Nepal: warming in the high Himalaya

NepalOxfam climate change reports keep coming.  This time it’s Nepal, a country about which New Zealanders who share Edmund Hillary’s values will care.  Oxfam spoke to people in fourteen rural communities across three ecological zones in that country.  What those people had to say is remarkably consistent with the current climate change projections.  But it’s not because they know what those projections are.  These are mainly poor people, often not well educated, and unlikely to be aware of the IPCC reports. Here are a few of the statements:

“There has been no rain this winter, and the monsoon doesn’t arrive on time any more. Four or five years ago we grew enough rice and wheat to eat for five months, now it is not enough for one month. Before we had lots of green vegetables, fruits and sugarcane, but now we can grow very little, only where there is water close by.”

“I have been here in this village for 40 years. I remember during the rainy season the river used to come up to our stomach and it was a problem to walk across the tracks and fields because the mud would come up to your knees. For three months we couldn’t cross the river. Now there’s been so little rain recently, it (the river) only comes up to our knees even in the rainy season. We are worried about the amount of food we’re growing; we have to work so much harder to grow the same things…”

“We tried everything, but rely on rainfall. Our fields need timely and sufficient rainfall as we do not have irrigation. But rainfall is beyond our control. Especially in last three to four years, there is much less winter rain. Many families have kept their land fallow in winter and migrate to cities and India for work. Returns from wheat production are less for farmers.”

“When I was younger there was enough grain to eat. Since 11-12 years ago it has been reducing. The river used to flood our land in the monsoon, that’s not happening anymore. We are cultivating the same crops we used to: rice and wheat; but today there is far less yield.”

“Unpredictable but intense rainfall is creating flood havoc. When we are expecting rain there is not a drop but sudden intense rain floods the village. It is increasingly important to prepare ourselves for floods as responses are becoming much more difficult.”

Oxfam pulls out the salient points which emerged from all the statements gathered:

â–  Warmer, drier winters with declining snow and increasing rain resulting in reduced soil moisture content and reduced crop yields.

â–  More intense summer monsoon rainfall events resulting in increased occurrence of floods and landslides destroying land, crops and infrastructure.

â–  Increasingly unpredictable summer monsoon with early or delayed onset or periods of drought resulting in lost crops or decreased yields.

â–  Increasing hailstorms resulting in destroyed crops.

â–  Declining water sources requiring people to travel further to collect water for consumption, domestic use and for livestock.

â–  More intense cold waves in the Terai plains.

The main impacts identified include:

â–  Declining crop production resulting in increasing and widespread food insecurity.

â–  Drastic declines in water resources, resulting in reduced crop yields but also increased workload for women and girls to collect water for daily use. Importantly people are also reported to be compromising their health by being forced to utilise unprotected sources.

The report comments that Nepal appears to offer a particularly stark case of a country where climate change is happening, and along the lines expected. Scientists and experts have documented and predicted that continuing rising annual average temperatures are exacerbated at higher altitudes. One consequence is glacial retreat across the Himalayas, which already poses increased risk of glacial lake outburst floods and more importantly forecasts a grim outlook for the millions of Nepalis and hundreds of millions of inhabitants of the major Asian river systems that rely on the seasonal melt-off of the Himalayan glaciers for much of their flows.

The report frequently moves from current observation to future prediction, which is a perfectly justified step when what is being observed today is in line with the direction of the predictions.  Indeed the reports from villagers help to fill in the detail of the broad picture provided by the climate science.

Oxfam acknowledges that there are inherent difficulties in attributing particular impacts to climate change. Nepal is a country with many existing vulerabilities to climatic extremes, as the denialists will no doubt be quick to point out. But climate change brings a magnification of these vulnerabilities, the full extent of which could only be demonstrated conclusively by years of recording.  If we wait for that we will have waited far too long.  I applaud Oxfam’s refusal to wait. They have strong ground for their claim that climate change is already under way, exacerbating poverty and inequality. They are right to point out the injustice that countries like Nepal are suffering the consequences of a situation that they have the least resources to cope with and bear little responsibility for creating.

Oxfam’s mission is more than to point out what climate change is doing.  It has to be concerned with helping poor communities adapt to the changes that are upon them. Some in Nepal are already attempting that. The report stresses what more urgently needs to be done by the Nepalese government and NGOs to support adaptation efforts. It would be nice to think the New Zealand government might add to its current level of aid to Nepal a permanent additional chunk in recognition that poverty reduction has got a whole lot harder when climate change is added to the mix.  One might say we large emitters of greenhouse gases owe it to them.

