As the ‘custodian’ of Mt Everest, the Nepal Government must make changes to how it manages the precious global resource. But far below, leaders are struggling to overcome other obstacles that block the country’s graduation from least-developing country status.
Earlier this month a National Geographic team set up the world’s highest weather station, very close to the peak of Mt Everest. Its purpose is to monitor the Central Asian Jet Stream, to see how winds and moisture move above 29,000 feet and affect the warming climate. In effect the multinational team has also opened a window to the land where glaciers are born.
With great potential for gleaning information about this much celebrated, increasingly exploited, but little known environment, the weather stations are a exciting advance. Yet you get the feeling that the die is already cast: like its neighbours in the Himalaya Hindu-Kush (HKH) range, Everest is melting.
2/3 of glaciers could melt by 2100
The worst-case scenario in a recent assessment predicts that two-thirds of glaciers in the HKH, which spans from Afghanistan to China, will melt by 2100. Earlier last week another team of scientists announced they found the internal temperatures of the Khumbu glacier on Everest to be higher than expected, just -3.3C. They predicted accelerated melting in the short term, followed by flooding, droughts and unstable, dangerous conditions for climbers.
This climate peril illustrates the double-barrel challenge facing countries like Nepal: they must provide the basics expected from an increasingly wealthy, globally-savvy population — such as infrastructure, health and education — and at the same time confront global threats like the climate crisis and deadly non-communicable diseases (NCDs) that bedevil rich and poor countries alike.
The HKH mountains are warming twice as fast as other parts of the world, warned the recent assessment, by Kathmandu-based ICIMOD. Impacts include melting glaciers, which create high-altitude lakes that continue rising and threaten to ‘bomb’ villagers living downstream with sudden, glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). The best-case scenario in the assessment is that one-third of Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2100.
1 billion people depend on Himalayan water
This is very bad news for more than 1 billion people who depend on the water that flows from those mountains – and their leaders.
Successive Nepali governments since 2006 — the end of a 10-year Maoist uprising that killed up to 17,000 people and delayed development efforts — have taken few concrete measures to tackle the impacts of global warming. Who can blame them? The country is still focused on tackling development issues that include:
- Health – Nepal has made huge improvements in maternal and child health, yet problems persist. Eight percent of the population is considered undernourished and 69% of kids aged 6 to 23 months old still suffer from anaemia, a figure unchanged since 2006.
- Food production – Two-thirds of Nepalis work the land producing a food surplus in the country, but less than half of households are considered to have a sure food supply and food security falls the higher you go in the hills and mountains. Nepal is also a net importer of rice, the country’s staple crop, as the rising middle class opts for eating high-quality varieties whose consumption denotes prestige.
- Infrastructure – The 2015 earthquake and aftershocks killed 8,900 people, destroyed 600,000 homes and 20,000 schools and damaged more than 1,100 health facilities. Four years later, just half of those homes have been rebuilt, only 54% of health centres have been rebuilt and officials say they need $3.8 billion to finish the job.
- Transitional justice – A Maoist uprising from 1996-2006 left 17,000 dead. Since then, this former Hindu monarchy has been replaced by a secular, republican government, provinces have been created, elections held and former Maoist guerillas now share power with traditional political parties. Yet, little has been done to hold anyone accountable for the torture, rape and killing of the civil war and to end deeply-entrenched impunity.
On the other side of the ledger are new obstacles of a global scale — the climate crisis, NCDs, and deadly air pollution — that stretch already thin resources of low-income countries.
Top 10 in air pollution
Emissions from the four-wheelers and motorcycles that snarl traffic on Nepal’s roads (imports have skyrocketed 500% in the past decade] coupled with smoke from the mushrooming massive kilns that produce the bricks used in the flourishing building industry have worsened air quality. Kathmandu now often appears on global Top 10 lists of the most polluted cities, keeping company with infamously dirty centres like New Delhi in neighbouring India.
Air pollution kills 7 million people a year worldwide, according to the WHO, with 80% of those deaths due to NCDs, led by COPD, lung disease, lung cancer and stroke. In Nepal, NCDs now cause two-thirds of deaths, according to a recent report by the Nepal Health Research Council.
Last month the government released its 2019/20 budget, which it says is aimed squarely at boosting development but many critics say the investment is insufficient. Others argue that Nepal’s approach to growth needs rethinking.
It’s time for the country to really invest in women, says Dr Chandni Joshi, global advisor to UN Women and former regional director of UNIFEM South Asia. “We think of women as vulnerable, as ‘those poor women who have faced disaster and violence’, but if you invest in women you see the results — GDP goes up,” says Joshi in an interview.
“We think of women as vulnerable, as ‘those poor women who have faced disaster and violence’, but if you invest in women you see the results — GDP goes up” — Dr Chandni Joshi, Global Advisor to UN Women
“The men have migrated for work. Who has stepped in to fill their shoes? Women,” adds Joshi, who pioneered micro-credit for women in Nepal. “After the earthquake in one village near Kathmandu, Kokani, the women set up a community kitchen where they fed 600 people for 21 days.”
Under the new federal system of government, women account for roughly 40% of elected officials at all levels. But they need to be groomed in order to become good leaders, says Joshi. “Many of them have never made budgets, and they don’t know how the system functions. It’s not automatic — they’ve never been educated. “It will take time, Joshi predicts, “men have been doing this for generations.”
‘Nepal must stop thinking small’
Author Sujeev Shakya says Nepalis must stop thinking small. “Nepal is not a small country — there are 100 countries smaller than us. We have a $34-billion economy, so money is not the problem. The problem is that we can’t spend it. The resources are there, but we have a management issue,” adds Shakya.
Successive Nepali governments have failed to spend their budgets, as ministries are unable to fully implement their plans. Shakya, former CEO of a local business group, says the problem is that people have come to see such failures as natural. “What’s needed is a change in approach. Nepalis are smiling, they are resilient, but they are too negative. They don’t believe the country can advance and prosper.”
He recounts recently visiting the Lakeside area of the tourist city of Pokhara with friends. Those from India were impressed with the waterside hotels and restaurants but his Nepali friends couldn’t help pointing out that “the rest of Nepal is not as nice as this”.