Like everyone else, we were shocked and saddened by the news from Nepal. Lindsey spent most of the day after the quake reading news sites online. Fortunately, the people who we spent time with all appeared to be okay. Obviously, though, many others were not.
We made friends in Nepal, and now these people are involved in relief efforts. We have given money directly to two of these friends’ efforts, and you can do the same for one of them via the link below.
Amrit Ale, from Nepal, works for NOLS and the experiential learning program Where There Be Dragons. He also runs his own trekking company, Himalayan Quests, which, in addition to taking tourists to beautiful corners of Nepal, also runs ‘health camps’ in remote villages every year. We had a great time grabbing a beer with Amrit in Kathmandu, and then we hired a guide from Himalayan Quests for what might have been the most visually stunning part of our 10-month journey in Asia.
Amrit is now raising money to do direct work in some of the communities that are not being helped by the international aid agencies. He knows the mountains well, and I trust that he will use our money as well as if not better than any other group we could contribute to. Right now he is in the mountains building sanitation facilities for communities that had theirs destroyed in the quake. You can donate below:
Also, back here in the Bay Area, I recently attended a talk by Sandeep Giri, the founder of Gham Power, a solar company that works in Nepal. Following the quake, Sandeep started giving solar panels to communities that had lost electricity, helping people light their homes at night and charge their cell phones so that they can communicate with friends and family. He showed us pictures of people of people waiting for hours to get their phones charged, and told us about how terrified people were at night because they had no lights and were living in makeshift shelters anticipating aftershocks. Images of Gham Power’s work are on their Facebook page.
They are doing their best to respond to requests for energy, which are on this map. However, they need your help. Click on the image below to go to their IndieGoGo campaign.
It’s strange to think that the temples we visited in Kathmandu and Bakhtapur just a few months ago are in ruins, or to see pictures of the tents in Nepal and think about how many people are now forced to live in them. From Kathmandu, one of my strongest memories is going up in one of the city’s tallest buildings, a tower built in the 1830s. We gained a beautiful view from the top, and as you can see, we were laughing and enjoying ourselves.
The tower is no more, destroyed by the quake, and about 180 bodies were found among the rubble. It is scary to think that we could have been among those. We’re lucky to still be here. Nepal was one of our favorite countries, largely because the people were so friendly. Now they need our help.
As Lindsey wrote, we were mentally unprepared for Nepal. After two and a half months in China, I had forgotten what it is like to be in a country with lagging infrastructure and rolling blackouts. We confronted the poor infrastructure immediately: What we thought would be a one day ride, from the border to Kathmandu, turned into a two day slog due to long stretches of chewed-up or nonexistent pavement. And when we looked for a hotel our first night, we had to search for one that had electricity.
Over our next two and a half weeks, we were reminded over and over that Nepal is a poor country that uses few resources and produces very little electricity. From a climate change perspective, this means that the country produces very little greenhouse gas emissions—but it also means that, as a largely agricultural society with little infrastructure, it is highly vulnerable to a warming climate.
To better understand these issues, while in Kathmandu we spoke with a few NGOs, an intergovernmental organization (ICIMOD), and a government agency. And during our week-long trek in the Annapurna region, we spoke with about a dozen people about how changes in the weather affect them. Here’s what we found from this cursory survey.
Electricity, Energy, and Emissions
Nepal produces very little electricity. If all the country’s power plants were running at full capacity (which is possible only during the rainy season, when there is enough water for the run-of-the-river hydropower plants), there would only be enough electricity for every Nepali to turn on a single, highly efficient, compact florescent lightbulb. No refrigeration, no computers. Just one bulb per person.
Because there isn’t enough electricity, Kathmandu has daily, scheduled, rolling blackouts, such that any given block has electricity for about two-thirds of the day. For this reason, people who can afford it have a battery (or even a generator) to keep the lights on. Many shops use such batteries to power a backup light, such that the streets at night become a row of well-spaced compact florescent bulbs hanging near the front of mostly-dark rooms. The lack of electricity means that instead of traffic lights, men in uniform stand and direct traffic at major intersections. At night these men have green and red light sticks which they wave like lightsabers, as if using the force to move the vehicles. Such power outages also challenge industry—factories need expensive backup generators.
If Nepal is to provide better services for its people, it needs to produce more electricity—much more. The country could accomplish this goal without dramatically increasing its greenhouse gas emissions by building a series of reservoirs in the Himalaya. The economically-feasible hydropower potential is immense—about 40,000 megawatts. That would give Nepalis similar electricity per capita as most western European countries.
