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Scientists in the Himalayas are battling poor resources to protect the area from the effects of climate change. T. V. Padma reports.

Nestled in the Himalayas, bordering the world's highest peak, Mount Everest, lies tiny landlocked Nepal. The barely 250km stretch from south to north sees a land rise from under one hundred metres above sea level to 8000 metres, and climate ranging from tropical to glacial.

The Himalayas — the source of Asia's nine largest rivers and a lifeline for 1.3 billion people downstream — sweep over 2,400 kilometres across Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan.

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in April this year warns that the Himalayan glaciers are receding faster than any other and could disappear by 2035 if the present rate of global warming continues. Mount Everest itself is retreating and glaciers are melting, swelling lakes that could one day burst and cause massive flooding.

Nepal has 2,323 glacial lakes, of which 20 are a potential danger to the population. Its even tinier neighbour, Bhutan — whose glaciers are less well understood — has an estimated 3,000 glacial lakes, of which 24 could be dangerous.

But Bhutan and Nepal do not have the technical and financial means to study the impact of climate change on their countries. Largely ignored in the international arena of high-tech science and overshadowed by their populous neighbours China and India, these least-developed countries struggle on their own.

Shortage of scientific data

There are few trained scientists or even a research station in Nepal to study this area of science, says Om Ratna Bajracharya, senior hydrologist at the Snow and Glacier Hydrology Unit in the Nepalese government's Department of Hydrology and Meteorology.

Batu Krishna Uprety, chief of the environment section in Nepal's Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology, says that there are no research data available to help understand climate change in countries such as Nepal.

Bhutan has the same problem. "The gaps in scientific manpower and research are acute," says Doley Tshering, officer for climate change at the United Nation's Development Programme office in Bhutan.

"The two agencies responsible for climate change, the National Environment Commission and the Department of Geology and Mines, lack trained staff to conduct basic climate-change research. Research gaps exist in studies on climatology and climate and weather forecasting," he says.

Pradeep Mool, scientist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal's capital Kathmandu, agrees. There is a need to raise awareness about climate change at different levels and to build policies and strategies for mitigation and adaptation, he says.

Nepal is also hampered by a lack of adequate information on glacial lakes in neighbouring Tibet — part of China — and India, says Bajracharya. "There should be more information sharing and transboundary cooperation," he adds.

Funding more scientific input

Nepal relies on ground-based data on glacial parameters, collected from a network of 12 stations set up in the Himalayan region in the 1980s. Six of these were set up with Germany's support, but at least six more are needed — each costing about US$2,000, which the country simply cannot afford.

The country hopes that a new Nepalese-French project on glacial mass balance, slated to begin in late 2007, will provide essential updates.

Likewise, climate data for Bhutan are not well documented. Bhutan installed its first meteorological weather stations in 1973 at a few selected locations, but reliable data exist for only 10–12 years, whereas several decades of data are needed as a basis for climate prediction.

Buying expensive research equipment is a constraint, as is access to the latest scientific literature. "Research would require access to a lot of up-to-date scientific information through international journals. The government scientists may lack resources to subscribe to journals and other sources of information," says Tshering.

The inaccessibility to scientists of glaciers concentrated in northern Bhutan, where roads need to be built, adds to these problems.

"This [region] is not like the Alps," says Om Ratna Bajracharya. "Here it takes seven days for a scientist to walk to and reach a glacier. But we will not give up."

Satellite image of glaciers and
glacial lakes in Bhutan
Credit: NASA
Bajracharya and his colleagues are resigned to the fact that Nepal cannot afford to buy the high-resolution remote-sensing satellite systems that would provide a clearer picture of the receding glaciers and swelling glacial lakes. His department has a budget of US$84,400, which is barely enough for salaries, maintenance of buildings and equipment, and for operating weather stations.

The department makes do with whatever free satellite images it can get hold of, including some from ICIMOD, says Bajracharya.

Warning of mountain tsunamis

Forecasting glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) is a major worry for Bhutan and Nepal, with projections indicating that these are likely to increase in the future as a result of climate change. Thousands of people — as well as the local infrastructure of roads, bridges and communication networks — in the Himalayas are at risk of GLOFs. The warning time is barely minutes or, at most, hours. "GLOFs are the mountain tsunamis," says ICIMOD's Basanta Shreshtha.

