Collaboration for Climate Change Adaptation in Cities: Some Observations from Nepal

By Kirti Kusum Joshi

In the fourth part of our series on the Talanoa Dialogues, Kirti Kusum Joshi talks about the need for dialogue between federal, provincial, and local governments in order to reduce Nepal’s vulnerability to climate change.

Sometimes, those who do no harm have to pay a high price nevertheless. Nepal best exemplifies this when it comes to climate change. The country contributes less than 0.03 per cent to the global annual emission of greenhouse gases, yet it is among those most at risk of climate changerated as the 14th most affected country among 184 countries ranked in Germanwatch’s Global Climate Risk Index 2018 in terms of the impacts of weather-related loss events.

Making the fight against climate change’s consequences yet more challenging, Nepal is also urbanising rapidly. The urban population has increased by 3.38 per cent annually between 2001 and 2011. The momentum continues, further fuelled by the rise in the number of municipalities and enlargement of the existing ones. In Nepal, municipalities are territories that are envisioned to be developed as cities if they have not been already. Today, two-thirds of the country’s population live in municipalities.

Once perceived as the source of problems, cities are now globally seen as solutions in the fight against climate change. However, not all cities are capable of fulfilling this role. Cities in Nepal face geographical, technical (including human resources), and financial constraints. Most are lacking adequate infrastructure and access to basic servicesthis tends to increase the vulnerability to climate change rather than to offer solutions. For instance, recent incessant rainfall in the Kathmandu Valley, which is the most resourceful capital region of the country, caused several settlements to inundate, resulting in the loss of property and lives.

Across the country, settlements have grown unabated even on riverbanks and steep slopes under the constant threat of floods and landslides respectively. Most cities lack funds to invest in infrastructure, human resources, and capacity building in order to build resilience against climatic risks. 

Challenges in Adaptation Planning

Climate change adaptation implies adjusting to actual or expected climatic conditions and its effects, and seeks to minimize or avoid harm, or take advantage of beneficial opportunities. Adaptation actions in most cases aim at reducing vulnerability.

Nepal’s vulnerability to climate change should first and foremost be understood in terms of its complicated topography. Within 145 km to 241 km of its width, the altitude in Nepal varies from about 60 m in the Tarai plains to 8,848 m at the peak of Mt. Everest. With such variations in topography and altitude, climate across Nepal varies remarkably, and so do the impacts of climate change.

In the mountains, glaciers are melting due to rising temperatures, thereby increasing the risk of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). In the hills, springs are drying up. In the Tarai plains, river discharge is decreasing and the ground water table is falling.

The nature of precipitation has changed with more events of rainfall than snowfall in the mountains resulting in reduced snow deposition. Likewise, extreme weather events have increased in frequency. Heavy and untimely rainfalls have increased the threat of landslides in the mountains, of landslides and floods in the hills and Chure regions, and floods and debris flow in the Tarai plains.

Hence, the cities or municipalities in Nepal are facing several challenges in adaptation planning. In order to meet these challenges, the following observations are critical:

  1. Watershed boundaries generally transcend political boundaries. The challenges attributable to the location of a particular city cannot be addressed by that city alone. For instance, municipalities located in the Tarai plains have no control over deforestation, settlement growth, or poor river training in the mountains and hills. Yet, such upstream developments exacerbate the risk of floods and debris flows for the Tarai. In fact, every monsoon, several lives are lost and properties are damaged in the Tarai due to floods and inundation. Much of these losses could be avoided if there was an effective interjurisdictional partnership for climate risk management.
  2. Cities are also often dependent on natural resources located beyond their political boundaries. As an example, about 170 million litre of fresh water is set to be diverted per day from the neighbouring Melamchi Valley to the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal’s largest urban agglomeration. The eventual drying up of natural water resources in Melamchi will hurt Kathmandu more because of its large population, and also because no other alternative source of water has been identified for Kathmandu. Climate change would only aggravate such risks faced today by cities with limited natural resources within their immediate surroundings.
  3. Strong adaptation planning demands equally robust, science-based climate action plans. However, Nepal faces two major barriers. First, the number of functional weather stations across the country is severely limited. As a result, local variability regarding climate change is not captured. Second, there is a knowledge gap on how to translate climate change scenarios from a larger scale to the city-level.
  4. The knowledge gap is even wider when it comes to the climate change impacts on infrastructure projects. As a result, the long-term benefits of large-scale projects cannot be ascertained. For instance, climate change could adversely affect the availability of fresh water in Melamchi to be supplied to distant Kathmandu. The climate risks also need to be well understood in the case of local infrastructure such as roads or water supply schemes because they are vital for sustaining local livelihood and building adaptive capacity.

 Collaboration Opportunities for Cities

With the promulgation of a new constitution in 2015, Nepal became a federal state with a decentralised government structure in which powers are shared between federation, provinces, and local level (i.e. municipalities and rural equivalents). This could be leveraged to strengthen adaptation planning at local level. The following suggestions could be useful:

  • Interjurisdictional dialogues can effectively address climate issues that transcend political boundaries. The federal government could provide technical support to prepare province-level and city-level adaptation plans. In fact, the federal government has already prepared climate change profiles of several cities. This could serve as a first step towards climate action planning. The federal government could supply the latest climate data and information, and arrange for high-level research or international cooperation if needed.
  • City-level plans could be integrated into the province-level plans. The provincial government, as a part of its constitutional obligation, can work to ensure that climate action plans developed by local governments within its jurisdiction address concerns of all neighbouring territories.
  • Adaptation planning requires both top-down and bottom-up approaches. For instance, high-investment projects (e.g. the East-West railway project) are launched by the federal government, but they are realised at provincial and local level with cross-jurisdictional effects. To ensure that there are no negative effects regarding the project locations’ vulnerability to climate change, the federal government needs to join hands with provincial and local governments. The federal government could develop a support system for climate risk informed decision, which could be consulted in the planning of important urban projects. On their part, cities can contribute to national adaptation plans and policies by sharing local information, lessons learned, and stories.
  • City-to-city exchange of ideas, experiences, and knowledge could also enrich the process of adaptation planning. Cities could also build partnerships with academia and the scientific community for research-based adaptation planning, which would ultimately enhance technical capacity and competence of the cities enabling them to plan better towards mitigation of climate risks.

Cities play an important role in reducing Nepal’s vulnerability to climate change. However, cities in Nepal face geographical, technical, and resource constraints to mitigate climate risks. By fostering partnerships with the federal government, provincial governments, neighbouring cities, and academia, cities could override many, if not all, of these constraints. Such partnerships are vital because climate change has cross-jurisdictional impacts. Leveraging provisions provided in Nepal’s new constitution, the federal government should act as the guardian and the provincial governments as facilitators in the cities’ fight against climate change, which the cities themselves should eventually lead.

Kirti Kusum Joshi

Kirti Kusum Joshi

Dr. Kirti Kusum Joshi is a researcher and urban planning specialist. He has extensive experience working in the urban sector with the government and development agencies of Nepal. More recently, he contributed to Nepal's Habitat III National Report and to the National Adaptation Plan (NAP) formulation process. He earned a Ph.D. in Urban and Regional Planning from Tohoku University, Japan, in 2007 and a M.Sc. in Urban Planning from the Institute of Engineering at Tribhuvan University, Nepal. He worked as a Fulbright postdoctoral scholar at Harvard University. His articles have appeared in leading urban journals.
Kirti Kusum Joshi