Why integrated climate change adaptation is needed for Nepal

by Jagadish Kuikel (ELP 2016) | Livelihood Specialist, WWF-Nepal

Agriculture has always been the art of managing uncertainties and adapting to changing scenarios especially on the smallholder farms in Nepal. Nepal is a mountainous country characterized by steep slopes, deeply dissected by rivers and streams. Farming communities comprise a high percentage of low income households solely reliant on natural resources and agriculture for their livelihood.

The climate change problems, such as drought, forest fire, flooding, and landslide will be magnified in Nepal in coming years. In Nepal changes in monsoon patterns will greatly exacerbate the situation of unacceptable presence of poverty and inequalities of opportunities in the country. While many Nepalese people are coping autonomously to current stresses, an integrated approach must be adapted to climate change impacts to achieve economic and social progress in coming days. 

Climate diversity and impact

Nepal has very diverse climatic conditions even in small areas in globe, ranging from tropical in the south to alpine in the north.  The country has three distinct geographies - the snow covered mountains, the mid hills and the tarai. Its hydrology is fed largely by the South Asian monsoon system (SAM), but the relationship between the timing, volume of monsoon rainfall and the mountain landscape is poorly understood. The dramatic variation in altitude over a short distance has resulted in pronounced orographic effects, effects which severely limit our ability to explain precipitation dynamics in Nepal. Another complication is that the data set required to explain the processes is limited. Monitoring stations are few - just 280 across the entire country - and hydro-meteorological data has been collected only since the late 1960s. With such a lack of information, it is impossible to adequately capture the temporal and spatial dynamics of precipitation. As a result, modeling exercises for climate forecasting is one of the limitations in Nepal. 

The livelihoods of over one third of all Nepalis are based on agriculture and forest resources, and almost 65 percent of agriculture is rain-fed. Around 23% of Nepal's area is cultivable and the irrigable agriculture depends on the types of local surface sources, most likely to be affected by erratic rainfall. It is clear, then, that climate change has major implications for Nepal's ability to produce food for its population.

In 2009, a modeling exercise conducted by an expert team shows that the temperature will increase in the mid-hills and that this region is likely to grow more arid in the non-monsoon seasons. It also suggested that precipitation is likely to be more uncertain and that storm intensity will increase. The report on the exercise included these key insights (NCVST, 2009):

  • Global circulation model (GCM) projections indicate that the temperature over Nepal will increase between 0.5ºC and 2.0ºC with a multi-model mean of 1.4ºC, by the 2030s and between 3.0ºC and 6.3ºC, with a multi-model mean of 4.70C, by the 2090s. GCM outputs suggest that extremely hot days (the hottest 5% of days in the period from 1970 to 1999) are projected to increase by up to 55% by the 2060s and up to 70% by the 2090s.
  • GCM outputs suggest that extremely hot nights (the hottest 5% of nights in the period from 1970 to 1999) are projected to increase by up to 77% by the 2060s and 93% by the 2090s.
  • GCMs project a wide range of precipitation changes, especially during the monsoon: from a decrease of 14% to an increase of 40% by the 2030s and from a decrease of 52% to an increase of 135% by the 2090s.

On the ground in Nepal, perceptions of farmers suggest that precipitation is growing more erratic, days are becoming hotter, the pattern of winds, fog and hailstorms have altered and that farmers are becoming more vulnerable. Nepal's National Adaptation Plan of Action (NAPA) prepared in 2010 also recognizes that climate will be uncertain and vulnerability will increase.

Most discussion focused on slow-onset disasters such as drought, whose results, in the form of water and food shortages and livelihoods lost, can take months or sometimes years to become evident. Rising temperatures, forest fires, regional sedimentation and accelerated melting of snow and glaciers can also result in slow-onset disasters whose cumulative impact may not be felt for decades although they may contribute to an increase in rapid-onset events such as flash floods. In Nepal, flood, landslide, drought and forest fire are common rapid-onset effect by climate change.

Flooding, Drought and Forest fire

Floods and landslide during the monsoon are a natural phenomenon in Nepal. The country's more than 6,000 rivers and rivulets, with a total of 45,000 km in length, support irrigated agriculture and other livelihoods, but also wreak havoc in valleys and in the tarai when they overflow. Flooding damages crops and property and often results in epidemics. The poor are the most vulnerable to its effects. Flooding and landslides have major implications, not just for livelihoods and food security, but also for overall strategies for adapting to climate change.

Agriculture in Nepal will face immense challenges as seasonal drought increases. Hill agriculture has been in decline over the past one-and-a-half decades despite significant effort and resources invested by both the government and the donor community. A serious implication of erratic rainfall is on functioning of source of drinking water supply systems in mid-hills. These systems use springs and other local water sources which could be seriously affected by changes in rainfall patterns. 

Farming systems (livestock) are also dependent on forest for fodder and grasses. Increasing trends of forest fire affected of local livelihoods. Fires not only had a negative impact locally but also had potentially major implications for glacial and snow melt rates at higher elevations. In addition, in comparison with areas with extensive vegetative cover, areas affected by fire and drought generate far higher sediment loads because they are more vulnerable to landslides, erosion and debris flow after intense precipitation and because they exhibit "flashy" runoff patterns. Forest fires have other indirect long-term impacts, too. The difficulty in establishing seedlings after a fire will prolong the time before villagers can gather non-timber forest products (NTFPs). The loss of forest implies loss of local livelihoods. It may also affect integrity of local water sources.


Together, the emerging dynamics of climate change in Nepal relate to flooding, drought and forest fires could significantly increase the impact on local-level food and livelihood systems. Understanding the interactions among forest, agriculture, water management, disaster risk reduction and other livelihood systems on the one hand and climate scenarios on the other, has implications for the development of effective strategies for adapting to both short and long term impacts of climate change.

Climate change and disasters are complex problems in Nepal. Uncertainty is high and climate forecasting models do not tell us specifically what is likely to happen as in developed countries. However, uncertainty about what the impact will be does not mean that we should do nothing. People will be more vulnerable and the need for adaptation will be crucial. Every group in every community across Nepal has its own set of vulnerabilities so single answers will not solve the problem. Integrated training course in ELP in Berkeley (2nd - 22nd July 2016) helped me to widen my knowledge in adoptive resource management in changing context. Every one; research and teaching institution, government and development organization should aware on integrated methods of problem solving in present and future changing climatic condition. So, my knowledge from this training will help to focus on integrated approach in development sector considering on inter-link among livelihood systems, water management, disaster risk reduction, agriculture, forestry and financial instruments for climate change adaptation in Nepal.