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Adapting to Himalayan Glacial Retreat in Nepal

Submitted by Jim Noble 2nd October 2009 2:23

Introduction

Glacier retreat has been a major indicator of climate change impacts in the Himalayas. This project aims to support biodiversity conservation and livelihoods of people affected by glacier retreat. The main objectives of the project are documentation of threats posed due to glacier retreat as well as development of community driven programs for improving their resilience.

In the past few decades global warming has had a significant impact on the high mountain environment — snow, glaciers, and permafrost are especially sensitive to changes in atmospheric conditions because of their proximity to melting conditions. According to a recent WWF report (see link further down), glaciers in the Himalayan region are now receding at an average rate of 10-15 metres per year.

Adaptation context

Agriculture 

In an agrarian country like Nepal, with staggering increase in population and food demand, even a slight decline in annual food production is a matter of great concern. This sector is adversely affected by the loss of top fertile soil due to soil erosion, landslides and floods. Soil loss is a major cause of decline in agriculture production in Nepal and the negative effects of climate change may further aggravate this situation. It has been suggested that at 4ºC temperature and 20 percent precipitation rise, there could be marginal yield increase in rice; that yield will continue to decline between 0.09 to 7.5 percent and beyond. However, temperature rise has evoked mixed reactions in the case of wheat as the actual yield of wheat has increased in the western region with the rise in temperature while there has been a decline in other regions. Similarly, a rise in temperature has a negative effect on maize as yields decreased with warmer temperatures (the trend is almost similar to wheat).

Biodiversity and wildlife

A majority of the people in Nepal rely on forest products such as firewood, food, fodder, timber and medicines. Its extensive utilization and increasing demand has led to a decline both in area and quality. Global warming may cause forest damage through mitigation of forests towards the polar region, change in their composition and extinction of species. This could affect not only on Nepal’s biodiversity but the very livelihoods of people. Tropical wet forests and warm temperate rain forests would disappear, and cool temperate vegetation would turn to warm temperate vegetation. Vegetation patterns would be different under the incremental scenario (at 2ºC rise of temperature and 20 percent rise of rainfall) than the existing types. Thus climate change will have a direct impact on vegetation, biodiversity and even wildlife.

Health

The risk of malaria, kalaazar and Japanese encephalitis is suggested under climate change scenarios for Nepal. The subtropical and warm temperate regions of Nepal would be particularly vulnerable to malaria and kalaazar. Similarly, an increase of temperature would make the subtropical region of Nepal more vulnerable to Japanese encephalitis.

Climate
While climate change model results are highly variable concerning South Asia, the projections for temperature change are more or less consistent and significant with projected mean temperature increase of 1.2 and 3ºC by 2050 and 2100 and 2.3 to 4.3ºC at 2 CO2. Though an overall increase in precipitation is projected; the magnitude of change is low. The observed trends in temperature generally agree with climate model results and show warming in the last few decades. More warming is observed in high altitudes. No significant trend is found in precipitation. Both temperature and precipitation are found to be related to large-scale climatological phenomena.

Key messages

  • The Eastern Himalayas have a glacier coverage of 33,000 sq. km and are sometimes referred to as the Water Towers of Asia.
 
  • 67% of the glaciers in these regions have retreated due to climate change in the past. (Ageta and Kadota, 1992; Yamada et al., 1996; Fushinmi, 2000).
 
  • The relationship between climate and glacial retreat although confirmed by the scientists at a general level, is not yet understood well enough to drive a detailed policy response.
 
  • The climate change program of WWF Nepal has initiated the Himalayan Glacier Project to bring a definite relationship between glacier shrinkage and climate change. This regional scale project includes three countries - Nepal , China and India. In Nepal the project is located at Khumbu and Nguzumpa glacier of Khumbu region of Solu-Khumbu District and the Sagarmatha Area.
 
  • The project will work to examine the specific threat by the rapidly retreating glaciers upon the vital river systems and the people who depend on them.
 
  • WWF has donated a weather station to Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) to monitor climatic changes affecting glaciers in the Himalayas. The US$12,000 automatic weather station (AWS) is to be installed on the Ngozumpa glacier, the longest glacier in Nepal, in Sagarmatha National Park in November. The AWS will record data, including solar radiation, relative humidity, air temperature, soil temperature, wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, radiant heat, and precipitation. It will also collect data on glacier retreat. 
 
  • Along with this it will focus on developing a model to infer the changes under different climate scenarios. It will attempt to establish a relationship between glacier retreat, water discharge pattern and freshwater availability.
 
  • Additionally, this project will bring local climate impact stories to raise the sense of urgency and support of solution oriented work at an international level. It will also help to develop the adaptation strategies for selected communities and ecosystems.

Project Coverage

Eastern Himalayas (Nepal and India), July 2005-June 2009