Hot Topic posts on earlier Oxfam reports can be found here (the Pacific) and here (the developing countries generally) .

Update: I’ve made reference to some similar work in Nepal by a Nepalese Agency in the comment thread that follows – comment no. 35

37 thoughts on “Nepal: warming in the high Himalaya”

  1. These sorts of reports based on anecdotal evidence have less value than the paper they’re written on. Those doing the survey have their own agenda’s, and the locals are always happy to tell their guests whatever their guests want to hear, there’s a legion of stories about anthropologists being lead along the garden path by the supposedly unsophisticated locals.

  2. Andrew, are you saying all these stories are made up by the Nepalese to please the Oxfam interviewers? That the Oxfam interviewers are eliciting stories to fit their pre-determined agenda? Anecdotal evidence is always risky but it would be a very cynical view of Oxfam to suggest that they were either manipulating the interviewees or too naive to know when they are being hoodwinked. I have more respect for Oxfam’s integrity than that. Who else is going to make us hear the voice of the poor who are taking the brunt of the early effects of climate change?

  3. I’m not suggesting that the Oxfam interviewers are being deliberately deceptive or that the Nepalese are in any organised way trying to mislead, and it maybe that there are procedures in place that give the results some value. But what they seem to be doing is going to give results as reliable as asking a bunch of fishermen about the largest fish they ever caught.

    “Who else is going to make us hear the voice of the poor who are taking the brunt of the early effects of climate change?”
    That’s exactly the attitude that leads to tall stories, you’re sure the Oxfam interviewers don’t feel that they have a responsibility to “make us hear the voice of the poor taking the brunt of the early effects of climate change”?

  4. I would think they do feel such a responsibility, and I’m happy they do. I trust them not to exaggerate, and in fact I think the reports are restrained. It is obviously difficult, as they acknowledge, to distinguish climate change effects from other aspects of poverty, but climate change is real and it is almost certainly bound to affect populations in the ways that the stories indicate. You can argue that the stories are suspect because they fit the predictions, or you can find them believable, as I do, for the same reason.

    And I can assure you that my story of the largest fish I ever caught was completely reliable, at least until the memory became dimmed by the passage of time and I stopped telling it.

  5. Andrew I missed your second thought until after I’d replied to your previous comment. I agree entirely that population growth in poor countries doesn’t help matters, though it is expected to decline as populations are lifted out of poverty. I don’t think it helps matters in rich countries either – the US population is expanding rapidly. But climate change is still an extra.

  6. There is no surprise in glacial retreat in the himalayas, I was a little surprised about such a fuss over the dangers of what are very small lakes.
    This abstract suggests to me that the degree of climate change experienced in Nepal is being exaggerated:

    http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/114194262/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0

    My perception is that Hot Topic is increasingly looking for high impact stories to push a political agenda, rather than (as I think it used to) supplying its readers with good science based information.

    1. Difficult to gainsay your “perception”, Andrew, but you need to distinguish between the posts that deal with policy, especially in NZ, where you might fairly detect a degree of frustration with the state of play, and those that cover science/technology developments. In the middle, there are things like the Oxfam series of reports, which are (in my judgement) well worth covering. You can (and do) apply your own filter to those…

      The only agenda I’m pushing is the need for urgent action, on a national and global level. You could define that as political, I suppose, but I’d prefer to call it advocacy. The real politics, as always, lies in deciding what we do to address the problem, not in the nature or extent of the problem itself.

  7. Who needs gods when you have “climate change” as an all-encompassing, non-refutable explanatory variable for all phenomena?

    How long would an Oxfam missionary stay in his job unless he did find signs of “climate change” everywhere.

    1. Who needs Science when you have “climate skepticism” as an all-encompassing, non-refutable refutation mechanism for all scientific models of natural phenomena?

      How long would a Climate Skeptic keep arguing unless he kept finding signs of “climate skepticism” everywhere.

  8. Steve, Oxfam is a good deal more considered and discriminating in its reference to climate change than you are. Your missionary sneers are cheap and show a lamentable ignorance of the quality of Oxfam’s personnel.

