This year, climate disasters have hit the Hindu Kush Himalayas hard, and the cryosphere – Earth’s ice sheets, sea ice, permafrost, polar oceans, glaciers, and snow – are at ground zero.
A major new study, The State of the Cryosphere Report, published November 16, reviewed by over 60 leading scientists shows that all of Earth’s frozen parts will experience irreversible damage at 2°C of global warming, with disastrous consequences for millions of people, societies, and nature.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Paris Agreement set the climate threshold to 1.5°C to limit the increase in global average temperature. Breaking this limit would mean cascading effects of human-generated climate change.
In May 2023, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned with 66% certainty that we are on track to surpass the threshold within the next four years.
Earth just experienced its hottest 12-month span in history, with July 2023 the hottest month on record.
Even with low emissions at 1.8 °C, the Arctic Ocean may lead to frequent ice-free summers by 2050, while Antarctica will face potential complete summer sea ice loss.
The science is unanimous, 1.5°C is not just preferable—it is the only option.
All mountain glaciers worldwide are losing ice. The Himalayas are projected to lose around 50% of today’s ice at 2°C. Research underscores that threats to ecosystems are dramatically growing with the loss of the mountain cryosphere. Downstream dry season water availability for agriculture, power generation, and drinking – everything will be impacted.
The cryosphere serves as a frontline indicator of the changes caused by toxic air and carbon pollution, with millions of people and ecosystems impacted. Time is running out to stop irreversible damage – we need global leaders to stand up to polluters, end our dependency on dirty fossil energy, and make good on their commitments to limit overheating that is causing the accelerating disappearance of Earth’s ice and snow.
If global leaders allow temperatures to continue to rise by failing to reduce carbon pollution, they are committing the planet to extensive coastal loss and damage well beyond the limits of feasible adaptation.
IT’S NOT TOO LATE.
Reviewers of the report include key ICIMOD staff and advisors: Miriam Jackson, Senior Cryosphere Specialist, ICIMOD, Philippus Wester, ICIMOD alumnus, Editor, Water, Ice, Society, and Ecosystems in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (2023) and the HKH Assessment (2019), and Carolina Adler, ICIMOD Independent Board Member.
The ground floor of the modest Melamchi River Resort, that lies just northeast of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, lies buried beneath debris.
Its ruins are a lasting testimony to a devastating flood that in June 2021 tore through Melamchi Bazaar, in Bagmati province.
Melamchi, in common with many mountain areas, is defined by the river that runs through it: in this case the Melamchi River, that stretches 41 kilometres, carrying glacial meltwater from the Jugal Himal and joins with the Indrawati River, a larger tributary of the Koshi River at Melamchi Bazaar. In common with many mountain areas, this small town finds itself frontline to devastating climate impacts.
At this point close to its origins, upstream, the Koshi’s river basin carries the scars of numerous floods and landslides. Downstream, in the floodplains of Nepal and India, communities face both extremes—not just of floods, but also of acute water scarcity.
With upstream landslides likely, the Koshi remains prone to disaster—and families here are braced for the next disaster. Crucially, in 2021, residents in upstream Helambu were able to give their downstream neighbours an hour and half lead time warning of the coming flood. Will they be so lucky next time?
Preparing for disasters that cross national borders is a particular challenge for the countries of the Hindu Kush Himalaya.
Disasters don’t recognise political boundaries, and floods that start upstream often result in devastating impacts in regions and countries downstream. Countries, however, especially with water an issue of growing national security concern in this region, can be reluctant to share long-term data around flow and risk. Water governance and water diplomacy are already major issues in the region, further compounding complexities.
The science is certain: Hazards across these mountains will grow in frequency and ferocity due to changes in precipitation, thawing permafrost, and snow and ice melt. To prevent loss of life, serious collaboration, trust, political will and finance in water basin management all need to grow.
This September, ICIMOD brought together 12 executives from across our regional member countries to start to build trust, networks of collaboration, and the arguments for greater investment and focus.
Participants were individuals from national organisations responsible for river management and academicians of six countries, travelled from upstream to the downstream of the Koshi river within Nepal to forge a better understanding of disasters and solutions using the ‘Integrated River Basin Management’ (IRBM) approach.
IRBM is a technique that brings water governance together with environmental security, and human wellbeing, to ensure rivers are managed in a more holistic way.