But nobody we met in Nepal wanted to dam as many rivers as it would take to reach a fraction of this goal. Employees of Clean Energy Nepal, a local nonprofit, argued that big dams were not the answer—they would displace people and wouldn’t be sustainable because of the heavy sediment load of the Himalayan rivers. They said that they wanted to avoid “China’s path,” and focus on smaller scale solutions. They noted that there are 200 days of sunshine in Nepal per year, making solar a great option (especially in conjunction with small hydro—small hydro works better in the rainy season, solar power works best in the dry season).
We also met with the Alternative Energy Promotion Center, a government agency that promotes clean energy development. They support many small scale projects such as micro-hydro, improved cookstoves, and biogas (more on biogas in a minute). I asked them if they could develop their economy without using fossil fuels. The response was basically “yes, because we can use hydropower.” If they had enough hydropower, they could use the electricity to cook and heat, thus reducing some of the needs for fossil fuel. They said that distributed solar, biogas, and improved cookstoves were part of a solution, but not the entire solution to developing in a clean way—they also needed dams.
Many of these small projects, while not being the entire solution, are improving people’s quality of life without increasing greenhouse gas emissions. One example is the country’s many successful biogas projects. A consultant/researcher at Winrock, an international NGO, told me about how Winrock, other NGOs, and government agencies have helped install biogas digesters all over the country — there are now 300,000 small digesters, which allow people to take cow (or other ruminant) dung and turn it into natural gas for cooking. Using such gas is much more efficient and better for people’s health than burning the dung, which is what most people without digesters do. Two cows can provide four people with enough gas for all their cooking needs. Also, the waste from the digesters can in turn be used as fertilizer. Moreover, Nepal has been paid for the program through the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol. Basically, it is a win-win-win. (Interestingly, one challenge is that people think that cooking with dung is “clean” and cooking with gas is not — getting people to use these new technologies can be challenging).
Such small-scale projects are great news. In the long run, though, Nepal will likely need much more electricity than they can provide, and the easiest way to do that cleanly is through hydropower. Hopefully the dams needed for this will be built in a sensible way that benefits all Nepalis without causing too much harm to the people and ecosystems in the areas around the proposed reservoirs.
Vulnerability and Changing Monsoons
We asked the employees of Clean Energy Nepal (CEN) what worried them about climate change in Nepal. They said: reduced agricultural output, water scarcity, and weather-related disasters, in that order. The same employees at CEN had recently surveyed 4,000 villages in the country, asking if people were experiencing climate change. The people surveyed said that the rain had become more erratic, in turn making farming more difficult.
At ICIMOD, the Director General, David Molden, told us that people in the mountains are experiencing climate change right now. Here’s an edited version of his interview. The part I found the most compelling is how he compares the urgency of climate change here in Nepal to that felt in the United States. He also noted that climate change is just one of the many problems facing mountain people.
And finally, we went into the mountains on a week-long trek (see Lindsey’s blog entry) and talked directly with people ourselves. We found that people were experiencing exactly what Dr. Molden said they were — the rains had become more unpredictable, and were coming later. Some people said these changes in rainfall made it more difficult to farm; others said it had no influence. Everyone also said that it had gotten warmer, although they were split over whether this was a good or bad thing. Higher in the mountains, some liked the warmth because they could grow more crops. Lower down, many said it was too hot.
I’ve seen a number of different rankings of “countries most vulnerable to climate change,” and Nepal is often near the top. After visiting the country, I can now see why, but I also think the worst effects of climate change aren’t here yet. Our survey suggests that people are noticing that the climate is changing, but for many people in Nepal these changes do not yet pose a dramatic challenge, especially given the many other problems they must cope with on a daily basis. Whether they will pose a dramatic challenge in the future depends both on how the country develops, and on how much the climate changes over the coming decades.
We had done absolutely no research on Nepal, and were thus utterly unprepared – a fine thing, when your non-expectations end up wildly exceeded. If pressed to describe Nepal before arriving, I probably would have said something like ‘vaguely Indian, with big mountains. And maybe elephants.’ If asked for more, I may have mentioned landslides and a uniquely shaped flag. Crossing the border from China, we were greeted with so much more: an abrupt shift from order to chaos and cheerful exuberance, the scent of curry wafting over an unpaved road full of scattering chickens, and the sudden presence of children everywhere you looked. It was a welcome change, though we struggled with another difference – we were several kilometers into Nepal before we discovered that people drive on the left side of the street. The road leading away from the border was so potholed and narrow that everybody just seemed to drive wherever was most feasible, but after the third or fourth truck or motorbike tried to pass us on the right, we figured it out.
