Dev Raj Dahal
Head, FES Nepal Office
South Asia remains vulnerable to climate change causing droughts, floods, rise of sea level inducing coastal tragedies, fast melting of Himalayan ice, fresh water shortage, shifting climate zone, ozone depletion and loss of rain forests and biodiversity. Industrial civilization is melting the Earth’s third largest pool of glaciers of Himalayas and Tibetan plateau that nourished the South Asian civilization. The ICIMOD study shows that Nepal’s glaciers have shrunk by 21 percent over 30 years. The ecosystem of the region is one of the most fragile yet it offers livelihood support to 210 million people downstream. It is also rich in biodiversity. Protection of its eco-system is linked to the survival and well-being of all the South Asians citizens. Each country of the region has its one mitigation plan. For the national adaptation plan of action, Nepal has prioritized Glacier Lake Outburst Flooding control project.
The drying of headwater due to changed land use combined with the attrition of fertile soil is also eroding the agricultural land’s capacity to support life and livelihood and risks inducing migration of mountain and hill people to highly dense plain areas with the potential to spark local and trans-border resource competition. Warming temperature and atmospheric pollution by carbon dioxide build up, are making the monsoon rains unpredictable affecting agriculture. Climate change imposes economic effects on production and social peace. For example, Nepal, once grain exporting nation now faces food insecurity for nearly 3.5m people. Adoption of neo-liberal policies in Nepal removed the government’s subsidy for agriculture and reduced agricultural production. The problem of agriculture in the region is not just of distribution but of production. Agricultural production has also become high cost investment and diminishing returns due to shortage of fertilizer, irrigation facilities, manpower, poor market and cut in subsidies. As a result, South Asian peoples are living in a condition of increasing population and decreasing natural resources.
Continuous efforts by people to satisfy their development needs are damaging green pastures, forests and source of water on which they depend for their sustainable livelihoods. Vulnerable regions require high level of resource investment in adaptation measures including protection of pasture land in the high mountains and Himalayas. Excessive consumption of fossil energy, deforestation and desertification are alarming. They are instilling in us a consciousness of our relations with the vital forces of nature and different orders of life—plants, insects, birds, animals and micro-organisms linked to each other within the life’s cosmic web. The recent Climate Change Summit at Durban, South Africa, has left the negotiation between developed and developing countries for balancing development needs with meeting the target of emission control partially resolved as world leaders expressed their commitment to negotiate a new long-range climate treaty and approved an extension of the Kyoto Protocol until 2020 to limit carbon emissions and adoption of environment-friendly technologies. It has also agreed to define a format to help the poor countries. How can the environmental cost of production be included in Nepal’s development policy so that a quest for economic security does not spell ecological nightmare?
The mountain regions of the Himalayas, whose environmental system and resources are very important for the densely populated Gangetic plain, are vulnerable in ecological terms. The region’s average temperature has increased by 1.2 degree Celsius and could get warmer with 2 degree Celsius by 2030. The overall monsoon rainfall indicates a decrease and low aggregation of snow in the Himalayas. This environmental change has brought four critical challenges to conventionally defined means of development.
First, the effects of climate change transcend national boundaries of states. Now development studies require planetary awareness and its linkages with various life-world and non-life sub-systems. It also requires a shift in redistribution of economic power to reduce the urban and the rural gap and decentralization of resources for climate adaptation. Second, sustainable approach requires green growth. Human survival requires a delicate balance between an awareness of democracy, human freedom and justice and nature’s regeneration of the vital life-supporting eco-system. Corporate social responsibility is a must to foil the commodification of biodiversity. This means mutual cooperation and surveillance among the affected nation-states and peoples is essential. Third, risk of vulnerability to climate change requires accumulating environmental costs and altering the historical mode of un-sustainable production, consumption and accumulation. Finally, regulation of climate entails multilevel framework and mutual accountability of all actors in protecting environment. The solution of newer problems requires changing the goal of development, a goal that recognizes the intrinsic values of all living species, not just the primacy of human beings.