Across the Hindu Kush Himalayas, people have been moving to the banks of rivers for economic reasons in ever growing numbers – drawn by economic opportunities.
The rise in riverbank settlements, however, has not been accompanied by an uptick in the development or implementation of planning protocols for construction, environmental management or water governance, resulting in interventions that, in turn, often place greater pressure on the landscape, and water courses – increasing exposure to risk that climate change is already accelerating.
With so many in the mountains dependent on agriculture and already struggling with extremely high levels of poverty and malnutrition, managing the persistent water dichotomy, communities face – of “Too Much Too Little” water – has never been more urgent.
In Mahottari and Dhunusha districts, both of which lie along the Ratu River of the lower Koshi Basin in Nepal, more and more communities are embracing rainwater harvesting ponds. This nature-based solution helps check sediment flow, minimise flood risk and provides continuous irrigation.
Also, along the Ratu, which is a seasonal river that flows in the sub-surface during dry seasons, harvesting seepage water has proven effective. During the dry months, sub-surface dams collect water, which is then channelled downstream for irrigation, reviving agriculture in the area. However, is this sustainable? What happens if all communities in the plains are interested in harvesting subsurface water without considering options for recharging? How does this impact water table on the basin scale?
With IRBM, we are looking at harvesting benefits from river while mitigating its downsides. The Melamchi disaster is a powerful reminder that a single disaster can erase decades of progress overnight, underlining the necessity of IRBM to strike a balance between immediate needs and the long-term health of our river basins.
There are no right solutions, only appropriate ones. We need to consider GESI, transboundary dialogue, good water governance among other things. Our individual local solutions must address local challenges but also need to align with larger comprehensive strategy because local fixes may provide short-term relief but can lead to more significant issues, both at the local level and for the entire river basin.
A basin perspective is non-negotiable for thriving communities and healthy rivers, as non-cooperation and short-sighted policies come at a dire cost of human lives and environmental degradation.
In a historic development, yak herder associations from 11 mountain districts across Nepal – from Darchula in the West to Taplejung in the East – came together to formally announce the formation of the Yak Chauri Farmers’ Federation Nepal. It is historic for several reasons. Yak herders are on the margins, with mobility central to their livelihoods and identity. Even organising them at the district level is a challenge, as several speakers noted at the meeting. While there has been some success with district-level organisation and networking (such as in districts like Panchthar, Ilam and Taplejung), this is the first time that they have come together from across the country to form a national-level federation. Their local issues may differ, but at the national level they now have a common platform and voice.
There were extremely rich discussions at the two-day workshop held on 2–3 October 2023 at ICIMOD in Kathmandu, Nepal, where the formation of the Federation was announced. Several key issues came up time and again: climate uncertainty and change, inbreeding depression because of limited genetic exchange, livestock depredation by wild carnivores, and rangeland degradation, including the spread of invasive and unpalatable species. In his address, Rewati Raman Poudel, Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development (MoALD) noted that instead of tackling these problems in isolation, we should adopt an integrated approach and promote good rangeland practices through the yak herding communities.
In previous years, the exchange of breeding bulls across borders maintained the health and vigour of yak herds. Unfortunately, closed borders and restrictions on grazing and movement have isolated yak populations for nearly six decades now. As a result, yak populations have suffered from inbreeding depression and reduced productivity. This leads to low quality of offspring, reproductive problems, and reduction in growth rate and body size, making yak populations less adaptive to the changing environment and more prone to disease and climate shocks, especially at a young age. Livestock depredation by wild carnivores, mainly snow leopard, is increasing, they say. Herders expressed concern about the lack of compensation and investment in livestock insurance to address this problem. Domestic livestock make up some 40% of the snow leopard’s diet, and the decreasing population of yak and chauris could have implications for conservation of snow leopards. This critical challenge requires innovative solutions. Rajesh Kumar Rai of Tribhuvan University said: “Instead of seeking state assistance, yak herders should seek compensation under the payment for ecosystem services (PES) model for conserving upland ecosystems.”
Similarly, herders spoke about the impacts of climate change on their herds. Unseasonal rain and snowfall are complicating mobility decisions, affecting livestock health, and causing mortality. They reiterated that the spread of unpalatable and invasive plant species such as Bidens pilosa, Erigeron karvinskianus, Galinsoga quadriradiata into rangelands has replaced the local species, gradually resulting in the degradation of rangeland health. Other issues related to access to markets, access to health and education services, lack of facilities and services for herder communities, and a younger generation unwilling to take up traditional yak herding. “Of all the major challenges, the discontinuation of yak herding by the younger generation has emerged as the most critical challenge,” says Dawa Sangbu Sherpa, Chairperson of the Yak Chauri Farmers’ Federation Nepal.
