Diminished Rainfall, River Flow Force Relocation of Nepalese Village

All 83 residents of the remote village of Samzong, in the mountainous Upper Mustang region of Nepal, are moving to a new location to obtain the water they need for themselves, their crops and their livestock.

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Diminished Rainfall, River Flow Force Relocation of Nepalese Village

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Villagers have abandoned these houses in Samzong because they are at risk of being buried by landslides during the rainy season. Extreme weather, such as flooding and landslides, have made some areas of the village unstable. The residents of Samzong are eager to complete construction of their new homes on the plains near Namashung.

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SAMZONG, NEPAL – Pema Thinley Gurung looks out across a drying river bed to abandoned fields where barley, mustard and peas once grew.

Gurung, 44, is the “ghenpa,” or head, of Samzong, a remote village in the Mustang district of northwestern Nepal. At an altitude of about 4,000 meters (13,123 feet), Samzong is on the southeast riverbank of Samzong Khola, the river that flows through Samzong.

The village, an arid region surrounded by mountains, is so remote it takes about three hours on horseback to reach it from the nearest town, Lo Manthang, the capital of Mustang district, via a treacherous mountain path.

The trail leading to the village is narrow and steep; in places, travelers must navigate the rocky, boulder-strewn bank of the river.

The 82 residents of the village are of Tibetan descent. Samzong is their traditional home, the place where generations of their ancestors lived and produced crops, Gurung says.

The villagers believe their Tibetan ancestors settled in this area about 500 years ago. The Mustang district, which borders the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, is rooted in Tibetan culture.

Despite the villagers’ deep roots in this land, soon the village of Samzong will be an abandoned shell.

Gurung and the other residents are in the process of moving to an uninhabited area near Namashung, 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) northeast of Lo Manthang.

The villagers must move on because the river no longer provides enough water for drinking and irrigation, Gurung says. The problem stems from a drop in rainfall and reduced snowfall in the mountains.

Gurung, who is illiterate, has never heard about climate change. He has been unaware that other parts of Nepal also have experienced irregular rainfall and rising temperatures.

Thirty years ago, the fields of Samzong produced abundant crops. The villagers had plenty to eat and a surplus that they sold to merchants at the Chinese border, Gurung says.

Now they have to buy food, mainly wheat flour and rice, from China and Lo Manthang.

The members of Samzong’s 17 households have wanted to leave for a long time but did not have a place to relocate.

In 2010, the village leaders of Samzong sought the help of the Lo-Mustang Foundation in relocating to a new land, foundation Secretary Tsewang Gurung says. The foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the development of the Upper Mustang region.

The following year, the foundation undertook a research study to identify a holistic response to climate change stress on high-altitude settlements such as Samzong, Tsewang Gurung says in a phone interview.

The findings of the study, conducted in collaboration with Kam for Sud, a nongovernmental association, and the University of Applied Sciences of Southern Switzerland, were published in a 2012 report.

This study became the basis of discussions with local government officials regarding a suitable location, Tsewang Gurung says. The land in Namashung was identified as a possible relocation site.

The ancient royal family of Mustang donated the land for the new village in 2012. The family also gave the villagers 9.75 hectares (24 acres) of nearby farmland on the Kali Gandaki River. The villagers plan to grow their traditional crops – barley, mustard and peas.

The villagers began building their houses near Namashung last March, Tsewang Gurung says. Weather permitting, he hopes they will complete at least 16 houses by the end of 2014.

The villagers are doing all the construction work themselves. They are now making bricks for their new homes.

Another gift is also helping the construction project, Tsewang Gurung says. Manuel Bauer, a Swiss photographer who visited Samzong in 2010, gave the villagers 6.7 million rupees ($68,000) in 2012 and 2013 to clear the boulders from the new land and to purchase the wood for windows and doors for their new homes.

Changes in weather patterns and increased temperatures have resulted in reduced rainfall and snow, which cause rivers like the Samzong Khola to dry up, scientists say. Even though Nepal produces only small amounts of greenhouse gases, it is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of global climate change.

The change is forcing Samzong and other villages in the Upper Mustang region to relocate. While residents of these villages look forward to renewing their traditional lifestyles – growing crops in the summer and weaving wool in the winter – in their new settings, they mourn the loss of their native places.

“There was plenty of water in the river before to irrigate the fields,” Gurung says. “Now it is scarce.”

In 2011, Nepal produced slightly more than 4 million tons of carbon dioxide – only .01 percent of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions, according to a 2013 report by the International Energy Agency.

By comparison, neighboring India contributed 5.6 percent of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions. The United States produced nearly 17 percent of the world’s total, and China contributed 25 percent.

In spite of Nepal’s low contribution to the greenhouse gases that are among the chief causes of climate change, Nepal is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change over the next 30 years, according to the 2011 Climate Change Vulnerability Index.

