Nepal | August 08, 2020

Towards a brighter, cleaner future

Martin Burdett
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KATHMANDU: One of the lesser known victims of the Covid-19 pandemic that is sweeping the planet was the inaugural Sagarmatha Sambaad (the Mt Everest Dialogue), a biennial global multi-stakeholder forum initiated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nepal to address issues of global, regional and national significance.

The summit, which was to be held in Kathmandu from 2 to 4 April, but cancelled as a result of the pandemic, was due to focus on the other principal issue of our day: climate change.

In these troubled times, the issue of climate change has for now quite naturally taken a backseat as
humanity faces up to a more immediate crisis and one which is stretching the resources of our
governments and societies to breaking point. Drawing comparisons between the two major crises of
the beginning of the 21st century may seem strange at such a time but if anything the current health
crisis requires us more than ever to take stock of the key issues that affect our lives and ensure that
we are better prepared for the future. Both the pandemic and climate change are global phenomena
with varying more localised impacts that result from the way we live. Both underline the fragility and
uncertainty of our world. While the impact of the virus remains unknown, at least with climate
change we know that the earth is warming and temperatures are rising, and rising faster in
mountainous regions such as the Himalayas. How much and how quickly remains unclear for now.

Climate change in the Himalayas is the subject of a multitude of ongoing and past studies as
scientists across the world seek to understand the impact of global warming on water supply in the
region’s major river basins and its consequences on economic and social development. The High
Mountain Asia region, comprising the Himalayas, is home to 25% of the world’s population, and,
with about 100,000 km2 of glaciers, is also host to the largest volume of ice storage outside the polar
region. It is also, according to a study published this year in the journal Nature, host to three of the
planet’s five most important water towers, a term used to describe the water storage and supply
that mountain ranges provide to sustain environmental and human water demands downstream.
According to this global water tower index, these three water towers, comprising the Ganges-
Brahmaputra, Indus and Tarim Interior river basins, are also among the most vulnerable to water
stress, governance, hydro-political tension and future climatic and socio-economic changes.

But what does it mean for Nepal? The impacts of climate change are undeniable and remain highly
uncertain. However, contrary to common misconception, numerous studies show that global
warming is in fact likely to have a positive impact on river flows in Nepal for the rest of the century in
spite of the accelerated retreat of glaciers and the unpredictability of future rainfall. Studies by
leading hydrologists, such as Professors Walter Immerzeel of the University of Utrecht and Patrick
Ray of the University of Cincinnati, project that river flow volumes will actually increase slightly this
century and that the impact of rising temperatures will likely see a shorter dry season as snow melt
will precede the arrival of the wet season. The relevance of these findings is of particular importance
to the development of the country’s untapped hydropower potential.

For Nepal, located at the heart of this region, water is arguably its greatest natural resource and one
that needs to be utilised to ensure self-sufficiency in water, energy and food supply. By extension,
hydropower, if developed sustainably, is its most bankable resource and its derived revenue is vital
for the country’s economic and social development. The large hydropower potential of the country is currently under-utilised with just 2% of its estimated technical potential developed to date. This is
to change. The Nepalese Government has adopted a Low Carbon Energy Strategy that envisages
replacing polluting imported fossil fuel energy through the electrification of all sectors of society and
the economy, from household energy use to transport and industry, based on full development of its
indigenous, clean hydropower potential. Government ambitions to develop some 15,000 MW of
new hydropower or more over the next 10 years or so will allow Nepal to more than meet domestic
electricity demand, enabling surplus power production to be exported to India and even Bangladesh.

Within Nepal, the development of these hydropower projects will generate a cascade of benefits for
the wider society through long-term employment and associated infrastructure. Within and outside
its borders, it will also play a critical role in the future energy transition, helping to balance variable
energy from renewable sources like solar and wind, which will replace polluting fossil-fuel energy.
The combination of a reliable domestic electricity supply and hard currency revenues from exports
of hydropower will most importantly for Nepal drive economic growth and support vital investment
in the country's basic infrastructure from hospitals to schools to water supply systems that will in
turn raise living standards. Electricity has become an indispensable commodity; no more so than
now for hospitals that rely on it to treat those infected with the virus.

The rapid spread of the virus across the planet and our largely uncoordinated response provide
important lessons for the future. More than ever, they underline the need for a coordinated global
approach to the critical issues of our day, for more research to better understand the issues that
affect us all and for better planning and preparation. Like the virus, climate change, and the natural
resources we share, know no borders, and this demands a common unified approach to mitigate the
impacts of growing climate and hydrological variability and ensure resilience for the future.

The development of hydropower across the Himalayas must take the physical environment into
greater consideration and pay greater attention to environmental sustainability, according to
Professor John Reynolds of the UK. For example, hydropower projects in the Arun Valley will require
not only the management of water resources of the entire river system from the headwaters in
Tibet, through Nepal and northern India into Bangladesh and ultimately into the Bay of Bengal, but
also that of sediment and geo-hazards. This will require countries to work together for the benefit of
all. By designing and building climate resilient hydropower projects that take into account all of
these factors, Nepal and the region can look forward to a brighter, cleaner future.

Martin Burdett is a freelance journalist specialising in hydropower and dams.

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