Monday, November 30, 2009

Are we prepared?

The Kathmandu Post
John Narayan Parajuli
NOV 26 - In less than two weeks, the United Nations Climate Change conference kicks off in Copenhagen, and the signs are already ominous about any breakthrough. A binding treaty with 40 percent reduction in carbon emission (on 1990 levels) by the developed nations and a fund to help the poorest countries mitigate and go green may not be ready in time for the summit. Developing countries like China, India and Brazil are doing more, but the developed countries have got cold feet about financing the poorest countries. And you can’t blame them in these tough economic times when their own coffers are running dry.

But as disagreement persists at the global forum, the problems for Nepal are local. The shrinking snow cover on the Himalaya places Nepal on one of the many frontiers of any battle against climate change. As scientists are playing catch-up with the gravity of the problem, anything they say or their models say should be taken as the least worst scenario. Just last week, scientists with the British Antarctic Survey revised the average global rise in temperature forecast to 6 degrees Celsius from previous the 4. “Oops! We were wrong in our estimates” is a common refrain among the scientific community these days, and we will have to expect more of that. Because climate science isn’t an exact one. But we would do well to err more on the side of caution.

So how is Nepal, as one of least developed countries, prepared to face the brunt? Is there a serious national policy to tackle and mitigate the effects of climate change? Are the government and non-government agencies working on a coherent plan?

Unfortunately, the discourse in most developing countries (including Nepal) on climate change has been focused more on blaming the developed nations, and less on taking initiatives. As a heavily donor-dependent nation, the problems of preparedness are a big issue for Nepal. Associating ourselves with the group of 11 most vulnerable countries (V11) will help to pitch a stronger case for assistance with urgency; but if we don’t help ourselves, there is very little others can do for us. The discussion on climate change is warming up as evidenced by a spike in national media coverage, but our national attitude still is cold towards our own responsibility, even though we want others to do something about it.

On Nov. 15, an international scientific team conducted an assessment tour of the 11 potentially dangerous glacial lakes in the Makalu-Barun National Park area. They also visited the rapidly melting Imja glacier and lake (which feeds some of the big rivers in China, Nepal and India); and though there are no details yet on their conclusion, one can only infer that the rate of melting glaciers and glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) is rapidly increasing. As scientists have forecast a more rapid increase in global temperatures, the number of potentially dangerous glacial lakes will subsequently go up. The Himalayan region has witnessed an average increase of temperature by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius since 1975.

In 1995, the danger of Tsho Rolpa Lake bursting downstream was averted with some timely help from the Dutch in painstakingly siphoning out the water. But we weren’t so lucky in the 1980s: Most notable among them was the 1985 Dig Tsho burst that wreaked havoc downstream destroying “houses, farms, bridges and even the Thame micro hydropower plant”. But we still haven’t learnt our lessons.

The government needs to invest in its own capacity building to avert GLOF and mitigate other effects, including the ability to rapidly relocate people from harm’s way of some these dangerous glacial lakes in the event of a disaster. Some experts have already predicted a likelihood of glaciers completely disappearing from the Himalaya by as early as 2035. Planning and preparation needs to take into account the worst case scenario in the future. There is no way of accurately predicting the actual implications; but if what is happening now is any indication, climate change will fundamentally alter the way we live.

Climate change has been increasingly blamed as a trigger for a lot of natural disasters, and perhaps there is some truth in it. But what is also happening as this process moves forward is that there is very little inclination within our national government to take a proactive role in mitigating the effects on its own. In fact, we look with expectant eyes at the West. The developed countries are expected to fix our problem. Sure, there is a degree of culpability that falls on the rich nations, and they have to carry the bigger share of the burden in slowing the effects of this impending disaster. But Nepali officials would do well to remind themselves that though the problem is of a global nature, the worst effects will fall on us.

Poorer countries have to be effective partners on the global stage, and perhaps banding together in V11 will be useful in putting forward a stronger voice; but locally, they have to take their own home-grown initiatives to understand the implications. Presenting a rock from the Himalaya to the president of the United States, or the proposed Himalayan cabinet meeting, or the underwater cabinet meeting in Male may work well as a publicity stunt to get donor and Western attention; but it is a very superficial act, and does not contribute to any local undertaking in dealing with the effects of a warming world. We need to stop collecting evidence for others, while we ourselves seem to live in a state of denial.

I hope that we are not just sending a delegation to Copenhagen for the sake of it; and I hope, as a country increasingly under threat from melting snow on the third pole, our delegation has a concrete plan of action to share with the rest of the world. While it is true that we are in this together, it doesn’t mean the developing countries can afford to hold their breath for the developed countries to walk the talk for them. Once the worst nightmares of climate change begin to unfold, each country will be left to fend for itself. Therefore, any country that prepares and invests in local capacity will be better placed to mitigate the challenges. In the crudest terms, only the fittest will survive.

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