The yak federation gives herders a voice at the national level. It also brings together disparate groups who have little bargaining power on their own, given that their numbers are small, and their concerns peripheral to the dominant development and conservation discourse. At national level, federations wield the heft that local associations do not have, to influence policy and amplify diverse local concerns from across the country.
Community based institutions such as Yak Chauri Farmers’ Federation Nepal provide a platform for sustainable partnerships to engage directly with the communities on the ground. This national level institution is envisioned to be federated at regional level (such as a Hindu Kush Himalaya Pastoral Network), and ultimately progress towards global pastoral/yak network, similar to the World Reindeer Herders’ Association.
In Nepal, we have the example of the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal (FECOFUN), with its base of more than 22,500 Community Forestry User Groups (CFUGs), a multi-tiered federation that is organised at community, district, province, and national level. As Parbata Gautam, General Secretary, FECOFUN, advised the newly formed federation: “This federation is meant to advocate for securing the rights of yak herders. For a start, please fight to reform unjust policies, and initiate dialogue with the local governments to resolve issues pertaining to resource allocation between yak herders and protected areas.”
The Hindu Kush Himalaya Science-Policy Forum unites scientists, policymakers, development practitioners, and young researchers from across the High Mountain Asia region to discuss critical transboundary issues and collaborative solutions.
This year’s event took place over two days at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu, Nepal and focussed on the climate and cryosphere crisis.
In his keynote address, ICIMOD Director General Pema Gyamtsho described the urgency of the situation as “undeniable”, citing scientific evidence that tipping points that threatened earth’s very sustainability were perilously close to being reached.
James Kirkham, Chief Scientific Adviser to International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, highlighted the alarming rate at which the cryosphere is warming: with the Arctic warming at four times the global average and the Hindu Kush Himalaya at double the global average.
“Around the world we’ve watched as glaciers have continued their enormous decline,” Kirkham, who used to work at ICIMOD, told the audience. “We’re locked in for extensive mountain ice losses. Loss and damage is already occurring. Delaying mitigation will result in larger loses, greater instability and less time to adapt to our changing mountains. There isn’t much time to act to prevent this. [Limiting warming to] 1.5ºC is our best chance.”
Over two days, participants focused on three core objectives: assessing cryosphere science, discussing national policies and plans, and examining institutional mechanisms. Their goal is to address the far-reaching impacts of cryosphere changes on vital aspects such as water resources, biodiversity, and livelihoods.
From these deliberations emerged a set of ten-point recommendations, a roadmap to inform the HKH Ministerial Mountain Summit in 2024, and which will be attended by ministers from ICIMOD’s eight regional member countries.
Recommendations from the policy forum included the establishment of a transdisciplinary HKH Cryosphere Working Group, a regional cryosphere monitoring and research program, and adopting a nexus approach for disaster risks and water resources management.
The forum emphasized upstream-downstream linkages, nature-based solutions, and research on cascading risks and transboundary implications.
Communication and knowledge exchange and building greater understanding cryosphere change impacts on biodiversity and marginalized communities were all areas earmarked for rapid progress and greater investment.
The second HKH Science-Policy Forum concluded with a clarion call for immediate action, and consensus that the need for transboundary collaboration has never been more urgent.
In an increasingly complex world, dedicated individuals from diverse backgrounds are transcending boundaries to address the climate and cryosphere crisis. The Himalayas, with their majestic beauty and ecological significance, depend on it.
Between 12 and 20th September, I had the honour of leading a high-level delegation to China. While China has been a founding member of ICIMOD, with the Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences represented on our Board of Governors, this trip marked a significant step forward in our relations, including ICIMOD’s first in-person meeting with officials in Beijing.
Our formal programme began at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences (UCAS) headquarters in Beijing on September 14, 2023. In the subsequent days, we engaged in cordial meetings with key institutions and ministries, including the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), the Forestry & Grassland Administration, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE), and the National Centre for Climate Strategy Research and International Cooperation.
China has been a proactive supporter of ICIMOD’s mission and goals since our foundation in 1983, and we are proud that our partnership with our diverse array of partners in China is more powerful than ever, as we look to our 40th anniversary in December.
