Climatically Cut-off

Sep 5th, 2014 | By | Category: Disasters and Climate Change, Nepal

Home Minister Bamdev Gautam should be given due credit for updating himself with minute weather details. Following ferocious floods in mid-western Nepal last month, he explained to the media the science behind the record rainfall: “There was a clash between the monsoon from the Arab Gulf and the one from the Bay of Bengal, it was extraordinary.”

Paper plans

That is where the good news ends. The remaining comments from the outspoken politician were not at all scientific and rather, revealed his ignorance. “How can we predict such a danger? It is not something you are able to forecast many years in advance,” he said. “People should realise how difficult conditions become when disasters like this strike.”

The seasoned political leader must have heard the outrage of the people perched perilously on trees and rooftops as their areas remained marooned for days. “We hate to see helicopters flying above us,” said many hungry and homeless locals in Bardiya’s flooded villages. “They come to our areas in the name of rescue and relief but they do nothing and just watch our misery fromthe sky.”

Home Minister Gautam’s expectation that people “should understand the difficult condition” is perhaps shaped by a misunderstanding that politicians like him have—that natural disasters like this happen once in a while and that as citizens of a poor country, we must learn to live with it.

What he probably forgot is that people are facing an increasing number of such disasters in recent years and they have heard quite a lot about the many plans and programmes the government and donors have prepared over the years to ‘help vulnerable communities during disasters like this’. Most plans have never materialised out of the pages of the reports prepared by spending millions of dollars.

If only those plans and programmes were implemented, forecasting such record rainfall and devastating floods would not be impossible. The same is true about preparing vulnerable communities to cope with such crises. What is commonly known as adaptation in the world of climate negotiations would have certainly helped the affected people, if only it had been rolled out on the ground in time.

Poor implementation

Home Ministry officials say that the main reason for the extent of the loss of lives and property this time was flooding on an unsuspecting river like the Babai. “We had all the mechanisms in place for timely flood alert on rivers like Karnali and Rapti because they are the ones that usually get flooded,” said a senior official. “But we were all taken by surprise when it was the Babai that swelled this time and did all the damage.”

Illegal settlements along the Babai and other rivers also added to the tragedy and loss. People living along the river paths were simply helpless when floods swept them and their homes.

But the uncertainty over which river would flood during the monsoon and the high level of risk facing illegal settlements along the river were long known. These are the very things supposed to be factored into plans and programmes that Nepal, like every other least developed country, has prepared under the UN climate convention.

If disasters were of normal types, like the ones we saw during the monsoon once upon a time, we would perhaps not need any climate resilience projects. But with weird weather becoming the new normal, adapting to them has become quite crucial.

Minister Gautam would perhaps like to check with the Finance Ministry how much foreign aid has come in under climate financing—a new overhead in the government’s budget statement after this column exposed in 2011 that there was no record of what came in and was spent as climate assistance.

The parliamentary development committee, which has been quizzing the government for its ‘poor handling’ of the flood-hit communities in mid-western Nepal, also needs to widen its horizon. It should not just think about this particular disaster, musing on the monsoon as an annual affair.

Overdue response

It is high time lawmakers realised that these disasters have a broader context—the global trend of changing weather patterns is becoming increasingly erratic. In Nepal’s case, the most common feature has been massive rainfall during a short span of time while the residual wet season remains largely dry. As a result, landslides and flash floods become more frequent and intense.

These changes are what scientists call manifestations of global climate change. Unlike in its past reports, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN body on climate science, in its latest assessment said that climate change was already happening and that oceans, air and land were all affected.

International climate negotiations for a global climate deal these days have become further complicated because of the highly contentious issue of loss and damage. It is basically about countries that have no significant carbon emissions and yet, are suffering from losses and damages due to climatic changes.

Nepal may well think about joining countries demanding compensation for such loss and damage. But first, it needs to make sure that whatever money has come in for climate adaptation has been properly utilised. Towards that end, parliamentary committees need to start questioning officials who manage the money and those who are supposed to implement projects.

Lawmakers should know that Nepal, like every other least developed country, has prepared plans one after another, like the National Adaptation Program of Action, the Local Adaptation Program of Action, National Adaptation Plan and so on, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Then, there are also other programmes like the World Bank’s Pilot Project on Climate Resilience.

So, when they summon ruling politicians or officials over weather-related disasters next time, the question to be asked is: what happened to all those plans? Perhaps that will derive some overdue response from donors as well.

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