Loss and damage: erosion of Nepal’s life, land and beauty is deep and irreparable
Life-threatening floods from bursting glacial lakes are just one of the many impacts of climate change that are leaving the people of Nepal unable to cope. Guest blogger Shreya K.C. calls on world leaders to replace fake handshakes with concrete action.
I feel so proud to be from Nepal, a place rich in natural resources, amazing landscapes, and where people live in harmony with nature. In our culture, we worship the sun, trees, the moon, even animals. We ask for nature’s blessings to survive and thrive.
They say, “heaven is myth, Nepal is real”. But my beautiful homeland is a first-hand victim of the climate crisis. Our dependence on nature for our livelihoods makes us very vulnerable.
My hometown Solukhumbu lies in the lap of the Himalayas, also home to the world’s highest mountain. We call Mount Everest “Sagarmatha” meaning 'goddess of the sky'. Nepal is synonymous with mountains and has eight of the world’s 14 tallest peaks.
Terrified of being washed away
Over the past 23 years, I have seen dramatic changes in the climate. Global warming has thinned snow cover and made glaciers retreat.
My grandfather used to trek to the sacred Dudh Kunda (Milk Lake). It sits 4,600m above sea level and holds special religious importance for Hindus and Buddhists. He recalls there were not many nearby lakes before, and the mountains were covered with snow.
With greater than average warming rate in the Himalayas and the decline in snow cover, the number of lakes has grown significantly; there are now well over 100 in the area.
The bursting of these lakes is an ever-present threat to our lives; we are terrified of being washed away. Forty-seven glacial lakes at risk of breaching have been identified within the Koshi, Gandaki, and Karnali river basins of Nepal, the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, and India.
Since 1977, we in Nepal have had 26 glacial lake outburst floods. We have made progress in glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) risk studies as well as in early warning systems. Yet it is still not possible to forecast when such floods will hit, or their magnitude.
GLOF remain a persistent threat to us living in the downstream communities; it can sweep away entire villages in an instant – damaging lives, property and infrastructure. People can lose their lifetime’s work in a second. It also washes away their dreams and hopes.
Magnifying existing problems
The climate crisis leaves no one untouched. But it is the people of the least developed countries (LDCs) who have done almost nothing to contribute to this crisis that face the highest risk. Globally, Nepal ranks fourth in terms of vulnerability to our changing climate.
My own family had to abandon farming because no matter how hard we tried, we produced so little – the story of most villagers in my country. Our agricultural production has depleted rapidly due to drought, untimely rainfall, new diseases and growth of invasive species.
Increasing sediment has choked our water supply. Even in the rainy season there is either too much or too little snow or rainfall. This disrupts the harvesting cycle and leads to regional food insecurity.
As well as the strain on our natural resources, the crisis has deepened existing social problems. Nepal is a heavily patriarchal society, and women have long experienced exclusion and marginalisation. Abuse from men towards women has been normalised. Livestock loss, reduced income and food insecurity put pressure on men’s traditional role as providers. They often turn to alcohol to cope and become more violent.
Prolonged drought forces women and girls to travel long distances for food and water, making them vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Many girls drop out of school due to the increased workload, or are married off by their family to cope with food scarcity.
In November, we observed '16 days of activism against gender-based violence' to challenge prevailing violence against women and girls. But the impacts of the climate crisis limit the progress of such campaigns.
Pushed beyond adaptation
This year as I prepared to travel to Glasgow for COP26, we had an unexpectedly heavy post-monsoon. Floods washed away bridges and electricity poles, damaging the existing development infrastructure. And climate-induced disasters like this are now frequent.
Nepal is a leader in preparing Local Adaptation Plans of Action. We have been building stone walls, preserving forest cover and introducing drought-resistant varieties of crops. But few of these efforts hold up against the wrath of climate destruction.
At COP26, the day after leaders from high emitting countries blocked proposals to finance loss and damage, my people witnessed another ice avalanche in Mustang. We could do nothing as a wall of ice injured students, damaged houses and killed livestock.
For my community, the climate crisis is not a future threat. We are suffering now. The loss and damage we are experiencing incurs costs that no amount of adaptation and mitigation can negate.
My call to world leaders: enough hollow promises, we want action
The consequences of inaction are severe and increasing. Even if we limit temperature increase to 1.5°C, one-third of our Himalayan glaciers will melt. This shocks me to the bottom of my heart. It angers and frustrates me that there are real people behind inaction, who are fuelling our suffering by investing trillions in fossil fuels. And the worst part is that many of the real victims don’t know what’s happening and why they are suffering.
As a young climate activist, I’m doing all I can to spread awareness, advocate for ambitious policies and take action for the climate.
Our local and national governments must put sustainability at the heart of development. Nepal has committed to go net-zero by 2045 and be carbon negative by mid-century. High emitting countries who are responsible for this mess must curb their emissions to achieve the 1.5°C target and provide reparations to us with ample climate finance, capacity building, knowledge and technology transfer.
To my fellow youth, especially from the LDCs, I applaud your dedication and continued fight to gain seats in decision-making spaces. I encourage you to demonstrate meaningful leadership by developing your capacity to negotiate, and bridging gaps with your knowledge and energy.
We must differentiate between meaningful participation and tokenism. We can’t let leaders get away with hollow promises and fake handshakes. We must hold them accountable for the discrepancy between their speeches and their actions.
The stories of the people most vulnerable to climate change must be heard and acknowledged. These stories of loss and damage are our reality. Yet our voices go deliberately unheard, unseen, and unrecognised in international climate talks.
The vicious cycle of loss and damage and the hardships we face due to the climate crisis must end. Now!