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Tanka Dhakal

Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ was sworn in as Nepal’s new prime minister in late December, with the backing of six parties, including the UML, the second largest party in Parliament. 

The former guerilla chief, who led a 10-year Maoist insurgency against the state, says he prioritizes good governance and economic growth. But achieving concrete results on both the fronts is an uphill task amid a chronic economic crisis as well as tricky ties with neighbors India and China. 

For an impoverished and disaster-prone country like Nepal, where about 80 percent of the population lives under risk of natural and climate-induced hazards, both good governance and economic growth are intertwined with  environmental issues. However, previous governments don’t seem to have understood this. Most of the government programmes and plans don’t account for the impacts of climate change and other environmental risks. For example, the Melamchi drinking water project was severely impacted by an extreme weather event, unforeseen by its planners.

Here, Nepal Check explains four major environmental and climate change challenges the new government faces: 

Air pollution: two million premature deaths in South Asia

Smoke from forest fires as well as a lack of rain and wind in Kathmandu made the city one of the most polluted in South Asia on March 26, 2021

In Kathmandu valley and fast-growing cities in Nepal, air pollution is a major environmental and public health concern. Despite the presence of the Department of Environment, no significant actions to solve this issue have been implemented. 

The air quality measurement stations are not functional, and the weather, particularly in the winter, exacerbates the problem. Nepal must act immediately to address this critical issue.

A recent World Bank report called for immediate action to address the lethal air pollution in South Asia, which is home to nine of the world’s ten most polluted cities, including Kathmandu. According to the paper, air pollution causes around two million premature deaths in South Asia each year, as well as huge economic consequences. Clean air is the sole answer to this challenge, and the report suggests that countries in the region coordinate their policies and efforts to achieve this aim. To overcome this challenge, Nepal will need to collaborate with its neighbors on both policy and investment levels.

To address the issue of air pollution, the study has advocated for airshed-wide coordination, which includes increasing monitoring outside large cities, sharing data with the public, establishing or strengthening scientific institutes to evaluate airsheds, and taking a whole-of-government approach. It is the obligation of the government and legislative bodies to prioritize this serious public health danger.

Climate crisis

Narainapur hamlet in Banke district has seen the effects of climate change firsthand, with heavy rainfall during the 2021 harvest season and severe drought during the 2022 paddy plantation season. Local farmers, who have been dealing with the climate crisis, have yet to receive support to adapt to a changing climate, despite the issue being recognized in policy circles. It is critical that initiatives and programs to address climate change and its consequences are launched in a timely way to assist the most vulnerable areas.

While it is important to set targets and programs for both loss and damage and mitigation, according to Ajaya Dixit, a climate change expert who contributed to the development of the National Framework on Climate Change-Induced Loss and Damage, Nepal must prioritize adaptation at all levels. This requires discussing and implementing appropriate programs that address the specific needs and challenges of affected communities.

While mitigation efforts will help avoid possible risks or climate crisis, Loss and Damage is aimed at addressing the damage. Adaptation refers to adjustments in ecological, social or economic systems in response to actual or expected climate change impacts. Communities can adapt to changing climate with help of science and locally available knowledge. Nepal contributes minimally to global climate change, but it faces severe impacts. In such a context, experts suggest having plans such as the National Adaptation Plan (NAP) for climate change adaptation. Having a plan, though, is not enough. Nepal must implement it and go for nature based solutions

Nepal’s participation in a recent UN summit on climate change was not as impactful as expected. While the official delegates praised the establishment of the Loss and Damage Fund, progress on adaptation funds at the global level and implementable programs at the local level has not been a priority. The government’s decision to include climate change as a priority is a welcome move, but it will be critical to focus on community-level implementation and inter-sectoral cooperation to meet climate change goals.

Climate change is causing the Himalayan glaciers to melt at an alarming rate. This will have devastating consequences for people who depend on them. It also contributes to rising sea levels. Glacier loss in the Himalayas contributes to more frequent and severe disasters such as floods and landslides. 