Together, we are advancing our joint efforts towards greater regional collaboration and promoting regional agenda at global forums to address regional and global issues, working alongside our nodal agency, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), government agencies, development agencies, academic institutions, NGOs, and the private sector. We look forward to working with ICIMOD-China collaborations of mutual interest in the decades ahead.
Embarking on our China trip, we had the privilege of inaugurating our journey with a significant high-level meeting on ICIMOD-Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) cooperation. This pivotal event took place at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences (UCAS) in Beijing on September 14, 2023.
Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, convening for this face-to-face meeting marked a truly momentous occasion. The privilege of meeting Prof. Yaping Zhang, the Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the CNICIMOD President, alongside distinguished CAS officials from various entities including the Bureau of International Cooperation, Chengdu Institute of Mountain Disasters and Environment (IMDE), Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG), UCAS, and representatives of the Alliance of International Science Organization (ANSO) in person, was indeed an honor. I firmly believe that this in-person interaction added substantial value to our engagements.
Prof. Zhang emphasized our successful collaboration in research and capacity-building, addressing challenges like climate change, biodiversity conservation, and mountain disasters. The Chinese Academy of Sciences is eager to deepen practical cooperation with ICIMOD, contributing significantly to sustainable development in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region.
I reiterated our commitment to expanding collaboration on sustainable mountain development to address regional and global challenges. China's continued contributions and the sharing of advanced technology affirm a shared dedication to regional cooperation. ICIMOD remains steadfast in reinforcing collaboration with Chinese counterparts, aligning with China's national priorities for sustainable development. Our goal is to make ICIMOD an effective platform for facilitating China's collaborations with neighbouring HKH countries.
Our meeting was marked by substantive discussions on a range of critical topics, and I am delighted to learn that both of us found our exchange to be productive and insightful.
In the subsequent days, we engaged in cordial meetings with key institutions and ministries, including the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), the National Forestry & Grassland Administration, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE)of the People’s Republic of China, and the National Centre for Climate Strategy Research and International Cooperation (NCSC). Notably, this marked our first official in-person meeting with Chinese officials in Beijing to date.
The NSFC, demonstrated its commitment to collaboration by presenting funding options and joint research initiatives. This marks a significant step forward after the pandemic, especially in the context of codeveloping and co-planning joint activities for ICIMOD’s MTAP V. The willingness to invest in joint projects underscores the mutual interest in addressing pressing challenges through scientific research and innovation.
Meetings with the National Forestry & Grassland Administration and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE)of the People’s Republic of China revealed the clear priorities of Chinese partners in the areas of environmental protection and administration. In-depth discussions on climate change, conservation, and sustainable development shed light on shared goals and potential avenues for collaboration. The distinct positions of these ministries underscore their crucial roles in shaping China's environmental policies and practices. I appreciate their direct appreciation of our work over the past 40 years.
The series of meetings with CAS headquarter and institutes, and key ministries in China have fortified the foundation for a robust partnership between ICIMOD and its Chinese partners. The shared commitment to addressing common challenges set a positive trajectory for the future. As ICIMOD continues to strengthen its collaboration with China, the shared vision of sustainable development in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region takes a significant step forward, promising positive outcomes for the global community.
Moving forward, we commit to sustaining consistent communication, particularly in anticipation of significant upcoming events. This includes the celebrations marking ICIMOD's 40th Anniversary in Kathmandu and the International Mountain Forum scheduled for December 2023 in Chengdu.
Prof. Wang Yanfen and Prof. Yao Tandong （Honorary Director of Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, ITP, CAS）are not just esteemed colleagues; they're old friends who share a deep connection with ICIMOD.
Dive into the profound connections and contributions of Prof. Wang Yanfen, Vice President of the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences since 2008. As an independent board member at ICIMOD from 2014-2023, her leadership extended beyond academia, holding key positions respectively in the China Ecological Society and China Natural Resources Society.
In recognition of her exceptional efforts for ICIMOD, we conveyed our gratitude by presenting her with a well-deserved medal of thanks during the first-day meeting.
Following this successful meeting, I had the honour of addressing UCAS students in a guest lecture. This interaction aimed to cultivate a culture of knowledge sharing and interdisciplinary cooperation. Connecting with the next generation of scholars was not only invigorating but also highlighted the crucial need for nurturing fresh talent in our field. Through such engagements, we lay the foundation for a shared future marked by collaboration and innovation in the region.
