Himalayas to Ocean (H2O) is a multimedia project that follows the Gandaki river in Nepal from high up in the Himalayan peaks to hundreds of kilometres further downstream in the country’s floodplains. Along the way, it recounts the stories of those who live at the water’s edge – the women, men and children who rely on this vital resource for their daily survival – and the way their lives are inevitably tied to the fate of water in a changing climate.
At first glance, water is plentiful in Nepal. The country’s 6,000 rivers and its glaciers are major sources, ensuring a year-round water supply to millions of people in South Asia. Yet, the Himalayas are currently undergoing dramatic changes and are estimated to be warming three times faster than the global average. Nepal has already been ranked by the Climate Change Risk Atlas (2010) as the fourth most vulnerable country in terms of impacts of climate change; by 2050, parts of the Himalayas could see a 4-5 oC warming.
However, the impacts of climate change in Nepal extend far beyond the melting of iconic glaciers in the high Himalayas. Shifts in the hydrological cycle are leading to more erratic monsoon rains, and extreme rainfall events becoming less frequent but more intense in nature. Such changes are likely to lead to an increase in natural disasters such as floods, landslides, droughts, springs drying up, fire and storms.
H2O aims to capture and present those changes, and document what they mean for people living along the river in four distinct areas, summarised below.
Mustang’s apples on the move
Surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the world, the Kali Gandaki river originates from Himalayan glaciers in the desert-dry region of Upper Mustang, at the border with Tibet. Here, surrounded by giant peaks at over 7,000 in altitude, the landscape is dry, the vegetation is bare, and dust is whipped by winds. The rhythms of daily life feel timeless: the morning chants of Buddhist monks echo over the valley as they have for centuries, and families carve their livelihoods from the same traditions as their ancestors, clustering along glacier-fed streams and rivers.
But for communities in Mustang, change is afoot. Women and men we encountered speak of warming temperatures and changing precipitation - more so than in any other place we came across in Nepal. Temperatures used to be cool enough to maintain a level of snow on the ground, providing a source of water and irrigating the fields in this arid region. Agriculture based livelihoods are taking a direct hit now from warming temperatures.
Apple orchards in particular, were abundant in the southern parts of the district and are now moving further north alongside the increasing temperatures. In Kunjo, located in the southern part of the district and which used to be known as the ‘capital of apples’, orchards have disappeared entirely. Villagers instead plant potatoes, corn, and millet, alternatives that offer a means to survival but will likely never replaced the success that farmers experienced with apple trees. Other means of livelihoods are therefore possible, but at what cost?
Crumbling Hills and Flooded Lands
Ullikhola, in Gulmi district, sits on the banks of the Badhighat river, a tributary of the Gandaki, where the river picks up force fed by countless glacial runoffs upstream and by the monsoon deluge in the summer. Although the village is located far inland, nowhere near any other large cities, it is known for the gigantic landslide that threatens the village. The landslide has been developing over many decades, but villagers report that increasingly intense rains have intensified the erosion, to the extent that now entire parts of the mountain have disappeared. Dunsidhunga used to be a village located on the mountain flanks. But a few years ago its residents were forced to leave and resettle elsewhere due to the insecurity if the situation.
We spoke to Bhagwati, who used to live in Dunsidhunga with her husband and their one year old daughter. They had no other option but to leave their home in the middle of a storm in the dark of the night. Their living situation has since then been highly insecure, and at the mercy of families who were willing enough to host them. They currently live by the river in a house owned by one of the residents from Ullikhola, working the land for their landlord. However, due to the accumulation of sediments from the crumbling mountains along the river bed, flooding is now become more frequent, and Bhagwati and her family fear they may have to relocate elsewhere.
Women bearing the weight of water in the lower foothills
Further south, the river widens, the climate becomes hot and humid, and the mid-hills turn to lower lush green foothills, covered in tall trees, colourful flowers and flourishing fields. Durlunga is a small indigenous village located on top of one of these lower foothills. As we wandered across the village, we were surprised by the number of women working in the fields. Like many places across Nepal, women are responsible for the agricultural work in addition to the household chores as it is common for the men to migrate abroad to earn money, leaving their families behind.
The lives and daily routines of women villagers in Durlunga are thus intrinsically linked with water, which is used for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and farming. Many of the women we encountered walk many hours a day fetching water and accessing their fields which are located close to the river. As such, as the main users of water, women are the first to bear the brunt of climate change. The women we encountered talked of changing rainfall patterns – less frequent, but more unpredictable and intense in nature when they do come down.
Luckily, two NGOs, the Glacier Trust and the HICODEF have been working together in Durlunga to develop pipes for potable water, build irrigation systems and help farmers adjust to changes in rainfall. Farmers have also been planting new varieties of crops, that are more adapted to the changing conditions. Yet adaptation takes time, and represents an additional burden especially for women.
Flooded Realities: Living in the Floodplains
The floodplains of Nepal, are so distinct from any other part of the country we travelled to throughout our journey. Life is plentiful and omnipresent, with verdant green rice paddies, and a diverse wildlife taking refuge from the scorching heat and overwhelming humidity in the lush jungle flora. Here, the river is wide, forceful, and brown from the sediments it carries. It curves around the flat lands of the floodplains like a snake probing its environment and ready to jump and attack at any moment.
Just a month previously, Chitwan was completely under water, due to a deluge flood triggered by the worst rains the country saw in fifteen years. When clouds burst open, 424 millimetres of rain fell in just eight hours in some parts of the country – that’s the equivalent of nearly twice the amount of rain parts of Mustang in the Himalayas receive in an entire year. The floods, which also severely hit India and Bangladesh, affected 1.7 million people in Nepal, displacing 455,000 and taking 143 lives.
We interviewed some of the people that were directly impacted by the floods. From hotel owners unable to insure themselves, to poor communities who lived by the banks of the river and lost all their possessions in the rising waters, there is a common fear that the floods may happen again in the future. Scientists are not able to say for certain whether this flood was due to or influenced by climate change. However, flooding events are predicted to be more frequent and severe due to intensifying rains.