Changing Climate and Livelihood Options in Rasuwa
09 Aug 2016

By Anju Pandit and Aneel Piryani

Among the 16 Nepali mountain districts bordering China, Rasuwa is one of the smallest. It is situated in the central development region. As a result of the destruction caused by landslides in Jure in 2014, and more recently the devastating earthquake of 25 April 2015, Rasuwa has become the country’s only and closest gateway to China. Sindhupalchowk, Tatopani, was Nepal’s main gateway to China before this. The landslide and earthquake have caused such devastation in the region, damaging and blocking its roads, that a new route has become necessary.

Since there is great scope for business connectivity in the region, the Government of Nepal has initiated the construction of a dry-port near the Rasuwagadhi boarder, which lies at a distance of 25 kilometres from the nearest Kerung Market in China. With a population of just 43,300 living in 9,741 households, Rasuwa has the least population density in the central development region. Rasuwa is amongst the worst affected districts hit by the devastating earthquake of 2015 and remnants of the damage are still visible. More than 63 percent of the district’s territory is located at elevations higher than 3000 meters. With this, road inaccessibility has been a feature of the region for long. The 2015 earthquake has made accessibility more difficult, and relief and reconstruction efforts are facing major challenges. However, with support from the government and other aid agencies, local communities are trying hard to recover from the situation.

Impacts of changing temperature and precipitation patterns

During our recent field visit and interaction with the community, we identified a number of climate change implications for Rasuwa. Climate change is well understood and noticed by people in the region. The major concerns were linked to changing temperature and precipitation patterns, changing human lifestyles, agricultural practices, crop varieties, phenology, and snowline and treeline shifts. Community members have observed that the region’s snowfall pattern has changed noticeably. Snowfall is delayed by almost two months these days and snow depth has also declined. This change in snowfall has great implications for groundwater recharge and winter crop production.

The community also links changes in rainfall patterns to increased vulnerability in agriculture. In the past, the region received rain in timely intervals which meant agricultural production could be predictable. These days, however, even though the farmers work as hard as they always have, it is very difficult to predict how much actual production there is going to be at the end of season. If agricultural production was based only on crop variety, labour, manure and water availability, the same would be much easier to predict, but climate uncertainty has emerged as a prominent factor impacting local livelihoods these days. Locals have noticed how untimely rainfall, snowfall and hailstorms have impacted their lives. They said that although the total amount of rainfall the region receives throughout the year remains the same, a major concern is the duration and intensity of rain. In the past, rainfall and snowfall in the region were timely. These patterns supported agricultural production, and because of their predictability, villagers were able to plan their agricultural and other activities accordingly. Nowadays, however, the village gets heavy downpour when least expected, and the fields remain dry when rain is absolutely necessary.

Weather variability and declining surface water

The community members observed that weather variability also seems to have a direct linkage with declining surface water sources, leading to water scarcity in their localities. As per their experience, forest cover has increased significantly in the region. However, water sources like springs have been drying up. Consequently, the villagers believe that increased vegetation does not always mean increased water availability. They believe that there could be other reasons that need to be explored. Some of them said that the decline in surface water sources might be attributed to climate change, but as everything cannot be designated to climate change, there is dire need for research to be conducted on the changing water regimes in the mountains. Based upon observations made in the past, the 2015 earthquakes and landslide events triggered by the same could have led to changes in the region’s internal geomorphology that may have impacted its internal water regime leading to water scarcity.

In the past, Dhunche used to be a locality for apple production, but over the last 10-15 years, production has declined significantly. Apple plantation has shifted to some upstream areas. Trout farming was introduced in Dhunche as alternate livelihood opportunity. However, increasing temperatures and declining fresh water availability seem to have put this newly introduced adaptation measure at risk.

 Finding ways of coping and adapting

The issues discussed above are clearly encouraging people to find new adaptation practices for coping with the livelihood challenges they face. During our discussions, we discovered that changing weather conditions and water availability are impacting the local agriculture system and related practices. To cope with increasing water scarcity, crop patterns and varieties have been changed. Rice fields have been converted to millet and buckwheat fields whose plantation require less water and is less labour-intensive.

While the increasing temperature brings with it numerous challenges, it is also offering new livelihood options. Vegetables that could, in the past, only be grown in warmer areas are now common in the fields of Rasuwa. According to local farmers, plants belonging to the Cucurbitaceae family that includes vegetables like cucumber, pumpkin and bitter gourd had difficulty germinating in the region due to cold weather even 10-15 years ago. However, these vegetables are flourishing and growing rapidly in and around Rasuwa.

During a discussion with one of the medical officers in Rasuwa, we learnt that the outbreak of vector-borne diseases (such as malaria, phyleria, dengue, encephalitis, yellow fever etc.) has increased significantly in the area in recent years. As per his observation, there is a possibility that the outbreaks have linkages with increasing temperatures and the associated upward movement of mosquitoes and other insects. He believes there is the need for an in-depth study on the linkages between climate change and health.

From our observation, we deduced that there are more challenges than opportunities presented by the changing climate in Rasuwa. With support from government line departments, communities are trying out various coping strategies. But because of the uncertain and dynamic nature of events, they are having a hard time adapting to these changes. In addition, there are several other drivers which are affecting community livelihoods. Therefore, there is the need for integrated research to be carried out so that the challenges and opportunities presented to these people can be balanced.