Taking the toad’s-eye view

Dipak Gyawali, former water minister of Nepal, explains how to approach Himalayan climate-change science from the grass-roots level. Interview by Isabel Hilton.

Dipak Gyawali is a former minister of water resources in Nepal and research director of the Nepal Water Conservation Foundation. Here he tells chinadialogue editor Isabel Hilton about new research that demands science gets down to the grass roots to help people adapt to climate change in the Himalayan region.

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 in terms of the effects. 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 kind of science that we need 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] report, for instance, the whole of the Himalayas was a blank. People are already suffering but whether we can take any one instance as a directly related with climate change is not certain.

We did a series of local consultations from every part of Nepal, bringing farmers together to ask them what they are actually experiencing now as a result of climate change. Many of them cannot relate what they are experiencing to CO2 [carbon dioxide] emissions, and one problem we have is that over a large part of the region is that 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; 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 diversity, geographical diversity, cultural and ethnic diversity. The reason that we focussed on this toad’s-eye view is that we found that 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.

There’s a real need for 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. Scientists will have to re-orientate themselves, to listen to local people and then to do the work that will make their strategies more robust.

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 go and do seasonal labour for part of the year, and they 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. At the moment we just don’t have the data to model anything at local level. But if, 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 get involved in understanding the dimensions of the problem.

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 that has come from Kathmandu and might have no relevance at all for them.

We hope our report will point to some things that are essential and some things that local people are already doing in terms of adaptation: 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.

Dipak Gyawali is a former minister of water resources in Nepal and research director of the Nepal Water Conservation Foundation.

Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue

Homepage image from World Bank