Arun Bhakta Shrestha, Strategic Group Lead-Reducing Climate and Environmental Risks at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), said Nepal must take a multi-hazard approach to disaster risk reduction in light of the country’s exposure to multiple hazards that often occur simultaneously and in a cascading manner.  “Climate change should be integrated into disaster risk reduction efforts,” Shrestha said, “as it exacerbates hazards such as floods, landslides, glacier lake outburst floods, and forest fires.”  

Shrestha also noted that climate change is having disproportionate impacts on different regions of Nepal, with high-altitude areas experiencing more intensive impacts, some of which have not been seen in the past. “Investments in hydrometeorological monitoring at high altitudes should be prioritized,” he said. Finally, Shrestha emphasized the importance of monitoring permafrost, a little-known component of the cryosphere, as its degradation can have negative impacts on the ecosystem and trigger various hazards. “It is important to understand the impacts its change is causing,” he said.

Biodiversity conservation: Knowledge production is key

An endangered rhino roams the Chitwan National Park on February 28, 2021

Nepal, a small yet diverse country, is regarded as a global biodiversity hotspot. It is home to a diverse range of plant species and is critical to regional and global biodiversity conservation. Despite its importance, Nepal does not have a complete catalog of its flora. For more than two decades, a lack of knowledge has hampered conservation efforts in the country. It is critical that the new government prioritizes research and publication of Nepal’s flora in order to better understand and protect the country’s rich biodiversity.

Nepal’s rich biodiversity must be documented to protect it, according to Dr. Mark F. Watson, Editor in Chief of the Flora of Nepal. He underlined the significance of the government taking steps to document and include it in international conservation frameworks. The Flora of Nepal project seeks to publish a complete ten-volume account of the country’s vascular plants, which are estimated at 6,500 species. This crucial study will provide valuable information for the protection of Nepal’s biodiversity and highlight the country’s contribution to global plant diversity.

Radha Wagle, the Director General of the Department of Plant Resources, said she is committed to doing whatever possible to publish another volume but needs enough support from the government.

At the recent UN summit on Biodiversity, the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework was adopted as a new set of commitments and goals for protecting the world’s biodiversity. While this is being hailed as a “historic” deal, it is crucial to note that merely having a solid paper is not enough. It must be put into action in order to be effective. 

Dr. Nakul Chettri, a biodiversity expert and former Regional Program Manager for Transboundary Landscapes at the ICIMOD, said, “It’s crucial to have access to financial resources, tools and technologies, and opportunities for capacity building in order to properly implement the framework.” He also underlined the significance of establishing realistic national goals that are in line with global indicators.

While Nepal has made considerable headway in saving endangered species, such as the Royal Bengal tiger, much more needs to be done to conserve the country’s biodiversity as a whole. It is the new government’s responsibility to identify and conserve all of the country’s natural resources.

Growing challenges of disaster risk reduction

Nepal is not just a biodiversity hotspot. It is also a natural hazard hotspot. A recent case of such disaster is Melamchi, where in June 2021, the riverside village was destroyed by two violent floods. In the trans-Himalayan district of Manang, heavy rain triggered floods and landslides, which destroyed houses, bridges and power plants, and displaced hundreds of people. Landslides, forest fires, and drought are disasters that cause socio economic losses on a regular basis. 

But disaster risk reduction and relief efforts remain inadequate. National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority (NDRRMA) is tasked with helping people during disasters. But the body faces budget constraints. A proper disaster risk reduction plan and relief package is crucial to tackle the changing nature and intensity of the disaster in recent years. 

Home minister Rabi Lamichhane recently issued a directive to authorities to prepare for disasters such as cold waves in Tarai. The new government needs to create pre and post-disaster plans to avoid loss of human lives and socioeconomic losses. The government needs to invest more in science-based assessment. Both federal and local governments should create a robust system of preparation, and coordinate among various agencies.