KATHMANDU, Nepal — In the Langtang region of the Himalayan Nepal, near the Tibetan border, residents see the impacts of climate change all around them: in the less abundant grass, the meager snowfall and the massive gray glaciers steadily retreating up the craggy mountainside.
In June, we left Kathmandu by jeep, then spent three days hiking to find the nearest glacier. Our guide, Damondon Pyakurel, or DP, told us that the wall of ice above us had receded up to 20 meters since he first saw it 17 years ago. We spent the next day at about 14,000 feet talking to locals about the changes they’d seen.
A yak shepherd, who had recently moved his herd up the mountain, told us that there is less grass at lower altitudes now, and as a result fewer yaks on the mountain.
In a Buddhist monastery we met Jhandu Lama, who said that in the summer there is no longer snow on this side of the mountains. A man supervising the construction of a community center nearby told us that the glaciers hadn’t merely shrunk since his childhood, but had also changed color from blue and green hues to a mucky white.
Around here, no one knows why the climate is changing. But they suspect it might have something to do with the environment — especially the many foreign trekkers who leave their trash on the mountain.
At Kathmandu-based ICIMOD, an international NGO for mountain research and sustainability, director Madav Karki offers a different explanation. He points to CO2 emissions and greenhouse gases as the root of the problem.
Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries, with very few emissions of its own. Still it’s extraordinarily vulnerable to the effects of a changing climate: Temperatures are rising more rapidly in the Himalayas than on global average. Over the last decade the average temperature in Nepal has risen 0.6 degrees over the last decade, compared with an increase in average temperatures globally of 0.7 degrees over the last hundred years. Scientists worry that the impact of what is happening in Nepal will be felt all over Asia.
If the glaciers disappear, life-giving rivers like the Ganges and Brahmaputra are at the risk of turning into seasonal rivers, which will severely impact the millions of people who depend on them.
And Karki fears that emissions will only rise as the economies of its powerhouse neighbors China and India advance. Nepal has little say in the matter.
On her recent visit to India, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed that India must agree to carbon emission cuts before the Kyoto Protocol's requirements expire in 2012. India and China both hesitate to do so, arguing that, on a per capita basis, they emit much less than the United States.
Still, South Asia is uniquely susceptible to the impacts of climate change. In addition to the threat of continued glacial melting, the region’s poor and rural populations are heavily clustered in river basins with annual flood cycles likely to be exacerbated by warming, which means the cost of adapting to climate change will be high.
“The adaptation costs are enormous,” says the World Bank water expert David Grey. “Yet in the global discourse on climate change, the primary focus among industrial nations is not mitigation. The discussion is focused very much on controlling carbon emissions, but with very little understanding of the adaptation needs of large numbers of people. The adaptation costs in the rivers of the Himalayas could be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. And there’s nothing like that sort of money [being discussed]. There’s little awareness of the scale of the problem in South Asia.”
Anna-Katarina Gravgaard and William Wheeler reported from South Asia on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Click here to view more of their reporting from South Asia.