Prof. Wang's enthusiastic lead through various colleges on the campus added a personal touch to the journey, complemented by the thoughtful gift of Chinese calligraphy and cultural shirts.
On a welcoming Saturday after several days, we had the pleasure of being received by Prof. Yao Tandong in his esteemed office at the well-known Third Pole, and the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research.
Prof. Yao is not only a distinguished scientist and researcher but also a figure recognized for his profound contributions to glaciology and climate studies. As a prominent academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Prof. Yao has consistently led the way in unravelling the complexities of the Third Pole's environment. During our visit, he graciously introduced us to the cutting-edge instruments and talented researchers housed in the State Key Laboratory of Tibetan Plateau Earth Systems, Environment, and Resources.
His involvement as the second Vice-President of the Chinese Committee on ICIMOD (CNICIMOD) underscores his commitment to collaborative efforts between China and ICIMOD. Furthermore, his contributions include serving on the steering committee of "The Hindu Kush Himalaya assessment: Mountains, climate change, sustainability and people."; played a pivotal role as one of the two lead authors in producing the report titled "A Scientific Assessment of the Third Pole Environment." Additionally, Prof. Yao delivered a keynote speech virtually during the ICIMOD’s 2023 Science Policy Forum's opening ceremony.
This underlines his commitment to advancing scientific discourse and sharing insights, enriching our comprehension of the dynamic environment of the Third Pole, and fostering cooperation with ICIMOD. These collaborative endeavours stand as a testament to the fruitful partnership between the institute and ICIMOD.
This time in 2023, I embarked on my fourth journey to China, returning to Urumqi after a two-decade hiatus. After a nearly 5-hour flight to the geographical centre of the Asian continent and the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, my team and I participated in the “2023 International Forum on Sustainable Development of Ecology and Environment in the Silk Road Economic Belt" held from September 17th to 19th. The event, jointly hosted by the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography (XIEG) and the Xinjiang Association for Science and Technology (XAST), was co-organized by ICIMOD and several other esteemed organizations.
In this momentous gathering, facing scholars and officials from China, Central Asia, and beyond, I had the privilege of delivering a keynote speech titled "Regional Cooperation in Addressing the Climate Crisis in the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region." With more than 300 participants representing 17 countries and international organizations, the speech underscored the urgent need for collaborative efforts to address the climate crisis in this ecologically sensitive area.
Adding to the significance of the event, I had the great honor of witnessing the signing of an MoU between the Forestry Administration of Gilgit, Pakistan, and the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography (XIEG). This MoU was facilitated by the previous ICIMOD transboundary initiative of Hindu Kush Pamir Landscape Initiative (HKPL).
Furthermore, my esteemed colleague, Ms. Sunita Chaudhary, an Ecosystem Services Specialist at ICIMOD, played a crucial role. In a parallel session of the forum, she presented on "Regional Cooperation for Conservation: Analysing Opportunities and Gaps for Transboundary Conservation Between China and Its Neighbouring Countries in the Hindu Kush Himalaya." Her insights shed light on vital opportunities and obstacles in transboundary conservation collaboration.
Certain regions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China overlap between the HKH and Silk Road Economic Belt. Common concerns, stemming from human and climate change perspectives, align with the expertise and interests of experts and governments. Specialized discussions on geological, hydrological, and climatic conditions emphasized the importance of regional cooperation, green development, sustainable management, and food and water security. These discussions closely aligned with the event’s primary objective of advancing science, resources, and regional and global cooperation.
Our visit to China was a testament to the ongoing strength of our partnership. The productive meetings and enriching engagements with government and academic organizations showcased the hospitality and warmth extended to us. As we return to Kathmandu after this hectic but fruitful trip, the shared vision of sustainable development in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region takes a significant step forward on the regional collaboration and promote regional agenda at global forum.
Special thanks to the CNICIMOD and all individuals involved in the excellent organization of our journey, including Su Lijun, Lu Xuyang, Gan Lu, Yi Shaoliang, and Feng Yuan.
Bindu Sahi, a 23-year-old from Birendranagar, a city in Surkhet District, western Nepal, cycles from home to home through her community selling vegetables from her family farm. While engaging with her customers, she also shares the story of her family’s success with climate-resilient farming practices, and the importance of sustainable agriculture in the face of climate change.
