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Climate Change Threatens Food Security in Western Nepal, Say Advocates

Extreme drought stresses one of country's most food insecure regions

Tashi Lama, a 52 year-old farmer, seemed unimpressed by my questions about the effect of jalvauparivartan — climate change in Nepali — in his village in the mountains of mid-west Nepal. “I don’t know about jalvauparivartan, but you should have come a few months earlier to see the worst effect of the drought,” he said, referring to what the national government has called the country’s worst drought in at least 30 years. “What’s the point now?” Lama, along with many residents of the Karnali region in western Nepal, has struggled to cope with longterm food insecurity, exacerbated recently by the lack of precipitation.

photo of Bajura District, NepalPhoto by Possible, Flickr A woman rests above along a ridge overlooking terraced fields in western Nepal's Bajura district, which has been experiencing drought since 2015. Migration from Bajura has increased more than 30 percent since the drought began.

The districts of Humla, Jumla, Mugu, Dolpo, and Kalikot in Nepal’s mid-West region, and Bajhang and Bajura in the far-West, regularly face drought and famine, and have been food insecure for more than three decades. The region also struggles with lack of education and child malnutrition. Humla’s Human Development rating was the worst in the country in the United Nations Development Programme’s 2014 Human Development Report. Other neighbouring districts are not far off. 

Some advocates and locals think climate change may be making food insecurity worse, but climate data on the region is hard to come by. A 2016 study from the Karnali region, which looks at precipitation data from 27 monitoring stations between 1981 to 2012, is one of the only regional climate studies, and provides rare insight into the region’s changing climate, showing declining average rainfall and snowfall, along with rising temperatures. Specifically, the researchers found a 10 percent decline in average precipitation since the early ‘80s. Also in decline are the number of rainy days in the region: Karnali has lost, on average, one rainy day per year in the already dry mountain region, and three days per decade in the plains and hills. Rainfall intensity, however, is increasing, which increases risks of flooding.

The study also found that maximum, minimum, and average temperatures in the region have been rising. The maximum temperature has increased at a rate of 0.05°C per year, while the minimum temperature has increased at 0.01°C per year.

Some climate-scientists have suggested that precipitation patterns in much of South Asia, including western Nepal, are also being impacted by short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), particularly black carbon — a major component of soot — and ground level ozone, which are transported from polluted South Asian cities and distributed throughout the Himalayan region. A 2011 report by the United Nations Environment Programme and World Meteorological Organisation states that SLCPs absorb solar radiation, warming the air over the South Asian landmass at a faster rate, which in turn sucks more moisture to the region, causing the early monsoon to intensify and disrupting traditional rainfall patterns. The report concluded that disturbed rainfall would affect the livelihoods of millions of people. (Research also indicates that black carbon can interfere with solar radiation, which in turn can decrease crop yields.)

Declining rainfall and drought have people in the region increasingly worried about agricultural production and food security. In Nalla village, Humla, for instance, Kali Das Shahi, a local farmer, is worried that the new village canal, which provides water for irrigation and drinking, will be of no use if the source stream continues to shrink each year. “Water in this stream has been decreasing for the last few years, but since the drought it has become worse,” Shahi says. “This stream is life source of the village.”

The most recent failure of summer crops like paddy, maize, and millet, and winter crops such as wheat and barley, this past year meant that many have given up and are migrating from the area. Since the drought began in 2015, migration from the region increased by 20 percent in Humla, and jumped by more than 30 percent in Bajura.

The government has struggled to address the situation in large part because the region is difficult to access — Humla and Mugu, for instance, have no motorable roads. State officials, civil society actors, scientists, and journalists all spend little time in the region due to its inaccessibility; as a result, voices from this marginalized region infrequently reach Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital and administrative center.

While the government struggles to put adaptation efforts in place, a number of international NGOs working in western Nepal have scaled down or altered their climate change adaptation programs in recent years. Dinesh Ghimire, district climate change officer with the Nepal Climate Change Support Programme in Simikot, Humla, says that NGOs operating in Karnali tend to include climate change as a supplementary component to their work on other issues like food security and hygiene.

Kabi Raj Khatiwada, an independent researcher, who is the lead author of the 2016 study  about climate change in Karnali cited above, says many scientists focus their work elsewhere, too: “Most researchers prefer to go to Eastern Nepal, which is more accessible and which allows for more eye catching headlines because you have more glacier lakes and of course Mount Everest is in the area.”

One of the few programs in the pipeline to help the region cope with climate change is the World Food Program’s comprehensively titled “Adapting to climate induced threats to food production and food security in the Karnali Region of Nepal” project. Though data on climate change in western Nepal is relatively scarce, the proposal “was prepared with a strong confidence that the impact of climate change was severe in … Karnali, which is the most food insecure region in Nepal,” Seethasma Thapa, WFP Nepal’s public information officer, said in an email.

A major component of this $9 million project is to build “local capacity to identify climate risks and design adaptive strategies.” Unfortunately, implementation of the project was delayed by Nepal’s large 2015 earthquake, and a memorandum of understanding between WFP and the government remains unsigned.

Mina Nath Paudel, principal scientist at the National Agriculture Genetic Resource Center, however is confident that Karnali can beat the odds by increasing use of native plant varieties that are well adapted to the region. Paudel’s organization works with the government to introduce native rice and maize seed varieties — two main staple crops in western Nepal — that require less water, as well as kaguno, barley, buckwheat, and beans that are more resistant to dry conditions. “The constant threat of drought, lack of irrigation, and weaking rainfall in the region has made this a necessity,” Paudel says.” We are always working to improve the lives of farmers in the region.”   

Back in Humla, Lama, who owns more than 15 ropani (or roughly two acres) of land, says even that is not enough to feed his family for six months: “I have to work in China to earn the deficit to provide for my family.” He adds, “Perhaps it’s now time to move out.”

This story was supported by the ICIMOD Atmosphere Initiative Story Grant Programme.

Slok Gyawali
Slok Gyawali is a Kathmandu-based journalist.

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