High levels of poverty, dense populations, exposure to climate-related events and reliance on flood- and drought-prone agricultural land characterize countries with the most risk, according to the report developed by Maplecroft, a global risk analysis company.

Nepal has been hit hard by the increasingly rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers, says Tara Nidhi Bhattarai, an associate professor of geology at Tri-Chandra Campus.

Nepal’s glacial area shrinks by 38 square kilometers a year, says Samjwal Ratna Bajracharya, remote sensing specialist at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, an intergovernmental learning and knowledge-sharing center that serves eight member countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayas.

That amounts to an annual reduction in the glacial area of about .73 percent. In 1980, Nepal’s glacial area was nearly 5,200 square kilometers (2,000 square miles). By 2010, the area had shrunk to 3,900 square kilometers (1,500 square miles).

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Samzong resident Tshering Youden Gurung, 16, looks forward to the relocation. “I am happy that we are moving to Namashung,” she says. “There is water there. Life will be more convenient.”

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Mud bricks made by Samzong villagers dry in the sun. The villagers will use the bricks to build their new homes near Namashung.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

The people of Samzong are building new homes near Namashung. They hope to complete 16 houses by the end of the year.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Using traditional construction methods, Samzong villagers build new homes on land donated by the ancient royal family of Mustang.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Samzong resident Topgay Gurung, 50, says the relocation of his village is unavoidable. “We do not know what the future has in store for us,” he says. “To feed the stomach, we have to go through a lot of problems.”

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

The people of Samzong have struggled to raise barley, a traditional crop in the region, as rainfall has declined and the Samzong Khola, the river that runs through the village, has dried up.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Samzong residents saddle their donkeys to visit the new site of their village in Namashung. Samzong can be reached only on foot or by horse or donkey.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Sangmo Gurung nurses her 3-month-old son, Tsering, outside their house in Samzong. Tsering will grow up in the new village.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Samzong Khola, once a large, flowing river, has shrunk to a trickle because of reduced rainfall and snowmelt from the mountains.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Samzong resident Bhaki Gurung, 57, looks forward to life in a region with more plentiful water. “Hopefully life will be easier in the new village,” Gurung says outside her house.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Within a few months, the people of Samzong will abandon the 17 houses that make up their village and move to new homes they are building on land near the Kali Gandaki River. The villagers can no longer survive in Samzong because their water sources have dried up.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Pema Thinley Gurung, 44, the “ghenpa,” or head, of the village of Samzong, has witnessed a sharp decline in the region’s agricultural productivity. “Thirty years ago, our fields produced enough to feed ourselves and sell surplus crops in China,” he says. “Now we have to buy food from China.”

Climate change increases the variability of weather patterns, which can lead to irregularities and an increase in the incidence of extreme weather events, both wet and dry, Arun Shrestha, regional program manager at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, says in a phone interview.

Maximum temperatures in Nepal are rising at an annual rate of .04 degree Celsius (.072 degree Fahrenheit) to .06 degree Celsius (.1 degree Fahrenheit), according to a report by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment.

As temperatures rise, precipitation tends to fall more often as rain and less often as snow, Shrestha says. While rainwater tends to run off quickly, snow accumulates, storing water in mountainous areas until the spring thaw, when snowmelt feeds springs and streams. Snowmelt alleviates the dryness of the months preceding monsoons.

Shrestha thinks Samzong’s water problem stems from the scarcity of water flowing into springs and small tributary streams.

People generally get their water from small streams and springs rather than from large streams, he says. Small streams and springs are fed mostly by rain and snowmelt and to a lesser extent by runoff from melting glaciers.

“As we lack scientifically observed data from the Samzong area, it cannot be said conclusively what is the real cause of the water scarcity there,” Shrestha says.

One certainty is that weather patterns will change significantly, says Ajaya Dixit, executive director of the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition-Nepal, a nongovernmental organization that studies development issues related to rapid social and environmental changes.

“One specific weather anomaly cannot be attributed to climate change,” he says, “but preliminary analysis of existing data and oral history suggest that rainfall in Nepal is becoming more erratic.”

Mathematical climate models vary, Dixit says. Some indicate rainfall will increase while others suggest it will decrease.

“What is certain is that there will be more surprises,” he says. “Nepali state and communities must be better prepared to deal with such a future to build resilience and adaptive capacity.”

Nepal’s agricultural sector is especially vulnerable to changes in rainfall, Bhattarai says. The late rains reduce crop yields and sometimes destroy crops, reducing overall agricultural production.

Agriculture employs more than 60 percent of the population and accounts for about 39 percent of the gross domestic product, according to the Ministry of Agricultural Development.

