nepal’s political leadership in owning and leading the discourse, and combating climate change.

A sign made by kids for climate strike at the Helsinki Parliament in April 2019 | Photo by: Tania Malréchauffé / Unsplash

Second, Nepal is yet to see homegrown youth, civil and grass root climate movement of sort that has emerged and succeeded elsewhere. Thanks to many influential international movements, campaigns and activism efforts, climate awareness and urgency have increased considerably today, which is one of the missing links in Nepal’s fight. Considering the insensitivity and apathy that’s going around, change makers should look out for fresh and impactful campaigns that can crack the bubble of inaction here and pierce the deaf ears of international partners. 

Third, Nepal has failed to show spine and initiative at international tables. Nepal is one of the front liners who stand on the brink now. Yet the planners, policymakers and bureaucrats lack concern and courage to question the rich and industrialized and hold them accountable.

The Nepal government did put on a show conducting a cabinet meeting at Kala Patthar (Everest region) back in 2009 ahead of Copanhagen climate summit, imitating the Maldivian government’s under-the-ocean ministerial meeting, which only proved to be perfunctory. It took another 11 years for the government to plan something effortless as Sagarmatha Sambad (Everest Dialogue, planned for 2020), a biennial global dialogue forum, but unfolding of the pandemic led to the postponement of the event. The event now hangs in limbo. 

Good for Nepal, its South Asian partner Maldives, the beautiful coral island that faces existential threat from the rising sea level, was once exceedingly inventive. 

First, Maldives united the vulnerable countries to form Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) that led to the formation of V20 (a group of Climate Change Vulnerable Countries represented by their respective finance ministers), and then the under-the-ocean act to alarm the world. The same year, as a demonstration of global leadership, the country vowed to become the first carbon-neutral country by 2020. The ambitious plan was later rolled back by its succeeding governments while the climate debate that Maldives initiated so impressively has lost its steam now.

The V20 countries now look into colossal future losses. Collectively, they face exponential rise in number of deaths by 2030 which stand at an average of more than 50,000 annual deaths, annual losses of at least 2.5 percent of their GDP potential, and an estimated $45 billion since 2010 which is expected to swell to $400 billion over the next 20 years, says their official communiqué released in 2015.

Nepal together with other systemically vulnerable countries must unite stronger, amplify their voices and exert stronger international pressure than ever – seek accountability, demand acceleration of decarbonisation and press for fulfillment of climate financing commitments from the rich and industrialised countries who are clearly the guilty here. Instead, rich country leaders are busy with junket missions dictating policies for the rest of the world while getting away with inaction. 

Forget emission cuts, the rich are yet to deliver on the annual 100 billion dollar investment pledge to developing countries for mitigation and adaptation, a promise they made a decade ago during the Cancun climate summit. On the other hand, rich countries and development partners are over-reporting climate adaptation finance, a study says, with financing related to Nepal’s post-earthquake housing reconstruction by the World Bank also clubbed under it. 

It’s a grim reality the front liners don’t stand a chance if the business-as-usual is allowed to continue with all talks, no emission cuts and no finance. For the countries in distress like Nepal, there’s probably no next time to take departure from their current subservient and incompetent diplomacy and wait forever to call spade a spade.

Nepal has to pull its act together on its own too
First, it needs to deeply reflect on its development model, which is inefficient, unsustainable, unequal and directionless. 

Second, it must prioritise and make bold, wise and substantial investments to reverse the environmental bads it has done so far. Haphazard and sprawling urbanisation, utter degradation of rivers and critical resources as land and forest, self-destructive development constructions and public transportation mess are self-inflicted wrongs, and need correction on one’s own initiative.   

Third, it must create effective policy frameworks that simplifies processes and allows for transparent climate investments, and guarantee projects are sustainable, and corruption-free. The international partners must also draw a clear line where their money goes (some areas need to be left alone for one’s own initiative); seek accountability for every penny they invest, and press for sustainable development goals with reasonable ultimatums. 

Fourth, Nepal must URGENTLY reform and reinforce its disaster planning, management and response. A bad storm is, perhaps, not too far away.

Sabin Jung Pande is the editor at the_farsight.

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