Beyond Predictions: Building Resilience Against Extreme Climate Surprises

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We must strengthen community resilience in advance rather than hastily respond to the adverse climate effects.

The growing dissatisfaction over the failure of global efforts to curb carbon emissions against the expectations of climate vulnerable countries was partly addressed on the first day of the recently concluded 28th climate summit, CoP28, with the establishment of a loss and damage fund. The annual summit organised in Dubai, UAE, also made history by recognising the need to transclean energyition from fossil fuels, urging governments to increase their clean energy capacities three times by 2030. But it also fell short of what climate scientists, activists and vulnerable countries demanded: A timeline for a fossil fuel phase-out. The thrill waned further within a few days when the number of countries pledging money to the loss and damage fund didn’t grow as expected. The initial pledge of around $700 million made within the first week of the summit is far less than what will be needed annually to finance loss and damage by 2030.

With every passing year, previous climate records get shattered. The year 2023 was no exception—the warmest year since records began 174 years ago. The takeaway from the summit for the world is clear: There will be no letup in the expansion of oil production needed to avert the ecological tipping points that are closer than we think they are. One oil company has already announced it will continue to invest in oil.

Difficult questions

It’s clear that the extreme events we have observed in recent years will occur for years to come. If and when that happens, how will a vulnerable country like Nepal deal with it considering how its economic foundations such as land and water resources are depleting and food insecurity and unemployment are growing? Considering our inherited limitations in delivering development, it’s time we started grappling with questions like this at home.

Even after years of the climate discourse taking centre-stage among development practitioners and witnessing extreme events more frequently, no institution seems to be evaluating the extent of climate-induced damage to each of the economic sectors. It’s probably because we don’t realise or aren’t aware of the changes taking place in and around land and water resources and how they will increasingly undermine our growth and progress in the days ahead. For some, it’s already become a question of survival.

In a brief conversation with a man from the Chandragiri area—west of Kathmandu Valley—about climate impacts on our water sources the other day, I was describing how Jhiku Khola, a local stream serving as a lifeline in Panchkhal Valley in Kavre, had dried up within the last two decades, severely affecting the local community. The man, mouth agape with shock, informed me that a stream in Chandragiri has dried too—an alarming fact since Chandragiri mountain range is known to feed other streams in lower areas in Chobhar from where tankers collect water to sell in the valley when most other sources dry out in April/May. Such a drastic change in the natural system should deeply worry us. Instead, the local government installed deep tube wells to meet the local water needs—akin to taking a hammer to a shrapnel wound.

Multi-layered problem

While describing the nature of climate problems, experts point out that it’s not as linear as mathematics, which offers more-or-less approachable problems with solutions that everyone agrees on. Climate problems are unique to their geography and demography, and their solutions are not so one-dimensional, with no end to the number of approaches. This uniqueness makes climate problems more complex and even harder to tackle with compartmentalised institutions working with a narrow scope.

Our sectoral institutions such as water, energy, agriculture and infrastructure have been designed to solve problems such as bringing water from a faraway source to settlements as “drinking water” or from a river to dry farmlands downstream for “irrigation” or providing seeds and fertilisers to farmers to increase food production. This approach stems from the very foundations of our education system, which believes its purpose is to disseminate information and agreed-upon facts rather than teaching students important problem-solving skills. Contesting a thought, established or emerging, is considered intruding on someone else’s area of expertise.

A combination of institutions established to address particular problem(s) and a workforce trained in specific sectoral knowledge is simply insufficient to tackle the most complex aspects of climate change, which often requires out-of-the-box thinking just to identify various layers of the problem. Everyone may not agree on the solutions offered by experts of one discipline because there are issues hidden in the intersections between and among disciplines which are often overlooked.

Community resilience

Families and communities are already adapting to climate change impacts. The current mode of autonomous adaptation seems to have been to “escape” the problem. When droughts hit crops, farmers look for alternate sources of income, and if the problem persists for years, people migrate. When water sources dry out, families move to new areas where water is available, generally from the hills to the valleys. This may be a short-term solution, but in the long-run we have to explore ways to make communities resilient. This is possible only when we begin to anticipate the issues we need to address in advance rather than respond when faced with their consequences.

This may include weighing in options to tackle the impacts we have already felt. For instance, winter rains failed last year, affecting crops. Shouldn’t we have contingency plans for farmers if the rain fails this year too, which isn’t unlikely given the increasingly high rate of warming of the Arctic? Our institutions must start formulating such contingency plans should climate surprises affect the sectoral goals.

Similarly, we must consider the domino effect of proposed solutions. For instance, long periods of drought have started affecting the availability of water across the country. Generally, we’ve seen that solutions that address only one aspect of the problem, such as the deep boring in Chandragiri, often create further problems that we aren’t even aware of. One needn’t be an expert to know that deep-boring in the hills will exhaust the lower aquifers, and when those dry out, other water sources will also be exploited similarly. Shouldn’t we have started examining how upper aquifers that fed small streams dried up in the first place and explored ways to revive them? Evaluating interconnectedness at the intersections of disciplines won’t only help ensure the sustainability of resource bases but also help make communities more resilient and empowered in the face of the climate emergency.

Source: The Kathmandu Post