Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

  • 22 February 2018

From peaks to plains: troubled waters along Nepal’s Gandaki River

` Photo: Alice Chautard

A photo of Nilgiri North, 7,061m which many villagers report is becoming ‘darker and darker’.

Post by Alice Chautard - the Himalayas to Ocean (H2O) project

“When I was growing up, the mountain was always covered in snow; now it is only black hills” explains Tham Bahadur, an elderly Nepali farmer pointing at the surrounding dramatic Himalayan peaks rising over 7,000m.

In September and October 2017, I traveled with the Himalayas to Ocean (H2O) project following the Gandaki River from the Himalayas bordering Tibet, to the floodplains of Nepal at the border with India. Along the way, we collected stories of those living at the forefront of climate change, like that of Tham Bahadur who has, over a few generations, seen his village dramatically transform in part due to climatic changes. Partnered with the ECI and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), based in Kathmandu, H2O aims to complement scientific research by raising awareness about climate change in novel ways, utilising compelling multimedia approaches that blend photography, video, and sounds. Our team is composed of students and professionals working on issues of environmental change and water security from the School of Geography and the Environment ( Yolanda Clatworthy, Justin Falcone and myself), professional filmmaker Ross Harrison, who has already produced a short film (Facing the Mountain) on change and resilience in the Himalayas with ECM alumni Vaibhav Kaul, sound engineer Nicholas O’Brien and humanitarian story-teller Sushma Bhatta from Nepal.

Surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the world, the Kali Gandaki river originates from Himalayan glaciers in the desert-dry region of Upper Mustang, at the border with Tibet. Here, landscape is dry (annual precipitation averaging at 250mm), the vegetation is bare, and the few human settlements are clustered around the riverbanks. Hundreds of kilometers further downstream, the river will feed into the mighty Ganges, one of the largest, most worshipped and polluted rivers in the world.

` Photo: Alice Chautard

Arid landscape in Mustang, border with Tibet, where the population relies almost exclusively on glacier-fed streams and rivers.

As it flows South, carving the Kali Gandaki valley, the river also shapes the lives of the people who live along its banks. They use water daily for drinking, washing, bathing, and farming, which requires significant volumes of water. Nepal is an agricultural country with roughly 80 percent of the working population directly engaged in the sector. In the rural and mountainous areas, it is not uncommon to find whole village populations involved in agriculture. At the same time, the demand for water for energy production is high - and rising.

At first glance, water is plentiful in Nepal. The country’s 6,000 rivers, and its glaciers are major sources, ensuring a year round water supply to millions of people in South Asia. Yet, the Himalayas are undergoing dramatic changes, and are estimated to be warming three times faster than the global average. Nepal has already been ranked by the Climate Change Risk Atlas (2010), as the fourth most vulnerable country in terms of impacts of climate change; by 2050, parts of the Himalayas could see a 4-5C warming. However, the impacts of climate change in the Himalayas extend far beyond the melting of iconic glaciers. Scientific research, largely led by the ICIMOD, is indeed also finding shifts in the hydrological cycle with monsoon rain becoming more erratic, and extreme rainfall events becoming less frequent but more intense in nature. Such changes in hydrological patterns are likely to lead to an increase in natural disasters such as floods, landslides, droughts, springs drying up, fire and storms. H2O aims to capture what those changes mean and convey how they are felt daily by those living at the water’s edge.

In a small village nestled in the Himalayas, Kamala, who runs the local coop, a guesthouse and her family’s apple orchard explains to us how increasing temperatures, and shifts in rain and snowfall have affected apple production in the area. Further South, Dodiram, who’s lived over half a century in Ullikhola, shares with us his fear of seeing his village one day disappear, caught between an overflowing river and falling rocks, as the increasingly intense rains seem to erode the mountain flanks with more vigor every passing year. In the floodplains, near the border with India, Keshari, a widow and mother of two talks of the emotional turmoil that affected her as she saw her house and possessions crumble before her eyes, during the August floods which affected nearly 2 million people in Nepal. With the rains becoming more intense, she knows it is only a matter of time until the next flood event strikes her and her family.

` Photo: Alice Chautard

Marpha is known as the ‘capital’ of apples in Nepal. The fruit, which is consumed locally or sold across the country, is an important source of livelihood. Here, Kamala demonstrates the process for drying apples.

` Photo: Alice Chautard

The increasingly intense rains have intensified the landslide around Ullikhola – where parts of the mountain has disappeared; with the accumulation of sediments further downstream, flooding is becoming more frequent, and residents of Ullikhola fear they may have to relocate elsewhere.

` Photo: Alice Chautard

Keshari's house vanished in the August 2017 floods. Although she fears future floods will have equally damaging impact, she had no choice but to rebuild the house on the rive bank.

What connects the stories of Kamala, Dodiram, Keshari, and the myriad of other encounters we made, is first and foremost a river; a river that gives and supports life, and, with climate change, a river with an increasing potential to destroy and take away life and livelihoods. But all is not just doom - throughout our expedition we were astounded by people’s capacity to adapt to and cope with changes. For some, changes may even be perceived as an opportunity. For Hrikesh, Kamala’s son, not being able to grow apples is not life threatening - with warmer temperatures, farmers in Marpha are now able to grow an increasing variety of vegetables: “When apples disappear, there will be something else we can grow - life goes on.” But Hrikesh is young, relatively educated, speaks good English and is also involved in the tourism industry - agriculture is not his only bread-earner. One’s ability to adapt is indeed highly dependent on socio-economic status, access to resources and external support, some aspects H2O aims to highlight as well.

Lastly, an important theme H2O attempts to convey is the disproportionate impact of climate change on women, whose roles are intrinsically tied to the collection, storage and management of water. Across rural Nepal, women are in charge of household tasks such as cooking and cleaning. With almost one in every ten men migrating abroad to work, women must also perform most of the agricultural work. The majority of stories we collect are about women bearing the brunt of water becoming too scare, abundant or erratic, often forcing them to work longer, and travel great distances.

` Photo: Alice Chautard

Girls helping in the field by collecting and carrying grass to feed the livestock.

` Photo: Alice Chautard

Focus group discussion in Durlunga.

We aim to document four stories, each focusing on a distinct aspect of climate change and for which we will produce a combination of short videos, photos and sounds. We have nearly completed translating the hours of footage we have collected, and aim to have a first version of the project ready in the next few months. Stay tuned with us on our website Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter! (hyperlinks to each of the listed platforms?)

Further Information

Himalayas to Ocean (H2O) project


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