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Climate change and Nepal’s cryosphere

Climate change and Nepal’s cryosphere

Nepal’s Himalayas, often referred to as the "Third Pole," play a pivotal role in the world's climate system. These towering mountains are adorned with glaciers, snow, permafrost and an intricate network of rivers, forming a fragile and interconnected cryosphere. The impact of climate change on the Himalayas is profound, with far-reaching consequences affecting the region's water resources, hydropower potential and the livelihoods of its people.

At grave risk

Nepal's glaciers are retreating at an alarming rate, consistent with the global trend. The rapid melting of glaciers poses a significant threat to the country's freshwater supply. As the glaciers diminish, water resources become less predictable and water scarcity issues intensify. A study conducted in the Sagarmatha region showed that the glaciers in the region will decrease 39-52 percent by 2050 relative to present day. A recent assessment report published by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and UNDP states that the rate of glacier mass loss in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region has increased by 65 percent from 2000-2009 to 2010-2019. Also, snow cover extent is in negative trend with indication of seasonal shift. Furthermore, the permafrost, which holds together mountainsides and acts as a natural dam for glacial lakes, is thawing due to rising temperatures. The melting of glaciers and thawing permafrost can lead to formation and development of potentially dangerous glacial lakes. Glacial lakes have increased from 1,466 with an area of 64.78 km2 in 2010 to 2,070 with area of 85.08 km2 per the report. About 47 glacial lakes are considered as potentially dangerous glacial lakes in the three transboundary river basins of Nepal. An increasing melting of glaciers and thawing permafrost can lead to catastrophic glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), endangering downstream communities and infrastructure.

Water crisis

The availability of freshwater from the melting of glaciers, snow and permafrost is the lifeblood for Nepal, and its precarious balance is threatened by climate change. The Himalayan region provides water to over a billion people across South Asia. The erratic and shifting patterns of precipitation, combined with the retreat of glaciers, are disturbing this balance. Nepal's agriculture, a primary source of livelihood for a majority of the population, is vulnerable to these changes. Prolonged droughts and erratic rainfall patterns are impacting crop yields and food security. As a result, the local economy and the livelihoods of many Nepalis are under immense strain.

Energy generation

Nepal possesses substantial hydropower potential, which has been considered a cornerstone for the country's economic development and energy security. There is a high potential for the export of the renewable energy (hydroelectricity) to energy-deficit countries from Nepal, which can contribute significantly to the country’s GDP and economy. However, climate change has brought forth new challenges to the sector. Changing hydrological patterns, caused by melting glaciers and altered precipitation, can lead to fluctuations in river flows, potentially disrupting hydropower generation. In addition, increasing frequency of cryospheric hazards such as GLOFs and associated cascading hazards in this region will have direct impacts on the sustainability of these projects. Hydropower projects might need to adapt to these variations, which can result in additional costs. Nepal government's ambitious plans to harness hydropower resources to export electricity to neighboring countries face increasing uncertainties due to climate-induced variations in river flows and the overall sustainability of these projects.

The way forward

On the adaptation front, the government, in collaboration with international organizations, including Green Climate Fund, is focusing on building resilient infrastructure. Such assistance is crucial in enhancing Nepal's adaptive capacity in the face of climate uncertainties. Adaptation measures can help reduce vulnerabilities, loss and damage are inevitable in a changing climate. Nepal has experienced several disasters like recurring GLOFs from rapidly retreating glaciers. These events have resulted in significant economic losses and the displacement of communities. Nepal is actively participating in global climate negotiations, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement. Such participation helps the country to advocate for equitable solutions and assistance.

However, the need for climate finance far exceeds the available resources. While international pledges have been made, the disbursement of funds has been slow, hindering Nepal's ability to address immediate climate-related challenges effectively. The nation seeks increased transparency and faster access to climate finance to bolster its climate resilience and mitigate the ongoing impacts of climate change. The adaptation actions also need to be expanded in the high mountain region in the form of minimizing risks from potentially dangerous glacial lakes and other cryospheric hazards.

A turning point

The recent visit of the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, to Nepal's mountain region is an acknowledgment of the country's pivotal role in the global climate system. The UN chief has sent a clear message of the worst climate change impacts on the Nepal Himalayas by pointing out that “glaciers are retreating but we cannot retreat and we must move forward for climate action”. The subsequent participation of Nepal in COP28 signifies its commitment to addressing climate change at the highest levels of international diplomacy. It will provide a platform for Nepal to voice its concerns and solutions for our Himalayas to the global community. The impact of climate change on the cryosphere, water resources, hydropower and livelihoods in the Himalayas need to be at the forefront of these discussions. The visit of the UN chief and Nepal's active participation in COP28 collectively signal a turning point in addressing climate change impacts on the Nepal Himalayas.

Efforts to promote sustainable practices, build climate-resilient communities and diversify the economy are steps in the right direction. By tackling climate change head-on and fostering international collaboration, Nepal can pave the way for a sustainable and secure future in the breathtaking but fragile world of the Himalayas.