Sunil Babu Shrestha, Vice Chancellor, Nepal Academy of Science and Technology,( NAST)
Rijan Bhakta Kayastha. Associate Professor, Kathmandu University
Nepal has a unique geo-strategic location in between two big countries China on the north and India on the remaining three sides. The two neighbors are not only bigger in size; they also hold a major share in the global economy. Nepal has a historically relationship with immediate neighbors India and China due to geo-strategic location. As compared to the negligible contribution of Nepal, both the neighbors and other world’s industrialized countries contribute significant quantity of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) which is regarded as the root cause of climate change will affect different sectors (Like hydropower, water supply, Irrigation, agriculture, biodiversity, tourism, health, infrastructures and urban, etc.) in Nepal. Nepal is one of the most affected countries by climate change in the world. Nepal lies on the top 10 countries, 9th most affected by climate extreme events based on the Global Climate Risk Index (CRI) in the period 1999–2018. Climate change therefore has to be seen as important aspect of Nepali society in terms of security and sustainable development. The climate change policy, 2019 has stressed the bringing socio-economic prosperity by building a climate-resilient society in the country. But the climate change is one of the major challenges before us even achieving the target of graduating meaningfully from Least Developed Country (LDC) by 2030. In this context, diplomacy, which deals with give and take the process in various matters including economic development, security and global issues like Climate Change, can facilitate many ways. Looking at the geostrategic location climate change issues and its impacts should be kept in priority in the foreign policy. And diplomacy must be able to explore the opportunities for internationally available climate financing to resilient infrastructures and launching program to tackle the negative impacts of climate change. In this context, this article therefore tries to advocate for the need of Climate Diplomacy and describes climate change issues, particularly in environmental and water resources sectors for exploring bilateral and multilateral cooperation in those sectors.
Key words: Climate Change, Foreign Policy, Transboundary, Tri-lateral Cooperation, Water resources
The Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal is located strategically in South Asia. It is between two bigger neighboring countries China and India in terms of size, economy and military power. Nepal is about 65 times and 22 times smaller than China and India in size respectively. Nepal has a 1414 km border (15 districts) with China’s Tibet autonomous region (TAR) on the north side and an 1880 km border (23 districts) with India (Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh & Bihar, West Bengal, and Sikkim) on three side (West, South, and East) (Baniya, 2020). A Himalayan country Nepal has a historical relationship with both immediate neighbors India and China due to geo-strategic location and has also a close people-to-people relationship. Nepal is connected with India socially, culturally, and economically China has been also a friendly country to Nepal since long back and the commercial transaction is also increasing. Both the neighbors are industrialized countries. Like other industrialized countries of the world, Nepal’s immediate neighbors contribute a significant quantity of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) as compared to the negligible amount of Nepal. Scientists have pointed out that the root cause of climate change is GHG emission. The key driver of changes in mountain sustainability today is also identified as climate change which has environmental and social impacts to increase uncertainty in water supplies and agricultural production for human populations across the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) (Wester et.al, 2019). Studies have shown that climate change affects different sectors (like hydropower, water supply, irrigation, agriculture, biodiversity, tourism, health, infrastructures and urban, etc.) in Nepal. Nepal is one of the most affected countries by climate change in the world. It lies on the top 10 countries, 9th most affected by climate extreme events based on the Global Climate Risk Index (CRI) in the period 1999–2018 (Eckstein et al., 2021). Changes in precipitation and temperature as a result of climate change could have serious implications for biodiversity and the ecosystem that provides goods and services to the general population (Chettri and Sharma 2016, adopted from Wester et.al, 2019). Therefore, climate change has to be seen as an important aspect of Nepali society in terms of security and sustainable development.
The climate change policy, 2019 has stressed bringing socio-economic prosperity by building a climate-resilient society in the country. As a party of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, Nepal has already submitted the road map of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) (Climate change Policy, 2019). Nepal is also committed to achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals leaving no one behind by 2030 and also Sendai Framework for disaster management. However, climate change is one of the major challenges before us even to achieve the target of graduating meaningfully from Least Developed Country (LDC) by 2030. Diplomacy, which deals and negotiates in the various matters including economic development and security thus needs to be given much priority in dealing with these climate change issues and exploring the opportunities for internationally available climate financing to resilient infrastructures and bilateral and multilateral cooperation to tackle the negative impacts of climate change. Based on the review of the available literature, this article therefore tries to analyze some of the important issues of climate change particularly water resource sectors, environment and its impact in Nepal due to its geo-strategic location. It also aims to advocate the need for climate diplomacy to address those issues with bilateral and multilateral cooperation.
