The Heat Is Online

Climate Change Plays Havoc with Himalayan Weather

By Suman Pradhan, Interpress Service, May 13, 1999

BIRGANJ, Nepal, May 13 (IPS) - It has been unusual in much of the Himalayas this year as far as the weather is concerned.

First, there were no rains in the winter, ruining winter harvests across Nepal. There hasn't been much rain this summer either, and problems have been compounded by the severe heat wave which has already hit record levels.

The South Americans have a name for the unpredictable weather pattern - El Nino. Here, there's no local name yet. Global warming has led to dramatic shifts in weather patterns which has been all too visible this year in the Himalayas.

Absence of adequate rainfall has caused water levels to plunge in rivers and reservoirs, feeding an already severe power and drinking water crisis through much of this impoverished Himalayan Kingdom.

Raging forest fires are sweeping through tinder-dry forests particularly in the Garhwal Himalayas in India where people lost loved ones and homes in a powerful earthquake last month.

Here in Birganj, a thriving trading town straddling the Nepal- India border, farmers are worried. When the time comes for farmers like Makuni Thakur to harvest his fields, there may very well be little to reap.

Thakur's farm lies just on the outskirts of Birganj. The market is close enough for him to sell the surplus grain to earn a tidy living each year. But this year, 39-year-old Thakur will not be selling any grain.

The unusually long dry summer which has now stretched for eight months has devastated his crop. "I will be lucky if there's enough grain to feed my family," says Thakur.

In a country where the majority of farms are rain fed, Thakur's plight is all too familiar. Like him, thousands of farmers scattered along the vast Terai plains - the "food bowl" - are scouring the sky for signs of rain. Their crops have been wilting in the unrelenting summer, which has been exceptionally dry this year. The mercury has hovered around 40 degrees Celsius through April.

It is worse in the nearby Indian plains where, media reports say nearly 150 people have died of heat stroke so far. In Kathmandu, Nepal's capital, meteorologists are not willing to say when the rains will arrive. But one thing they are certain about: this has been a record-breaking summer.

"The temperature in Kathmandu has broken the record of the past 30 years for the month of April," says Prakash Gurung of the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology referring to the 35.6 degree Celsius recorded in Kathmandu on Apr. 26. The average temperature at this time of year is between 32 and 34 degrees.

Nepal and large parts of north India are witnessing the unpredictable changes of weather which has become a global phenomenon in recent years.

According to Kathmandu-based scientists, the on-going spell of dry hot weather is the effect of global warming which is putting tremendous strain on the fragile Himalayan ecology.

"Global warming has begun to show its effect on the Himalayan region which is proved by this year's long dry spell," observes Suresh Raj Chalise of the Mountain Natural Resources Division of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an internationally-funded institution based here.

"The effects of global warming is on the rise and has already started to show its effect on Nepal and north India. There is a strong possibility of more prolonged dry spells and high intensity rainfall in the future. Such climatic changes will repeat more frequently," Chalise says.

Scientists say, though the effects have been dramatically visible this year, the shift in weather patterns has been going on for decades.

For instance, glaciers and glacial lakes which are scattered all over the Himalayas have been receding at a phenomenal rate for the last three decades, mainly due to global warming.

A recent study on Asian glaciers by the International Commission on Snow and Ice says, "Glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world, and if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 is very high."

Alarmed by the study, the latest issue of 'Down to Earth', a science and environment fortnightly published from New Delhi, warns "in the long run, with large sections of these glaciers gone, the rivers (of the Indo-Gangetic plains) will dry up. Impacts on the flora and fauna, and the 500 million people inhabiting the great Indian plains are hard to imagine."

Receding glaciers would increase landslides, change river regimes and cause devastating floods.

"Due to the rapid melting of snow covers and receding glaciers, disasters like floods and landslides will be a common occurrence across the Himalayas," says Chalise of ICIMOD.

"There have been more bursting of glacial lakes in the Himalayas in the last 15 years than ever before. Such incidents can only rise, leading to disasters," he adds.