A census conducted in 2011 found that 6.5 million Nepalese are dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, says Badri Karki, director of the Agriculture and Livestock Census and Survey Section of the Central Bureau of Statistics.

Samzong’s parched fields produce low yields and inferior crops, Wangdue Gurung, a Samzong resident, says.

“The mustard and pea crops are so small that they are inedible,” he says. “During winter we use it as fodder to feed our cattle.”

Nearly 65 percent of the country’s crops are rain-fed, so changes in rainfall patterns have a profound impact on the sector, causing crop failures and reducing long-term production, Bhattarai says.

Villager Kyipa Gurung, 66, remembers when the fields across the river were abandoned for lack of water. That was 31 years ago, the year her second son was born.

Pointing toward her 4-year-old granddaughter, Dolker, Kyipa Gurung says she prays her granddaughter will not have to face such climate-related problems.

“We are migrating so that our younger generation will have a better life with sufficient food and abundant water,” Kyipa Gurung says.

Many Nepalese already require food assistance, and climate change is expected to increase the number of people needing help, he says.

About 3.4 million Nepalese required food assistance after the 2008-09 winter drought, one of the worst in the country’s history, according to a 2011 Oxfam report on improving food security for vulnerable communities in Nepal. Oxfam is an international confederation that works to find practical, innovative ways for people to lift themselves out of poverty.

Further, 6.4 million Nepalese are chronically food insecure, meaning they are unable to meet their minimum food requirements over a sustained period, according to a 2009 Oxfam report on climate change, poverty and adaptation in Nepal.

Thirty-three of the country’s 75 districts are food-deficient, meaning they produce less food than their inhabitants need, according to a 2011 Nepal Food Security Bulletin, published jointly by the Ministry of Agricultural Development and the United Nations World Food Program.

The people of Samzong village, which is located in one of the country’s food-deficient districts, know what it means to lose access to food.

“We used to have surplus food earlier,” says Sangmo Gurung, 26, a Samzong resident and Wangdue Gurung’s wife. “Now the crops that grow in our fields are barely enough. We have to buy food, and it is expensive.”

Ten years ago, wheat flour cost 50 rupees (51 cents) for 4 kilograms (8.8 pounds), she says. The same amount now costs 170 rupees ($1.74).

High prices are not the only problem. There are no shops in Samzong. Villagers must travel to the Chinese border, a two-hour journey by horseback, or to Lo Manthang, a three-hour journey, to purchase any food other than what they grow, villagers say.

The villagers grow barley, mustard and peas. They also rear sheep and mountain goats for meat and wool.

The deprivation extends to the village’s livestock.

“Not only is it difficult to feed our stomach, we are having difficulty feeding the cattle too,” Wangdue Gurung says.

Samzong is not the only village in Upper Mustang that has been affected by a lack of water. The villages of Yara and Dheye also must relocate to obtain sufficient water.

The residents of Dheye will relocate to Thangchung, on the opposite bank of the Kali Gandaki River. Yara has not yet identified a relocation site.

Prakash Mathema, joint secretary and chief of the Climate Change Management Division at the Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology, does not believe climate change is the sole cause of the water problems in the Upper Mustang region.

It is a naturally dry area, he says. Further, it lacks trees and other vegetation, and the region’s nonporous rocks do not retain water.

“One can estimate but cannot exactly say that it is because of climate change,” Mathema says. “However, climate change can be a contributing factor.”

The Nepalese government has no provisions to help communities relocate because of climate change, Mathema says. Government programs are limited to providing relief in sudden natural disasters, such as floods, earthquakes and landslides.

The international nonprofit sector provides some help. WWF-Nepal is conducting the Hariyo Ban Program, a five-year initiative to reduce the adverse impacts of climate change and threats to biodiversity in Nepal.

Judy Oglethorpe, chief of party of Hariyo Ban, urges communities affected by climate change to revise their traditional practices with new technologies. They can use new seed varieties that require less water and grow well in harsh climates. They can also diversify their crops while safeguarding their cultures.

The Hariyo Ban Program has been helping the village of Dheye relocate since 2013. As part of their transition to the new site, the villagers are planting apple orchards. Apples are a nontraditional crop for the people of Dheye, Oglethorpe says.

Villagers should adapt to climate change and stay where they are as long as their lives are not in danger, Oglethorpe says. Only when a community can no longer stay should it consider relocating.

“Migration is part of the solution,” Oglethorpe says.

The people of Samzong have reached that point.

“I feel sad to leave my home and village, but Samzong is located in such a difficult place,” Sangmo Gurung says. “Our circumstance is such that we have scarcity of water and insufficient food. So we are compelled to move.”

The residents of Samzong belong to the Gurung caste, and their family name is Gurung to reflect this.

GPJ translated some interviews from Tibetan and Nepali.

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