Water Resources of Nepal:
Nepal is rich with ample water resources from the accessibility point of view. Water is the key natural resource for the prosperity of the country. There are about 6000 rivers in Nepal. out of which, 33 big rivers have drainage areas exceeding 1000 sq. km with drainage density is about 0.3 km per sq. km. The water resources development of Nepal has great potentiality of generating hydroelectric power, irrigating agriculture land, and supplying water for domestic and industrial uses. It is estimated that the economic potential of the hydroelectricity production of Nepal is 43,122 MW (K. C. et al., 2011).
Based on their source and discharge of rivers, rivers in Nepal it can be categorized into three types. The first type of river originates in the Himalayas and carries snowmelt and glacier ice melt water with significant discharge even in the dry season. Mahakali, Karnali, Gandaki and Koshi rivers are of this type. These rivers are perennial and offer promising water sources for irrigation, hydropower development, and navigation. The second type of rivers are the medium type that starts in the Mid-lands or the Mahabharat range. Babai, West Rapti, Bagmati, Kamala, Kankai, and Mechi rivers falls on this category, which are fed by precipitation as well as groundwater regeneration including springs. Such rivers are also perennial but have a wide seasonal fluctuation in discharge. The third type of river originates from the Siwalik range and are seasonal with little or no flow during the dry season. These rivers without surface storage cannot be used for year-round irrigation or hydropower generation. Figure 1 represents the major basins of Nepal with 19 sub-glacierized river basins of Nepal. All river water flows down to India from Nepal.
Figure 1. A map of Nepal showing major river basins and 19 glacierized sub-river basins with glaciers.
River discharge is concentrated in the monsoon season in all river systems of Nepal. Snow and glacier ice melt contribution to total runoff is mainly from March to May. On catchments below 3000 m, there is no significant contribution from snow and ice melt. There are 3,808 glaciers in Nepal. Not only glaciers but there are also 1,470 glacial lakes in the northern part of Nepal formed by the activities of glaciers. Among them, 21 glacial lakes are potentially dangerous, which means they are big and hold a vast amount of water, and if they burst, the downstream locations will be damaged considerably by the floodwater including sediment in it. There are other 26 potentially dangerous glacial lakes in Tibet, China (25), and Uttarakhand, India (1) (Bajracharya et al., 2020).
With the above background, it is clear that the importance of the water resources of Nepal for its sustainable development. Since the major rivers are transboundary in nature, it is very important that there should be good coordination and understanding for the development of the water resources of Nepal as well as to reduce damages by induced disasters in Nepal with its neighboring countries.
Water and Trans-boundary Cooperation:
From the time of British India, Nepal had tried to harness its water resource for irrigation on a mutual benefit basis between the two countries. Mahakali Agreement was signed with British India on 23 August 1920 for the construction of Sharada Barrage across Mahakali River to irrigate 396,000 ha of land in UP, India. The Agreement quotes that the Government of Nepal will have a right to a supply of 460 сusecs of water. However, it was 50 years after the agreement that the Mahakali River water was utilized in Nepal with the implementation of the Mahakali Irrigation Project to irrigate 11,000 ha of land in the Kanchanpur district (Pradhan, 2018).
Nepal signed the Koshi Agreement with India on 25 April 1954, and India built the Koshi Barrage across the Koshi River. India and Nepal planned to irrigate 969,110 ha and 66 k ha of land respectively and Nepal 66,000 ha of land at that time. Similarly, Nepal and India signed the Gandak Agreement on 4 December 1959 for irrigation and hydroelectricity production. Gandak Barrage was built by India across the Gandak (Narayani) River. India got enough water to irrigate 1,850,520 ha land and Nepal 38,000 ha of land and 10,000 KW power from the Surajpura Power House. A treaty known as the Mahakali Treaty which signed between the Government of Nepal and the Government of India on February 12, 1996. This treaty was for the integrated development of the Mahakali River that included Sharada Barrage, Tanakpur Barrage, and Pancheshwar Dam Project. However, the main component of the treaty, the Pancheshwar Dam Project is still under review. Among the above four main water treaties between Nepal and India, only the first three are in place at present and the last one (Mahakali Treaty) needs serious action to be taken by both governments to harness its water resource. As mentioned by Dixit and Shukla (2017), the produced benefits and service have hardly met as per anticipation of the people. We can consider the unsettled case of compensation to the land submerged by the Koshi Barrage Project which is still unpaid to Nepali landowners.