Existing networks for gathering and transmitting data on climate and water are inadequate. There is an urgent need for new, improved mechanisms of flood forecasting and realtime warning in the region, says Mool.

ICIMOD and the World Meteorological Organization have started a project to set up a regional flood-information system for the Hindu Kush Himalayas and to share information for early-warning technologies, resources and scientific knowledge.


ICIMOD has also helped Nepal's Department of Hydrology and Meteorology and Bhutan's Department of Energy to set up two-part systems comprising a GLOF sensor and a GLOF warning system.

In Nepal, water-level sensors connected by cable relay information about the onset of a flood to a transmitter located upstream. The transmitter relays the signals to all remote warning systems downstream, where most people live, within two minutes of a flood starting.

Bhutan has a manually operated system in the eastern Luana lake area, with two staff members equipped with a wireless set and a satellite telephone to relay messages. They monitor gauges installed at intervals along the main river and lakes.

Such measures are resource intensive and require much detailed fieldwork and maintenance, say ICIMOD scientists.

Constraints on funding

Nepal's Department of Hydrology and Meteorology is not alone in its funding problems. The science ministry of Nepal is itself in need of restructuring, having been largely ignored in the political conflict between the monarchy, democrats and Maoist rebels over the past decade, says Ishwar Singh Thapa, joint secretary in Nepal's Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology.

A transmitter for the early
warning system for Tsho Rolpa
lake in Nepal
Credit: ICIMOD
An interim coalition government set up in 2006 can take no major policy decisions until elections are held in November 2007, but Thapa says it is imperative that the science allocation is increased from the present 0.3 per cent to at least one per cent of the country's gross domestic product in the coming years.

Meanwhile, issues of cost and affordability also affect decisions on installation of equipment and mitigation strategies to reduce the impact of global warming. "It is technically complex and financially difficult to have mitigation strategies in a harsh high-altitude environment," points out Om Ratna Bajracharya.

For example, Tsho Rolpa, Nepal's biggest glacial lake in the Rolwaling Valley near Kathmandu, needs to be drained by 17 metres to prevent a lake burst. So far, Nepal has drained it by three metres, reducing the chance of a GLOF by 20 per cent, with a US$3 million project from the Netherlands. But the project ended in 2000 and the future is uncertain.

Bhutan settled for the labour-intensive option of manually digging out the water from its Raphstreng Tso glacial lake, which reached a critical bursting point in 1998.


"International agencies are shifting focus from mitigation to adaptation, which is seen as less expensive," observes Saraju Kumar Baidya, senior divisional meteorologist at Nepal's Department of Hydrology and Meteorology.

"We have to go along with where the funds lie," says Baidya, explaining that climate-change strategies are often donor rather than country-driven.

In theory, least-developed countries like Bhutan and Nepal are eligible for a special adaptation fund earmarked for them by United Nations Development Programme and Global Environment Facility (UNDP-GEF).

But scientists are concerned with country-level effects and the UNDP-GEF supports only projects with a global impact. The net result is that few projects qualify for funding, says Uprety.

Projects in the pipeline

Despite the hurdles, Nepal has bagged a UNDP-GEF grant for an 18-month National Capacity Self-Assessment Project, which started in April, and has finalised a National Adaptation Programme of Action to start this year.

Damage caused by the 1994
flood of Luggye Tsho lake in
Credit: ICIMOD
But such projects are few and far between. Nepal has managed just two projects under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), both dealing with biogas technologies. "China and India corner most of the CDM projects," says Uprety.

In April, the country set up a 23-member climate-change network comprising senior government scientists, academics, non-government organisations and community-based organisations from Nepal.

The network will attempt to assess the strengths of various organisations to deal with climate change, share information and use their collective expertise. It will serve as a platform to discuss and promote climate-change activities in Nepal and form a position paper for use in international negotiations, says Uprety.

And, like the rugged Himalayas, the scientists of Bhutan and Nepal will not buckle.

This article is part of a Spotlight on Science in the Himalayas.