  9. Sam’s got a good point about climate scepticism. I wrestled with it a while back, until I realised the deliberateness of turning climate change science into a “belief system”. Once the ground shifts to “belief” everyone’s entitled to a view…

    1. Yup, that’s exactly what R2D2 was arguing on the “A little bad marketing for the weekend… ” thread the other day – that everyone is entitled to a point of view on whether AGW is real or not.

      Which is bullshit. Only the science can tell us whether AGW is real or not, and the science is unequivocal that it is in fact real.

      Given that basic fact, people – including politicians – are free to have a point of view about what to do about AGW.

      1. “that’s exactly what R2D2 was arguing ..-that everyone is entitled to a point of view on whether AGW is real or not.”

        Sorry I didn’t realise this was unorthodox. Are you saying I shouldn’t have a point of view?

        “Only the science can tell us whether AGW is real or not, and the science is unequivocal that it is in fact real.”

        And the science is unequivocal cause the IPCC says it is?

        Sorry, it is not in my nature to just simply accept what someone is telling me. I have been raised/born to ask questions, be curious, and always seek more information.

        If I am go to the doctor and I am not 100% comfortable with his advice I will do my own research: what are the side effects of that drug? What are the symptoms of that illness he suspects?

        Once I am armed with more information I will seek a second opinion. I will then do more research, until I am happy.

        I will do the same thing if I am buying a house, buying stock, or investing in a business.

        You see, experts almost never agree, so they are not all right, even if they are experts. We are forced to think for ourselves – which is good thing.

        It is natural for me to act in this way, to be curious, it is who we are.

        I’m sorry you have lost this curiosity.

        1. I am curious, actually. I am curious as to why you won’t accept the evidence in front of your eyes. We have presented copious amounts of evidence of what is happening, and you refuse to listen. You refuse to accept any evidence that contradicts what you have already decided.

          I feel sorry for you, in a small way. Sorry, because when you wake up to what is actually going on, it is going to be a big shock.

          If you really had been asking questions, and seeking out information, you would have realised the truth long ago.

          But you aren’t. You are only seeking confirmation of what you already believe. Even information which is direct evidence of AGW, you choose to believe shows the contrary, because you just will not see.

          Personally, I would love to see some evidence that AGW is not happening, because I want my son to have a future. But all the evidence suggests otherwise, and the prevalence of people like yourself who simply will not accept the facts makes me realise that nothing will be done about AGW until it is too late. Saying “I told you so” to you is going to be small consolation when I have to tell my son that we screwed up his world.

          1. Oh, if I really did think for myself I would have accepted the evidence you gave me.

            I have made up my mind on this issue, I will admit that. But I looked deeply into both sides first. The main thing that turned me off AGW was all the half-truths and misrepresentations required, and the personal attacks against non-believers, but also the science is stronger on the other side.

            I have argued with you before on temperature histories, not going to go through it again – but will ask you this: Do you think the Mann splice,

            here:

            http://apolloalliance.org/digest/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/manns-hockey-stick.gif

            Is an accurate representation of history? I am really interested if you can actually say those words.

            Copy and paste this sentence and post it:

            “I believe the hockey stick represents global temperatures for the last 1000 years”

            1. No doubt you are going to come up with some oh-so-clever trap if I say those words, but here you go: I believe the hockey stick represents global temperatures for the last 1000 years.

              A better phrasing would be that I believe all the proxy evidence to date supports the view that the warming of the last 150 years is unprecedented within the context of (at least) the last 1000 years.

              You are the one who keeps using the word splice, which I presume you picked up at Climate Audit or somewhere of that ilk.

              Do you understand that the blue line in the graph is calibrated relative to the 1961-1990 average from the instrumental record? Do you understand that the red line is the instrumental record itself? Can you not see how the blue line and red line both start going upwards from 1850?

              It is just nonsense to talk of a “splice”.

  10. If “climate change” is not an unfalsifiable belief system, them please tell me: What observation would falsify the belief that the Nepalese are victims of it?

    How about increasing life expectancy and agricultural production during the supposed , post-1970s period of IPCC-discerned human-climate influence?

    1. “Climate change” is not a belief system, it’s an observation. As the denialists are fond of pointing out, the earth’s climate has changed many, many times over the last 4.5 billion years. It would be pretty silly for someone to say they did or didn’t “believe” in climate change.

      Perhaps you were trying to say that AGW is a belief system? Wrong again. There is no belief involved, just scientific evidence. There are three aspects to AGW. Disprove any one of those, and you would disprove AGW. I would be delighted if you could.