Geo/Environmental-hazards in Nepal:
Nepal is prone to geo-hazards like earthquakes, floods, landslides, debris flows, glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), sinkholes, etc. Geo or natural hazards bring disasters in vulnerable areas and disturb the social system, degraded the environment, aggravate poverty and eco-system in the affect areas. The changing climate at present is leading to as increase in the number of occurrences of such hazards. Climate change is visible in terms of temperature rise and unusual extreme weather events. The country’s maximum temperature has increased significantly by 0.056°C per year between 1971 and 2014 (DHM, 2017). The minimum temperature has also increased, but the rate is a little low at 0.002°C per year. The rising temperature makes the Nepal’s Himalayas more vulnerable. Nepal has many glaciers and glacial lakes in the Himalayas which are very much sensitive to temperature rise therefore more the temperature, more melting of snow and glacier ice. that leads to an increase in the glacial lake area.
Nepal’s high rank in the list of countries affected by climate change is very serious because there are 3,808 glaciers and 1,470 glacial lakes in Nepal which are directly affected by climate change. Furthermore, many glacial lakes are in transboundary in nature which needs strong collaborative action. Nepal’s focus on studying glacial lakes picked up after the glacial lake outburst flood on 4 August, 1985 from the Dig Tsho Glacial Lake in Khumbu region, Solukhumbu district. The event became attention of many as it happened during the non-rainfall season on a clear sunny day. Later, it was noticed that a large amount of glacial ice had fallen into the lake and as a result floods. The 1985 event took place in a comparatively small lake but the country has several larger lakes where the impact will be higher. After this Dig Tsho event, a Chinese and Nepal’s joint team carried out the first expedition to inventory glaciers and glacial lakes in the Pumqu and Poiqu river basins of Xizang (Tibet) in 1987 (LIGG/WECS/NEA, 1988). Since, then such joint study have not been carried out yet. A few studies have been carried out in China, Tibet, and Nepal separately. It is very essential to create a Joint Scientific Committee between Nepal and China so that periodic study of glaciers and glacial lakes can be done and exchange of information on flooding can be made on time when necessary. For example, on 18 June 2021, heavy rainfall triggered landslides that blocked the Rongsi River in China, a tributary of the Tama Koshi. The Chinese authorities informed Nepal about the possibility of a flash flood in case the landslide dam was breached. Fortunately, they have safely drained the lake avoiding the chance of flooding.
A similar past event was destructive flooding in the Bhote Koshi River in July 2016 which was due to a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) in Tibet. The glacial lake, roughly 9,000 sq. m in area, had eroded its moraine, issuing tsunami-like flood downstream that swept away at least two dozen riverside homes and parts of the Araniko Highway on 5 July, 2016. These events and possible geo-hazards clearly show the necessity of forming a joint team to deal with such events. Not only with China, should Nepal also from such a Joint Scientific Committee with India to deal with similar disasters in the Koshi, Gandak and Mahakali river basins. In the Mahakali River basin, a potentially dangerous glacial lake exists and prior flood information will help a lot to minimize the possible damages due to floods.
Environmental hazards such as air pollution, wildfire, nuclear radiation, etc. also pose a serious threat to Nepal because of its geopolitical location between India and China. Airflow during the winter and pre-monsoon seasons will be from west to east in Nepal. Therefore, most of the big air pollution events entered Nepal from India like the one in March 2020 which creates havoc in Nepal and the government had closed all educational institutions from 30 March to 2 April 2021. The Joint Scientific Committee will also be helpful to work closely in such events as well as other events in the future. In this context, for a small country like Nepal, mobilizing its available resources to achieve sustainable development by strengthening science and technology via international cooperation will be a valuable mechanism (Shrestha, 2020). Climate diplomacy will be a valuable tool to deal with such transboundary issues described in the following section.
Need of Climate Diplomacy:
Climate change has become a global threat through resource degradation and the increasing intensity and frequency of disasters. Depending upon the geographic characters, locations and extent of risk exposures climate change can have various intensity of impacts making obstacle for the sustainable development. Sometimes, climate change can raise transboundary issues and geopolitical tensions especially in the water resource sector and level of pollution. Changing geographies of rivers or glaciers may require diplomatic initiatives to balance interests and avoid disputes over borders or water rights (Carius et al., 2017). Climate change has no boundary. To combat its negative impact, science and technology needs to be mobilize in boundary-less approach. Therefore, with diplomatic approach, it is required to possess international collaboration and cooperation for capacity development, infrastructure development, and technological transfer (Shrestha, 2018).
