We landed at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport in October 2013 full of expectations. Our knowledge of observed climate changes and projected impacts gleaned from years of academic study left our minds riddled with the technical jargon of what climate change meant in Nepal. We had high confidence that warm days and warm nights had very likely increased and were virtually certain that warmer and more frequent days and nights would have impacts on snow cover and water resources relying on snowmelt (SREX, IPCC AR4).
It took us about a month, 112 kilometres of walking at lung-stretching altitudes and numerous encounters with local communities to grasp the bigger picture of climate change in the Annapurna region, as we made our way through the Annapurna Circuit accompanied by Rohit Phuyal, our thirty-year-old, Everest-born mountain guide.
During his 12 years of experience, Rohit has witnessed striking changes in snow cover and snowmelt. Perched above the Gangapurna Lake, Rohit tells us that the Gangapurna Glacier, as it stands in front of us today, is only a fraction of what it used to be: according to him, the snow line has been receding by about 100 meters over the past decade, creating the mountain lake that stands below us. In fact, this dramatic change can be witnessed by simply looking at the photograph Swiss geologist Toni Hagen took in 1957 showing the Gangapurna Glacier extending into Manang valley, then free of any lake.
More generally, Rohit also explains that snow cover on high altitude treks is thinner and patchy, when once it was dense. As we tackled the challenging Thorong La Pass our guide, to our amazement, tells us that only a few years back our trek to be far more difficult (inconceivable to us at the time) due to the depth of the snow.
A few days later, having conquered the dreaded pass, we made our knee-busting descent to Muktinath where most trekkers find relief from the altitude-headaches in a glass of apple brandy and a slice of apple pie. “There didn’t use to be apple brandy at this altitude and I suggest you wait until we reach Marpha to have apple pie”, Rohit tells us. This is another notable impact of climate change on the high altitude regions of the Annapurna: fauna and flora species are found outside their usual altitudes due to increased temperatures.
Once back in Pokhara, the second largest town in Nepal, amongst the hordes of trekkers seeking to relax by the lake after their exhausting hikes, we meet Nar Bahadur Amgai Chetri, at the Headquarters of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP). There Nar, the Senior Conservation Officer, points out the findings of recent ACAP observation data: both Manang and Mustang districts, respectively on the windward and rain-shadow area of the mountain range, are experiencing changed and increased rainfall patterns. He also mentions altered snowfall patterns during November and December, which is usually the peak season for tourism due to the dry climate and clear skies. But nowadays, unusually heavy snowfall events are catching local farmers and tourists unawares causing serious safety issues.
Yet, when asked about public perceptions, Lalit Kumar Dangol, the project manager at the ACAP office in Manang, explains: “they differ according to the consequences that climate change has on people’s livelihoods”. After years of hearing about adverse climate change impacts, we are beginning to see an actual picture of positive and negative livelihood stories. “Higher temperatures and the expansion of cropland contribute to the mitigation of the food crisis in Nepal” explains Lalit.
“Apples, for example, were traditionally cultivated in Marpha (around altitudes of 2600m) but they can now be grown at higher altitudes”, which is why we could find them after our hike, in Muktinath. The same goes for certain types of cereals, such as maize, wheat and bajra (or pearl millet). Additionally, farmers now only rarely require greenhouses – or green tunnels as they call it – to grow vegetables.
Alongside these opportunities, however, climate change has brought considerable risks. Local communities have been forced to take adaptive measures in order to avoid the worst effects of climate-induced environmental changes. In Pokhara, Nar draws our attention to the increasing scarcity of water in natural springs throughout Upper Mustang. He explains that outside the monsoon season, this arid region relies on water from snowmelt, however with increased temperature and decreasing snow cover, more and more natural springs are deprived of water year-round. This has led to the migrations of entire villages: last year, 22 households in Dey and 14 households in Samjung (approximately 180 individuals) decided to abandon their homes to avoid walking for three hours to reach a water source.
In other parts of the Annapurna region, increased rainfall is forcing inhabitants to replace the traditionally flat mud roofs of their houses with pointy tin roofs in to prevent leaks. “Such necessities have serious socio-economic implications since they induce extra costs,” said Nar.
Changes in temperature are also affecting the habitats of fauna species forcing them to migrate to different altitudes. The habitat of Nepal’s emblematic animal, the snow leopard, is shrinking due to receding snow lines and snow cover. On the other hand, the common leopard is now adventuring in higher altitudes and becoming predating on wildlife and cattle it never used to encounter. Such shifts in wildlife populations require shepherds and farmers to take various adaptive measures such as using electric fences and pens.
So what can be drawn from our encounters? First and foremost it became abundantly clear that climate disruptions are already palpable in the Himalayan region and affecting local populations and economy. Secondly, the impacts of these environmental changes are not clear-cut; there will be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. Thirdly the Nepali people and government have begun to take action to tackle this issue, which putting the country at the forefront of community-based adaptation. It is clear that Nepal’s greatest resource for adaptation is its people. A common adage in Nepal is that “you come first for the landscapes, but you come back for the people”, and we will certainly come back: there is so much more to learn on the Roof of the World.
Margot Le Guen is a Senior Research Staff Assistant, Financial Instruments Sector Team at the International Research Institute for Climate & Society and is a member of the Acclimatise Contributor Network. She has studied at Columbia University and Sciences Po Paris. Previously Margot has worked with USAID, the OECD and co-founded the student-led think tank, CliMates. Passionate and dedicated to climate and energy issues at the international level, she is engaged in numerous research and community projects on these topics. Margot has been blogging for the Huffington Post since Rio +20 Earth Summit in June 2012.
Agathe Cavicchioli is a recent graduate from Columbia University and is a member of the Acclimatise Contributor Network. She has expertise in climate adaptation, sustainable planning, the intergovernmental climate process and international environmental law. Agathe has worked on climate change policy at the UNDP, the Red Cross Climate Centre and the Institute of Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI).