a global community
HimalAndes Focused Conversation:
“Knowledge sharing around water management innovations in the Andes and the Himalayas”
Title: Innovations and challenges on water security and management across Nepal Himalayas in a changing climate
Case study from “The Great Himalaya Trail – My Climate Initiative”
Author: Paribesh Pradhan1
First, a brief overview on physical geography and demography of Nepal familiarizes the readers with the outline of the Nepal Himalayas. The available data on water security paints a picture of how the changing climate would impact irrigation systems, agro-processing mills, hydroelectricity plants and drinking water supply; and, therefore, have socio-economic consequences and bring more developmental challenges. However, despite such consequences and challenges, Nepal can still offer the World some of its good practices and local innovations. Two such innovative case studies on water management have been presented here, based upon the observation during the author’s project, ‘The Great Himalaya Trail – My Climate Initiative’.
Nepal – An Overview
Nepal nestles between India and China amidst the Himalayas. The geographic boundary of Nepal starts in the south as low as 70m above sea level in Kanchan Kalan. Within a horizontal distance of less than 200 km towards the north, it rises as high as 8848m at Mt. Everest (UNEP, 2001). Such dramatic difference in elevation makes Nepal a biodiversity hotspot and also an ethnic melting pot in the region. A variety of biomes including tropical savannas, subtropical and temperate broadleaf, coniferous forests and montane grasslands are closely knitted through biodiversity corridors within an area of 147,181 square kilometers of this country.
Given the area and the population demography of 26.5 million (NPHC, 2011), Nepal is also a highly cultural diverse country. From the southern flat plains in Terai to the sky piercing peaks of the Himalayas, Nepal is home to some 102 ethnic groups, speaking 92 languages and dialects (NPHC, 2011). While majority of these people are Hindus by religion, there are also Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Kirats and other religions practiced in the country. In Kathmandu valley, it is hard to miss the syncretism of Hinduism and Buddhism. While across the hills and the mountains, the landscape of Nepal is full of shrines of different faith and religion that lay in harmony with the nature and with each other. The Buddhists monasteries that murmur prayers of peace and tranquility high up in the Himalayas translate into a loud incantation of Sanskrit slokas in the temples on mid-hills and river valleys. As one approaches the floodplains of Terai, the mosques and churches begin to emerge as a recurring sight. All these variations and variability make Nepal a very diverse country in terms of physical geography, climatic zones, species habitat, culture, ethnicity, language and religion.
There are more than 6000 rivers in Nepal. Most of these rivers are glacier fed that flow to the southern plains of the Indian subcontinent from snow capped Himalayas. The water running through these rivers are used by people living in downstream communities for irrigation systems, agro-processing mills, hydroelectricity plans and supplying drinking water (Agrawala et al., 2003). However, Nepal does not have any financial means or any adequate infrastructures and management capabilities to efficiently harness this wealth of water resources it has. It is perhaps because of this reason that while 93% of Nepal’s labor force works in the agriculture sector, 63% of the agricultural lands are deprived of modern irrigation facilities (FAO 2004); while Nepal has the potential to develop 83 GW of hydropower, only 1% has been developed (MOF, 2005). Even more so, 91% of the total electricity in Nepal comes from hydropower plants (NEA, 2003). Drinking water supply is yet another irregular and unresolved problem for people living in both the urban cities as well as the rural villages for many decades now. These existing challenges are then further exacerbated by the global climate change.
Today, the scientific community can say with much more conviction than ever before that the world’s climate is changing and that the earth is getting warmer. For a country like Nepal, this would mean accelerated melting of glaciers and dramatic change in precipitation patterns that will have negative physical consequences in the agriculture and irrigation system, hydropower generation capability and water supply.
Firstly, the glaciers would melt drastically, increasing the availability of water in the beginning but ultimately reducing it once the glaciers disappear. This will widen the gap between water supply and demand and aggravate the water stress and vulnerability in Nepal. Secondly, the climate in Nepal is dominated by monsoon weather coming from the South. Although studies suggest that the annual numbers of rainy days are decreasing, every year, the monsoon wrecks havoc with the subsequent flood and landslides. The dry seasons also trigger droughts in absence of water (Chaulagain, 2007). While there is too much of water during monsoon season particularly in the eastern regions, the farmers are gripped with acute drought in the far western and some central region of Nepal due to too little water. This was evident during the Great Himalaya Trail (GHT) journey.
These physical uncertainty and changes would also bring socio-economic consequences and developmental challenges which cannot be ignored. Climate change will have pervasive impact that will penetrate every social fabric of rural communities whether it is on their livelihood, food security or the overall human security. The poor will be affected the most.
Nepal is divided into five development regions: the eastern, the central, the western, the mid-western, and the far-western. The amount of precipitation decreases as it moves from east to west of Nepal (UNEP, 2001). So, on an average, the far western region of Nepal receives less rain than the eastern region. While the western region gets sufficiently good rain, the mid-western and the far-western regions are mostly arid as they lay on rain shadows of the Annapurna mountain range beyond the Kali Gandaki river. These regions are therefore prone to economic water scarcity.
One of the most visible local innovations on water management that could be seen from the experience during ‘The Great Himalayan Trail – My Climate Initiative’ project was the use of improved traditional watermills. What is remarkable is the fact that even though there was an abundance of water in eastern region, more of these watermills could be seen in the mid-western and the far-western regions. People used these watermills to grind their grains such as corns, wheat and millets. Since most of these villages didn’t have reliable source of electricity, it was a sustainable and an effective means of alternative technology. According to an article published in Nepali Times, the transfer of this improved traditional watermill technology dates back to 2002 and before. It has been transferred to several countries like India (Ladakh), Bhutan and Sri Lanka. Some of these improved watermills even have the capability of generating electricity.
Second was the development of micro-hydropower plants mostly initiated by communities with the help of non-governmental organisations. Most of these micro-hydropower plants were developed around the Everest region and the Annapurna region. The reasons for this could presumably be the rich water resources that these regions have, and the market demand created by the growth from the booming tourism industry. Take the example of Junbesi village in Everest region which is on the path of the vintage Everest trail that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay took during their first summit to the Everest in 1953 A.D. Many tourists still take this trail to go to the Everest Base Camp. This village seemed to have managed its water resources very effectively to generate electricity and use it in their agricultural land. To conserve energy, many households in Junbesi as well as its neighboring villages were also using many practical alternative and renewable technologies. Picture I illustrates how water is being channeled to generate electricity in Junbesi village. Picture II shows how Junbesi and its neighboring villages have successfully installed parabolic solar cookers in their communities. These parabolic solar cookers have proven to be an energy efficient way to heat water in high altitudes of the Everest region. These technologies are promoted and distributed in rural areas of Nepal by various non-government organisations (NGOs) like Centre for Rural Technology and Alternative Energy Promotion Centre. There are also some private companies working in solar thermal energy like Lotus Energy Pvt. Ltd. which manufactures these technologies into the market.
It is perhaps because of the demand created from tourism and also the influence, many villages in Everest and Annapurna regions seem very receptive about using renewable and alternative technologies. However, this was not the case in the eastern, the mid-western and the far-western regions which receives less number of tourists.
While it is evident that Nepal is rich in water resources, much need to be done for sustainable use and management of this wealth to ensure its security. Alternative technologies like improved watermills and micro-hydropower plants are some of the good practices at the grassroots level but they are still insufficient to bring a paradigm shift in water management in Nepal. For this, on one hand: Nepal needs to address the knowledge gap by developing high skilled human resources, while on the other hand: it should create an environment to generate more public and private investment so as to introduce new technologies and innovations. One way to start in addressing this knowledge gap maybe to share experiences and learn from them. So it is important to have a channel for dialogue and cooperation that provides a platform for North-South knowledge sharing and technology transfer, not only between the developed and developing nations but also among developing nations and emerging economies. This e-forum could well pave the way forward for that kind of collaboration channel.
 ‘The Great Himalaya Trail (GHT) – My Climate Initiative’ was a project initiated in 2012 with financial support from the Global Programme Climate Change (GPCC), Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). The project entailed walking from east to west of Nepal, a distance of 1555 KM, in 98 days along the Great Himalaya Trail (GHT) to document communities’ perception of change and stories of sustainable adaptation practices, vulnerabilities and impacts of climate change.