The basic element through which the impact of climate prevails in our surroundings is water. Adopting hydrological changes (changing pattern of rainfall, changing availability of fresh water, extreme weather events etc.) covers remarkable portion of the adopting to climate change, which results in impact for biodiversity, agriculture and water security etc. Due to such consequences of climate changes in relation to water and environment, it has valuable repercussions for international relations based on the fact that about 60% of the global river flows are trans-boundary Carius et al., 2017). As it is already discussed in the above section, trans-boundary nature of river flows among China, Nepal and India, the interlinkage of water sector with climate change is very crucial aspect for Nepal and has valuable implication for foreign policy. Therefore, Nepal has to adopt the better climate diplomacy in this context to manage water disputes for geopolitical stability, seeking support for climate resilient infrastructures for sustainable development in the country and expediting the new opportunity of bilateral and multilateral cooperation over water and environment.
For having better climate diplomacy, the role of diplomats is vital for negotiating bilateral and multilateral collaborations. This serves as meaningful instruments for climate actions to reduce climate change impacts by investing in low-carbon development and adaptation activities. Such climate actions can improve the socio-economic conditions affected country with green job opportunities, green economic activities and investment in resilient infrastructures. Climate action represents an opportunity for sustainable transformation, growth, and development. Climate diplomacy has multi-faceted role to deal with climate change issues. As described in the above sections, the issues and impacts of climate change for Nepal, particularly in water resource and environment sectors, are serious and sensitive. Therefore, the inclusion of climate diplomacy foreign policy can open the opportunity for climate change adaptation and mitigation actions (Carius et al., 2017). Diplomacy is a process of negotiation but unfortunately some of the bilateral treaties and agreements were not done on equal footing or wit sufficient diplomatic skills from Nepali side showing the need of subject experts and legal skills for every important give and take process (Nepal, 2021). This emphasize that while negotiating climate change issues, diplomats from the Nepali side shoul be well informed about the matters from climate scientists and subject experts so tha Nepal, being the low contribution of GHG emission but highly vulnerable country, can get benefits with justifiable compensation.
It was observed that Nepal’s foreign policy has been influenced by the change in the domestic political system. With the change of domestic political system, Nepal has adopted a foreign policy of non-alignment, and ‘equi-proximity’ with its immediate neighbors (Adhikari, 2018). Nepal has also been trying its best to connect China and India becoming a vibrant economic bridge with promoting trilateral cooperation among China, Nepal, and India. As declared by late King Prithvi Narayan Shah, Nepal is a “yam between two boulders” Nepal’s geo-strategic location in between both of our immediate industrialized neighbors urge special attention to highlight the climate change issues. Refocus on climate change issues faced by Nepal by virtue of its geographic condition and location, it has to be able to raise its voice to neighbors and industrialized countries at the diplomatic level to create a new discourse that will be providing support for bringing mitigation and adaptation actions against climate change in the country. Nepal will have to ensure its foreign policy serves its national interests with respect to its geo strategic location. Diplomacy should be utilized properly to our immediate neighbors and other high GHG emission countries to realize that Nepal has to be compensated with green financing mechanism for its resilient infrastructure projects and international cooperation against negative impacts facing or will face in the future due to climate change even though the country has the negligible contribution of GHG emission. Climate Diplomacy has to be best utilized for Nepal’s path to inclusive, sustainable and resilient development by maintaining a cooperative relationship with both its neighbors. Instead of asking for international support, climate change issues could be the logical basis for diplomatic discourse for seeking such aids and grants under bilateral or multilateral cooperation. Furthermore, to materialize the trilateral cooperation, it seems necessary to start diplomatic talk with our immediate neighbors on the topic of trans-boundary or trilateral Cooperation for Water Resource Development and Geo/Environmental hazards in Nepal and convince our friendly neighbors for sustainable development activities by reducing negative impacts due to climate change in the country. This will be helpful for Nepal to fight against climate change induced disasters and for achieving sustainable development goal of the country.
Thanks Nepal Council of World Affairs Annual Journal ( 2022).
Special thanks to the distinguished author Dr. Shrestha and the entire executive team of the NCWA: Ed. Upadhyaya.
# About the authors: Dr. Sunil Babu Shrestha is the Vice-Chancellor of Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and Chief Editor of Nepal Journal of Science and Technology. He is also life Member of NCWA.
Dr. Rijan Bhakta Kayastha is a Associate Professor, Head of the Department of Environmental Science and Engineering and Coordinator of the Himalayan Cryosphere, Climate and Disaster Research Center (HiCCDRC), School of Science, Kathmandu University, Dhulikhel, Kavre.
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