In August, Chitwan, a district in southern Nepal, faced incessant rainfall for three days. Clean water and power ran short and cases of diseases such as swine flu rose dramatically as result of extreme heat and humidity.
Just days earlier, however, things had looked entirely different, with bone-dry conditions and temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius.
As climate change brings more unpredictable weather, such situations are increasingly common in Nepal. Erratic rainfall and rising temperatures are destroying people’s livelihoods and claiming lives.
Agriculture is being particularly hit by recurring droughts and floods have become the new normal. According to the Ministry of Agricultural Development, August floods in the Talai region alone cost farmers nearly 3 billion Nepalese rupees (about $28 million). Shifting weather patterns have also changed what farmers grow, where and when.
“We planted rice seedlings very late this year as the rains started a month late,” said Arjun Lama, a small-scale farmer in Chitwan. “And now floods could just sweep them all away.”
Devaki Lama, his wife, blames God for their plight. “It’s high time to put our efforts on rituals and prayers, and ask for his mercy,” she said.
Poor awareness of climate change among local communities, and insufficient investment in resilience measures such early warning systems, are exacerbating people’s vulnerability and poverty, as the poorest often live in the most disaster-prone areas.
“I don’t sleep well during the monsoon as I am worried the river will swallow me away,” said Rama Chaudhary, a member of the ethnic Tharu community. Her home is on the banks of the Narayani River in Chitwan.
She has reason to worry. “My brother and his wife died after being swept away by a flood a few days ago,” she added gravely.
Denser parts of the city also are increasingly vulnerable to heat as green areas, which kept cities cool, are destroyed to make way for concrete buildings.
Drier and hotter weather is making problems with air pollution worse while warming rivers are killing fish and other species. Jigyasa Subedi, a doctor at Bharatpur hospital in Chitwan, said that “in recent years, the number of patients suffering from water-borne and air-borne diseases has drastically increased.”
ADAPTING TO CHANGE
Although most people in Chitwan are unaware of climate change and its consequences, they are still adapting in their own way.
Aruna Lama has recently started to grow her crops in a greenhouse to protect them from scorching hot temperatures and the pests hot weather can bring.
“Pest incidence is a major problem in hot weather, but with a greenhouse you’re safe,” she explained.
She is also switching to drought-resistant crops such as chickpeas rather than rice which needs more water to grow.
The government is planting trees alongside roads to cut air pollution and has established several weather stations to share forecasts with farmers, who plant accordingly.
However, these efforts are insufficient and hindered by everything from low awareness of climate change to traditional beliefs, widespread corruption and lack of finance, among others.
When communities hear about an upcoming drought, for example, they gather to worship Indra, god of rain, rather than take preventive action such as water harvesting.
Adapting to climate pressures will, therefore, require deep changes in people’s lifestyles and livelihoods.