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From Peaks to Plains: Troubled Waters along the Gandaki River

November 27, 2017
Surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the world, the Kali Gandaki river originates from Himalayan glaciers in the desert-dry region of Upper Mustang, at the border with Tibet. Here, landscape is dry, the vegetation is bare, and the wind howls eerily around the mountain flanks. Hundreds of kilometres further downstream, the river will become the mighty Ganges, one of the largest and most worshiped rivers in the world. Rivers are often considered critical to the development of cities and the plains. But Himalayan waters are also the lifeblood of human settlements in the mountains and hills of Nepal.

The rhythms of daily life in Mustang feel timeless: the chants of Buddhist monks float over the valley every morning, as they have for centuries, and families build their livelihoods out of the same traditions as their ancestors. Yet, for communities here, change is afoot. According to meteorological data, precipitation patterns in the Himalayas have shown a marked shift in the past few decades, with monsoon rain becoming more erratic, and extreme rainfall becoming less frequent but more intense in nature, compounded by increasing temperatures. These are contributing to glaciers melting, springs drying up, and to an increase in extreme events such as floods, droughts and landslides. With a majority of the population involved in agriculture, it is more difficult for farmers to make informed choices about when to plant or harvest their crops.

In Mustang, which is famous for apple production, orchards have been heavily impacted by changes in snow and rainfall patterns, as well as increasing temperatures. Lete and Kunjo used to be the capital for apple production in the region. However, orchards have disappeared entirely, and have been replaced by corn and potato production. Apple orchards are now migrating further North, such as in Kagbeni which used to be too cold for apple production.

Importantly, these climatic changes are having a disproportionate impact on women whose roles are intrinsically tied to the collection, storage and management of water. Across rural Nepal, women are in charge of household tasks such as cooking and cleaning. With almost one in every ten men migrating abroad to work, women must also perform most of the agricultural work. If the water is too scarce, or too abundant, they will have to work longer, and travel greater distances for water collection. This can limit attendance to school for girls, or put them at increasing risks of sexual violence.

Further South, the Kali Gandaki river widens, the climate becomes hot and humid, and the dry Himalayan mountains turn to lower lush green hills covered in tall trees and flourishing fields. Despite these stark differences in landscape, women in the hills also bear the brunt of climate change. In Durlunga Baseni, a small, isolated indigenous village nestled on top of a hill in Nawalparasi and only accessible by foot, many of the women have to walk as much as three hours to access their fields. In recent years, some of the springs have dried up, and changes in rainfall and monsoon patterns have forced farmers to switch to alternative crops. Like in many other isolated villages of the mountains or the hills, opportunities for diversifying livelihood are limited, in part due to lack of access to roads and markets.

In recent years, two NGOs, the Glacier Trust and the HICODEF have been working with the community in Durlunga Baseni to help build its capacity and to adapt to climate change. Equally, the ICIMOD, has been documenting an increasing number of success stories across Nepal where women are learning to cope and being actively involved in mitigating aspects of climate change. There is still a long way to go before those success stories become a norm across Nepal, in particular in more remote and marginalised areas - but it is not impossible.
  • Largely fed from Himalayan Glaciers, streams and rivers play a critical role in providing human settlements with water in the dry region of Mustang, Nepal. Annually, Mustang receives just around 250mm of water. That's roughly the amount of water that fell on parts of Southern Nepal, in just one day (12 August), during the floods that affected South Asia.
    Mustang, Nepal Nepal
  • "It snows less now. Before we couldn't see the mountains because of the snow" says a villager from Marpha pointing at Nilgiri North, 7061m "now, all we can see are the black mountains."
    Almost unanimously along the Kali Gandaki valley, villagers have been reporting increasing temperatures and reduced snowfall in the past few years. These meteorological changes are already starting to have an impact on agricultural production - in particular apples, which are a high-value crop many farmers depend on in the valley.
    Nilgiri North, Nepal Nepal
  • Apples freshly picked from fields around Marpha waiting to be transported by truck. Before the 60s, many of the locals were in the salt trading business, dealing with China and Tibet. Now Marpha is mostly known for its apples, but it is uncertain for how long it will be so. With changes in climate apples are migrating North, and production is already becoming difficult in Marpha.
    Mustang, Nepal Nepal
  • Yet, not everyone can afford a vehicle to transport apples. Here, women are carrying on their backs full bags of freshly picked apples. Like in many places across Nepal, women are the ones doing agricultural and pastoral work in addition to household chores - all of which require the collection and management of water.
    Mustang, Nepal Nepal
  • Kunjo, used to be known as the capital for apple production in Nepal. Yet, due to temperature and rainfall changes, villagers have stopped growing this high-value crop, and have shifted production to corn and potatoes, which can now be seen on most of the roofs across the village.
    Mustang, Nepal Nepal
  • A view of the Kali Gandaki, with some of the world's highest peaks in the far back - Nilgiri North, 7,061m and Annapurna 1, 8,091m - barely covered in snow. Mountains are especially vulnerable to climate changes - under global temperature increase of 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, it is estimated that mountains will experience an increase between 3-5C.
    Mustang, Nepal Nepal
  • Farmers selling and exchanging seeds in Durlunga Basini, Nawalparasi. Even though women are the ones working in the fields, men remain the main decision makers for transactions revolving around food or water.
    Durlunga Baseni, Nawalparasi Nepal
  • A view of Durlunga Baseni surrounded by rice fields. This photo was taken in late September as the sky cleared slightly following two days of intensive rain. At this time of the year the monsoon should be finished, but villagers claim the monsoon rains have been lasting longer and longer in recent years.
    Durlunga Baseni, Nawalparasi Nepal
  • Two young girls helping their mother in the field.
    Across many poorer or marginalised households, education is not a priority as girls are expected to work in the fields and at home, thus limiting their access to resources and opportunities.
    Durlunga Baseni, Nawalparasi Nepal
  • Further downstream, record precipitation in August 2017 has led to massive flooding events in the floodplains of Nepal. Here, a widow and mother of two living on the banks of the river has seen her house crumble before her eyes, losing all her possession including her goats and chickens. She now lives in this temporarily rebuilt house, but rebuilding her life will be an immense challenge, especially as a widow with no access to capital or credit. The links with climate change are uncertain. Yet scientists predict an increase in the number of extreme rainfall events, with the potential to lead to more frequent devastating flooding.
    Nawalparasi, Nepal Nepal