Climate change is far from abstract as frost kills off local farmers' crops

Wed, Mar 6, 2013, 00:00

NEPAL LETTER:They look like rice terraces, neat steps of land carved all the way up the steep hillsides, the mighty snow-capped Himalayan mountain range in the distance. But go closer and it’s not rice but potatoes that are growing in this lush valley about an hour’s journey north of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital.

“We used to grow rice to survive,” says Saraswati Bhetwal, a local farmer, the skin on her smiling face creased like well-tanned leather. “Then, when the road to Kathmandu was improved, we started growing potatoes and cabbages to sell in the city.” She points proudly at her cow and goats. “Now we have some money – some way to improve our lives.”

Nepal, a landlocked country of 30 million people squeezed between India and China, has had more than its fair share of trouble over recent years. In 2001, King Birendra and many of his family were killed in a palace massacre by a drunk and drugged-up prince.

A bloody Maoist rebellion resulted in the deaths of thousands. The monarchy was finally abolished in 2008: the Maoists now dominate a government which seems more intent on political infighting than in ruling a country where the majority live on or below the poverty line.

Life improvements

While for some, like Saraswati, life has improved, with better access to healthcare and schools, in more remote areas the picture is very different. In many villages there is a marked lack of young men: nearly two million Nepalis have gone to work overseas. Most go to the Gulf states or to Malaysia, working 12-hour days, six days a week, with many only allowed one trip home every two years. Remittances are the biggest source of government revenue.

“It is like a new slavery,” says one returnee, back for a visit to see his wife and two sons in his village high up in the mountains of northern Nepal, on the border with Tibet. “But is is the only way we can survive and give our sons an education.”

Those who don’t go overseas for work tend to migrate to the capital in search of jobs. Not so long ago, Kathmandu was a sleepy, easy-going town, a key stop on the global hippy trail where western youth would spend months or years living in cheap hotels, smoking the local hashish and dreaming the days away.

Now the city is a bustling metropolis, on most days covered in a thick blanket of diesel fumes and smog: the original hippies have long gone on to be bankers, surgeons – even journalists. Yet go down an alleyway and turn into one of the city’s little squares and the old atmosphere is still there. A group of old men chant Buddhist scriptures by a temple door. A mangy dog howls. Kids run by, flying kites in the red evening sky. And maybe it’s a dream, but is that a fair-complexioned, lined face in the corner, a faded set of beads round his neck – a hippy who never left?

Major threats

Nepalis comprise numerous ethnic and linguistic groups. They are a proud people with their own quiet dignity. But their way of life is rapidly changing. Not only does the country face considerable political and economic problems, it is also having to confront changes in climate.

The Himalayas – the world’s biggest and highest mountain range, stretching from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the west to Yunnan in southwest China in the east – are, together with the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding mountain ranges, often referred to as the “Third Pole”, containing more ice and water than any other area on the planet outside the Arctic and Antarctica. Hundreds of millions of people depend on the food and energy produced in the region’s river basins.

Temperatures in the Himalayas are rising faster than the global average. Scientists in Nepal say the majority of the country’s glaciers are melting and the climate is unpredictable. The vital summer monsoon is being delayed, while winter rainfall is less frequent but more intense when it arrives, severely damaging crops.

Recently, Saraswati Bhetwal – who, like most of the women in Nepal, does most of the agricultural work – woke one morning to find that a frost had destroyed her potato crop. Her village is tucked away on a valley floor with a year-round temperate climate and was, till now, a seemingly ideal area for vegetable growing.

Saraswati is not interested in debates about climate change and whether the glaciers in the high Himalayas are melting. But she does know that something strange is happening with the weather. “The monsoon comes late. There are more pests. And we’ve never had a frost like that before,” she says. “For days I was so upset I could not go to the fields – we’ve lost all we invested this year. It is very hard.”

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