Since environmental challenges do not care disciplinary borders what requires for its solution is entire cognitive dimensions inherent in process of what Hannah Arendt calls “life, labor and action.” Governing the “global common” requires the set up of effective institutions to provide early warning and monitor the international climate regime regulated by environmental treaties and impose graduated sanctions for violating its standards mutually agreed upon by leaders. Future conflicts would go beyond state-centric security limits if we refuse to acknowledge our systemic nexus with the society, environment and future generations. Sustainable dimension, in this context, entails inter-generational equity.
New development thinking presumes that human being is not the measure of all things. Mindless development based on top-down ego-centric ‘rational choice’ largely discounts the social and the ecological costs for human civilization. In a regime of free-ride, poorer sections of society have to bear the brunt of risks because they do not have adequate means to defend. An accelerated change in land use for profit is not amply ‘system-sensitive’ as it brings environmental degradation and generates poverty. Breaking poverty trap requires certain amount of democratic equity to all people and an awareness about the our ties with the cyclical process of nature. Poverty viciously fuels the source of conflict and imposes challenges to the political order, stability and peace. Neither environmental challenges can be addressed by military means nor can it be resolved in isolation from the rest of development policies—local, national and global unless a balance is struck between carrying capacity of the Earth and self-control of human beings.
Human beings themselves are mostly responsible for this climate change. Burning of too much fossil fuel—coal, oil and gas—and destroying forest cover and fertile soil formation are among main the causes. Deforestation of mountains, for example, causes flood havoc each year in Tarai and India. Earlier this year, floods in Gangetic plains and Southeast Asia killed many, tormented others and devastated fertile lands. The sovereignty of state did not offer security to people engaged in agriculture, industry, trade and technology.
The rethinking in a wider sense requires reviewing a wide range of consequences of climate change for livelihoods, unpredictability of monsoon affecting agricultural, hydropower, disease pattern and security. Climate change have also direct and indirect effects on violent armed conflict of different kinds such as human displacements, migration, interstate war, civil violence, non-state group conflict and political instability. Nepal already experiences the effects of climate change in areas like loss of Himalayan glaciers, shortage of water supply, danger of glacial lake burst of the sort of Chho Rolpa, extreme weather events, fragile ecosystem, urban pollution, deforestation, over digging of mountains and rocks for sand and stones in Churia hills causing soil erosion, reduction of water level in flatlands Tarai, and its vulnerability to floods like the sort of Koshi. They are eroding natural shield affecting production and food supply.
There is also good opportunity to attract foreign investment in Clean Development Mechanism project including hydropower development to meet domestic needs of energy and irrigation and demand of power in the neighborhood. A cooperative approach to development assures trust. An entirely rational approach to climate mitigation is somewhat outdated as global climate change requires global policy response and multi-disciplinary policy intervention.
Moment to be Pro-Active:
Neither linear path does support the goal of nature—sustainability nor sciences and social sciences reduced to reductionist prism. It requires systemic, holistic approach and cognitive and attitude change of human beings that restores human connection to the entire eco-system. A shift from the over consumption of fossil fuels (coal, old and gas) to alternative source of energy (solar, water, wind and biomass), processing of waste into energy and regeneration of nature is necessary to strike its balance. It requires ecological enlightenment, green growth and coordination of development policies. Green growth aims to reduce ecological risks and scarcities. South Asian leaders have to upgrade the institutional capacity to address climate change by marking a transition to a low-carbon economy and to scale up interregional cooperation in hydropower, river management, flood data monitoring, etc and, as a human duty, strive to do no harm to nature. Our common humanity offers us a common cause for protecting the nature. The economy requires policy shift to green growth and sustainable use of natural resources—materials, renewable energy, water and land for a just development under the doctrine of subsidiarity. Communication about the effects of climate change to the public and policy makers and their reciprocal feedback can contribute to prevent unwanted effects on agriculture and formulate adaptive and pro-active responses.
[Speech delivered by the author at a seminar on Climate Change jointly organised by FES and the INstitute of Foreign Affairs, Nepal: Ed.]