Who will pay for climate disasters?

The Melamchi flood of 15 June last year and several hours of a historical hailstorm on 20 February earlier this year in Pokhara are just the two latest examples of climate-related loss and damage in Nepal.

The Melamchi flood almost exactly a year ago went beyond lives lost and infrastructure damaged. The entire stretch of the scenic river valley lost its base of ecosystem services and aesthetic value that was a draw for visitors.

There are several theories concerning the origin of the flood and what exactly triggered it, but there is no doubt that it is a combination of climate change-related trends.

The other freak weather event, an off-season heavy rainfall coupled with hailstorm during the dry season meant that much of the ready-to-harvest paddy in Pokhara valley was laid to waste. The intensity and the subsequent damage was unprecedented.

But is Nepal, one of the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of the climate emergency, ready to cope with loss and damage on such scales?

Nepal’s existing two-pillar climate policy — adaptation and mitigation — does not have provisions to compensate for the losses and damages. This policy is therefore grossly inadequate and ineffective in saving lives, livelihoods and ecosystems.

In fact, with climate change impact now crossing the adaptation threshold, loss and damage have become unavoidable across vulnerable countries. This requires the third pillar for a climate solution, namely Loss and Damage (L&D), a concept which gained momentum during the COP26 in Glasgow last year.

But the L&D mechanism is moving at a much slower pace during global climate negotiations, with some fundamental disagreements remaining unresolved, especially as the developed nations intend to limit response measures within the scope of the adaptation and mitigation pillars, and have not accepted L&D for fear of additional economic burden.

One of the reasons behind this is that, while the global discourses on L&D are helpful to inform theoretical debates, they rarely offer practical solutions. A growing body of anticipatory research advocates L&D as the third way to counter multi-dimensional climate change impact, but falls short of clarifying an approach and an actionable framework to measure and respond to the loss and damage events.

In a notable progression of the agenda, the 2013 Conference of Parties (COP) adopted the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage. This first international policy document paved the way to address the issue. Since then, the focus of global advocacy has been on securing climate finance to support the most affected countries with weak economies.

In recent years, Nepal has been pursuing the agenda at international fora by sharing anecdotal cases of recurrent climate-induced loss and damage. But, despite being a ‘hotspot’ for climate change extremities and subsequent impact, progress on L&D remains extremely slow with climate policies lacking robust framework to guide action.

Weather ‘surprises’ have become the new normal, and Nepal is on an uncharted path of climate crises bearing immense losses. But what is worrying is that the intensified climate impact is pushing many communities and ecosystems beyond adaptation thresholds.

Reports of loss and damage start pouring in from early monsoon and continue for the next 100 days during which 80% of the country’s annual rainfall occurs. The predictable pattern of rhythmic monsoon rains has now become more erratic with short, intense and localised rainfall, often followed by a period of longer breaks or droughts.

Rainfall events in Nepal are still recorded at weather stations with 24-hourly manually operated rain gauge. Thus the ‘mean’ and ‘average’ climate data of the past could not measure instant fluctuations and extreme weather incidents, rendering them quite useless when it comes to determining trends like cloudbursts.

The good news is that record-keeping has largely improved over the years even though these are not easily accessible to the public. Linking local incidents of loss and damage to instant data of extreme weather and climate phenomena (intensity, frequency and volume) may help to identify and articulate the L&D issues more clearly in the days ahead.

Like many developing countries, Nepal’s early responses to climate change were framed largely based on global scenarios as there was no scientific database at local levels. While these shortcomings persist, the rapid emergence of medium and large scale climate extremes is already taking a toll on the national economy and livelihoods.

With the recently launched ‘National Framework on Climate Change-induced Loss and Damage, 2021’, Nepal has positioned itself among the countries in the frontline to articulate the loss and damage component, redefining it in the national context with a focus on the urgent need of saving the diverse natural ecosystems and development infrastructure, including cultural heritage.

The definition itself reflects the underlying ideas but it hardly helps with identifying and categorising the recurrent events in the country. As the Least Developed Countries advocate for compensation payments based on assessments of economic and non-economic losses, the focus should be on assessing, categorising and prioritising the changing climate and weather events. Nepal now must address L&D through a three-pronged strategy.

First, by recognising it as a critical component of climate response at home, and a key strategy for policy negotiation.

Second, by mapping adaptation thresholds and the unavoidable risks to lives and livelihood, accommodating underlying economic and ecosystem vulnerabilities of localities to create a scientific analysis and database.

Third, by making our development plan climate-resilient through the use of scientific data and transparent governance so that we can avoid or minimise risks and losses, such as the Melamchi flood at the start of the monsoon exactly a year ago.

All of this means conceiving a multifront response mechanism to save lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable at local levels while strengthening the national database of climate-induced losses and damages by overcoming the existing barriers.  

Ngamindra Dahal is the chair of Nepal Water Conservation Foundation for Academic Research (NWCF) and a Senior Research Fellow at Southasia Institute of Advanced Studies. 

Hemant Ojha is a Senior Policy Adviser with the Institute for Study and Development Worldwide (IFSD) and an Associate Professor at the University of Canberra.

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