[Reader-list] interesting interview

Nagraj Adve nagraj.adve at gmail.com
Thu Sep 3 19:51:53 IST 2009

  Himalayans needs climate change science to get its fingers dirty

Dipak Gyawali, research director of the Nepal Water Conservation Foundation,
explains that an area as diverse as the Himalayas needs localised,
'toad's-eye' science if it is to learn how to adapt to climate change.
Interview by *Isabel Hilton, *editor of
part of the Guardian Environment


*Isabel Hilton (IH): How accurate are predictions of future climate impacts
in the region?*

Dipak Gyawali (DG): Here is a sense of confusion: the implications of what
is happening seem more and more horrendous and some things are pretty
certain. Beyond that, though, the models predict all kinds of things. The
question of the Himalayas has not really begun to be addressed and the
science has a very long way to go on precipitation and the social effects.

*IH: How can science become more relevant to the region?*

DG: The effects in different parts of the Himalaya and south Asia will be
very different and it's not all about glaciers. The Maldives will be
drowned; Sri Lanka may have more tsunamis and more intense storms;
Bangladesh will have its own problems. They will not be impacted directly by
the glaciers; the interest in the glaciers is that they are powerful
indicators: they tell you clearly that something is wrong. It's like going
to the doctor with a fever: you know you are sick. But we don't have the
science to be able to make accurate predictions of impacts over a hugely
diverse region. If you look at the last IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate
Change <http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/climate-change>] report, for
instance, the whole of the Himalayas was a blank. People are already
suffering but whether we can take any one instance as directly related to
climate change is not certain.

We did local consultations from every part of Nepal, bringing farmers
together to ask what they are experiencing as a result of climate change.
Many of them cannot relate what they are experiencing to carbon dioxide
emissions, and one problem is that over a large part of the region there is
no difference between the word for climate and the word for weather. But
when we asked them what is happening to their agriculture, we discovered a
whole series of impacts.

Some of them are predictable: spring is coming a week earlier, for instance;
things begin to grow, but it is not "real" spring and it can be followed by
a blast of terrible cold weather. It seems to be having an impact on
cucumbers: they are getting a much higher volume of male flowers to female
flowers, so the crop is smaller. The mangoes come into flower and start to
grow, but then the fruits shrivel up and drop off, so the mango harvest is
shrinking. Lowland pests have started moving up into the mountains and
certain weeds from the lowlands are being found at higher altitudes.

We also looked at some major regional catastrophes, signature events like
the failure of the Indian monsoon or the floods in the Terai, to see how
people were affected. It's essential to find out what is happening, and we
believe we need to rethink development in the light of climate change. That
has not happened yet.

*IH: Presumably it has not happened because the development agencies have
not had this kind of detailed input?*

DG: That's precisely the point. The remote sensing and the satellites give
us the eagle-eye view, which is essential but not enough. In a country as
diverse geographically and socially as Nepal – there are more than 90
languages and 103 caste and ethnic groups – the eagle-eye view needs to be
complemented by the view from the ground, what I call "toad's-eye" science.

*IH: Because high-level science can't be broken down into what is happening
in any given local area?*

DG: Yes. You are dealing with such diversity: ecological, geographical,
cultural and ethnic diversity. The reason we focussed on this toad's-eye
view is that we found people were not sitting around waiting for an
agreement at the COP15 in Copenhagen. Millions are voting with their feet
every day at the grass-roots level, reacting with civic science and
traditional knowledge. This is what people are basing their everyday
decisions on.

High science to come down off its high horse and meet up with civic science
and traditional knowledge, in order to understand what is happening, so that
national governments can also plan. The high science has to start looking at
why there are more male flowers on the cucumbers, why berries are ripening
at the wrong time.

Just to take one example: nobody has studied what is happening to soil
fauna. Soil fauna are essential to everything and they are one of the first
indicators that things are going wrong. They affect everything from plants
to birds and nobody knows what is happening with them.

*IH: Have you a better idea of who is vulnerable as a result of this work?*

DG: Yes. The conventional wisdom is that the most vulnerable people are the
poorest of the poor, but we have found that it is actually the lower middle
classes. The reason is that the poorest of the poor have never had enough
land to keep their families for the whole year, so they have always had to
diversify their sources of income: they do seasonal labour and have those
networks and connections already. They have a built-in resilience, so if
their harvest is worse than usual, they just go and work longer.

The lower middle classes, though, have had enough land to be able to depend
on their crops. They might survive one bad year, but two or three wipe them
out, and then you get what you are seeing in India – farmers committing
suicide. That is also happening in Nepal. The poorest are suffering, but it
is not fatal. The people who are really being hit are the lower middle
classes and upwards, which has implications for social stability.

*IH: What adaptation is possible in these circumstances?*

DG: The solutions have to come out of the watershed and out of the
problem-shed. You can talk about big solutions – building high dams – which
can take 40 years. We don't know in Nepal if a government will last 40 days.
The solutions have to be what these millions of households can take. Can
they be helped? How can they be helped? We just haven't done the science for
that. We need civic science; ground-level truth.

We have some suggestions for how to do it. For instance, you put a weather
monitoring station in every school in Nepal, and get the children to do the
readings and get the schoolmaster to fax the readings back, your data points
increase from around 450 to around 4,000. You are suddenly rich in data, and
the local people are involved in understanding the dimensions of the

It will be a long, drawn out process, but it is starting with rain gauges in
the schools, linked up with the local FM radio stations. Suddenly the FM
stations are very excited because they are talking about what is happening
in their area instead of reading out a weather report from Kathmandu that
might have no relevance to them.

We hope our report will point to some things that are essential and some
things that local people are already doing to adaptat: building houses on
stilts, for instance, so they can move upstairs during the flood season and
the people will be safe – their rice will be safe and they can move back
down again when the danger is past. Some villages have raised the level of
their plinths, just a little bit, but enough to get above the floods.

*IH: But won't future floods be much worse?*

DG: Not all major floods are caused by high volumes: the Kosi breach, for
instance, happened at a time when the flow was lower than usual. It was the
failure of a poorly constructed dam and 3.5 million people were displaced in
the state of Bihar, India, and 6,500 in Nepal. If tomorrow the floods get
worse, expect more Kosi breaches. We expect that the intensity and frequency
will be greater, but we don't know exactly what is going to happen.

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