Our favorite part of getting into Nepal may have been the visa process. Unlike most of the countries we’ve visited on this trip, they provide a visa on arrival. For $40, and with no additional documentation, a man at a wooden desk wearing fingerless gloves to protect him from the chill of the Himalayan winter in the unheated customs building (another sharp contrast from China, whose glistening building had efficiently and electronically processed us moments before) placed a sticker in our passport that would allow us to spend a month in Nepal. Thus welcomed, we rode gleefully downhill through the Sun Kosi River valley for the rest of the day, passing endless terraces where people coax crops out of the unforgivingly steep valley sides. We crossed through the aftermath of the landslide that devastated a village several months before – we could tell we were getting close when the river stopped flowing, backed up into a listless pool by the dam formed by the landslide. We failed to take the new road – really just a rough dirt track through the slide – and ended up half pushing, half carrying our bikes through the mud and boulders, right through the remains of the villages that hadn’t been completely buried. I’ve never seen anything like it – an entire mountainside had given way, burying everything below it, blocking off the river, and plowing up the side valley on the other side. An excavator was clawing at the rubble, slowly removing the dam to allow the river to flow downstream again.
We spent the night in a small town farther downriver. For about $8 we got a room with a reeking but functional squat toilet, daal bhat (Nepali meal of rice, daal, vegetable curry and cooked greens) for dinner, and most importantly, electricity and wifi. Here we got our first taste of one of Nepal’s greatest challenges: insufficient electricity. In many of Nepal’s towns and cities, including the capital, the power is out for up to ten hours a day. People use everything from candles to generators to cope with this ‘load-shedding’ – there’s even an app that tells you when the power will go out in Kathmandu – and it’s just a part of life, for now.
We also squeezed some R&R into our time in Nepal – two friends who happened to be in the region came to Kathmandu while we were there, and we also took a week-long trek in the Annapurna Range. I got to join Kaija Hurlburt and her friend Christy Sommers for a hike in Dhulikel, one of the former kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley. The town is full of hidden temples and old brick houses with gently drooping wooden balconies, and the surrounding countryside was bright yellow with ripening mustard, dotted with small villages where people laughed and smiled as we picked up countless baby goats. Ian Monroe came up from India, where he had traveled for his startup, Oroeco; in addition to joining us at Bodhi, one of Kathmandu’s largest Buddhist sites, and a day trip to Bhaktapur, a ‘living museum’ town jam-packed with temples, he introduce us to many of Kathmandu’s energy experts and joined us for some meetings. A post on what we learned is coming soon.
When deciding where to go trekking, we consulted Amrit Ale, owner of Himalayan Quests and a friend of Christy’s. We told him we wanted to go through villages and get high into the mountains, and he suggested the newly established Dhaulagiri Community Trek and connected us with a local guide. It was exactly what we’d hoped for. After a day-long bus ride from Kathmandu to Beni, we met our guide, Prem, and went over the route, which would take us from an elevation of 800m in Beni up to 3700m on the flanks of 7,219m Annapurna South.
As we walked up countless stone steps, we met a number of villagers who Prem helped us interview about climate change. Nearly everybody mentioned that both summers and winters are warmer than they used to be, and that the rainy season has become irregular. At higher elevations, the warmer weather was helpful as it enables people to grow heat-loving crops such as chilis, which couldn’t grow in the colder weather that used to be the norm. However, people said that the changing monsoon makes it difficult to plan – planting seeds at the usual time could result in losses if the rains are late.
We stayed in community lodges most nights, which were built just a few years ago to encourage trekkers to visit the area and increase the benefits of tourism for the communities. We were treated to clear days for the first half of the trek, during which we encountered almost no other tourists and saw spectacular sunrises and sunsets. It started snowing as we reached our highest point, which meant we didn’t get to climb up to a nearby glacier as planned, but instead gave us the chance to read, play in the snow, play cards with Prem and the lodge staff, and take in absurdly beautiful views of the mountains and valleys as thick clouds drifted through. If any of our readers are planning a trip to Nepal, we definitely recommend Himalayan Quests and the Dhaulagiri Community Trek – it stands out as a highlight of our time in Nepal and the entire trip.