      1) Greenhouse theory. This has been around for over 100 years, and is backed up by empirical experiments. To disprove this, you would need to show either a) CO2 does not absorb IR radiation or b) that there is another way to explain the earth’s radiation budget in which CO2 does not matter. Good luck with that one.

      2) CO2 atmospheric concentration. If you can’t disprove 1) then perhaps you could show that either a) present day CO2 concentrations are unexceptional compared to the last 100,000 years or b) that the increase in CO2 over the last century is not anthropogenic. Again, good luck with that one.

      3) The temperature record. Prove to me that a) global temperatures have not been increasing over the last 150 years or b) that today’s global temperatures are unexceptional compared to the last 2000 years, and I will happily accept that AGW is not happening.

      Then of course there is the small matter of coming up with a convincing explanation for all of the corroborating evidence of warming – Arctic sea ice loss, glacier retreat, methane release in the Arctic, changes in seasonal weather patterns etc etc.

      A la Plimer, I demand that you document all assumptions and provide empirical evidence.

      Off you go, then. Shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes.

  11. I note with some satisfaction the discomfort caused by showing up the foundation of the “unbeleiver’s” arguements…
    Good to get back to discussing the science.

  12. The proposition on the table is that the people of Nepal are suffering from human-induced climate change. The only “evidence” that has been offered is “Oxfam spoke to people in fourteen rural communities across three ecological zones “.

    So asking people to reminisce about whether things have changed during their lives, in one of the world’s most geographically diverse countries, on the boundary between the Tibetan Plateau and the Indian Plain, which has always seen chaotic weather, and having such reminiscences filtered through an NGO with a vested interest in infantilising the 3rd world and selling western guilt is “evidence” is it?

        1. Pixies would have been a more credible answer.

          Have you heard the expression “better to keep your mouth closed and have everyone think you are an idiot, than to open your mouth and confirm it for them”?

          You don’t find it just a tiny bit ironic that you accuse the warmists of religious belief in AGW, and then you show the same religious belief in long-debunked theories like the LIA?

            1. Wow, you can’t even keep your story straight between two comments.

              So did the LIA end 150 years ago or 250 years ago? I’m confused.

            2. There is a difference between the beginning of glacial retreat and the end of the little ice age. I understand someone like yourself who sees climate history as limited to pre-industrial / post-industrial probably can not grasp this – so I have pointed it out for you 🙂

            3. Indeed there is a difference, as the graph you linked to earlier shows quite nicely.

              By the 1850s, the recovery from the LIA was pretty much complete. All the warming since then has been due to CO2. Thanks for pointing that out, R2.

            4. “All the warming since then has been due to CO2”

              Do you have scientific evidence that all natural climate variation stopped in 1850? Or are you just repeating crap without really thinking?

            5. I was being facetious, R2.

              CO2 forcing has been the dominant factor in the climate variation of the last century, vastly more so than “natural” forcings. So while it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that “all of the warming since then has been due to CO2”, it’s not far from the mark.

              But there is not much point in telling you this, as you yourself have admitted that you are not prepared to listen to the evidence.

    1. Fair point, but you started with:

      “Who needs gods when you have “climate change” as an all-encompassing, non-refutable explanatory variable for all phenomena?”

      We’ve wandered from the original postulation.

  13. I thought it worth drawing attention to this Guardian article. It’s an interview with Dipak Gyawali, the research director of the Nepal Water Conservation Foundation, and of interest here because of the similarity of the methods used to those reported by Oxfam. It’s not long and worth reading, but I’ve put a few extracts here of particular relevance to the question of the value of anecdotal information.

    ” We did local consultations from every part of Nepal, bringing farmers together to ask what they are experiencing as a result of climate change. Many of them cannot relate what they are experiencing to carbon dioxide emissions, and one problem is that over a large part of the region there is no difference between the word for climate and the word for weather. But when we asked them what is happening to their agriculture, we discovered a whole series of impacts.”

    “The remote sensing and the satellites give us the eagle-eye view, which is essential but not enough. In a country as diverse geographically and socially as Nepal – there are more than 90 languages and 103 caste and ethnic groups – the eagle-eye view needs to be complemented by the view from the ground, what I call ‘toad’s-eye’ science.”

    “High science needs to come down off its high horse and meet up with civic science and traditional knowledge, in order to understand what is happening, so that national governments can also plan.”

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