Surkhet District is grappling with the adverse effects of climate change. Changing rainfall patterns and increasing temperatures are affecting agriculture, making it difficult for farmers to sustain their livelihoods and plan their crops. Furthermore, a heating climate is making more hospitable conditions for crop pests and diseases that were not previously a problem. This is particularly daunting for smallholder farmers like Bindu, whose family relies on agriculture.
“I remember a time when my family had an abundant harvest, which we would share with our neighbours. But now, production has been steadily declining. Irregular and unpredictable rainfall and new pests and diseases forced us to resort to chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Despite this, production was barely enough to meet our needs”, she shares. Bindu, who lives with her parents and seven siblings, helps her parents with their 0.2 acre of land – all while pursuing a Master’s degree in health science.
Although Bindu has a deep love for farming, her father believes agriculture offers no prospects for a successful future. Existing socio-economic challenges such as limited access to finance, technology and markets, poor infrastructure, and widespread poverty make it difficult for families like Bindu’s to make a living from agriculture. Adapting to climate change impacts adds another challenge. However, Bindu’s unwavering determination to support her parents compelled her to seek innovative solutions to their farming challenges.
Discovering climate-resilient agriculture
Representing her father, Bindu attended the first meeting of the Green Resilient Agriculture Productive Ecosystems (GRAPE) project as a member of the local Langansil Farmers’ Group, officially registered with Birendranagar municipality. The group, which is focused on the production of seasonal vegetables, comprises 27 local farmers, of which 24 are women and 3 are men. It was in this meeting that Bindu learned about climate-resilient agriculture (CRA), which is based on simple, affordable, Nature-based Solutions and aims to increase people’s capacity to adapt climate change.
Bindu attended the demonstrations and actively participated in the training events focusing on CRA practices. These practices included drip irrigation, which is water-efficient, and the use of biological pest control and biofertilisers. ICIMOD’s particular focus in the GRAPE project is on ‘action research’, which emphasises participatory research conducted with, for, and by people. It involves cycles of action and reflection, and aims to enable change through innovation and demonstrating proven solutions. Through this approach, the project enables farmers, like Bindu, to actively engage in the research process and see the tangible impact of CRA practices.
Bindu has implemented some CRA practices in her family farm, which have significantly improved productivity. She has constructed a pond for greywater – this is domestic wastewater generated in households from sinks, showers, or baths but not from toilets; Bindu uses the greywater for irrigation. By reutilising wastewater, and not having to rely only on rainwater or spring water, and by using environmentally friendly biopesticides and biofertilisers instead of harmful and expensive chemical products, these practices have strengthened her family’s resilience to climate shocks and change.
She has also installed different lures and traps for pest control, which attract and trap pests through the use of colours and the scent of female insects. Bindu also prepared and used jholmol – homemade biofertilisers and biopesticides. Jholmol are not only cost-effective but also eco-friendly, mitigating the need for expensive and environmentally damaging chemical fertilisers and pesticides (https://lib.icimod.org/record/35011). In addition, she used ‘Vermiwash’ spray to control nutrient deficiencies in the plants – a nutrient-rich liquid made as a byproduct of vermicomposting, or worm composting, whereby earthworms aerate the soil, digest organic matter and produce castings that are a valuable source of humus.
These practices have also increased Bindu’s family’s household income: in April 2023, the family generated nearly NPR 30,000 (approximately USD 225) in revenue selling seasonal vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Most of these vegetables are sold in the family’s home city of Birendranagar.
Eager to share her success, Bindu often invites other farmers to visit her farm, where the GRAPE project has established a community learning centre. Her goal is to raise awareness among fellow farmers about simple solutions that help mitigate climate change impacts. She frequently assists neighbouring farmers in adopting these techniques.
Bindu’s passion and dedication have inspired others to embrace sustainable farming practices. “I was unsure about using biopesticides and traps to control pests on my farm because I had always relied on chemical pesticides. But when I visited Bindu's farm and saw the incredible results first-hand, my doubts vanished. The biopesticides and traps she used were incredibly effective in controlling insect pests and pathogens. Now, I have decided to adopt the same solutions on my own farm,” shares Krishna Sahi, a neighbouring farmer.
Bindu firmly believes in the immense potential of climate-resilient agriculture practices. “While climate change poses significant threats to agriculture, instead of succumbing to despair, it is important we confront these challenges head-on. With the right adaptation measures and sustainable practices, agriculture can not only survive but also thrive in a changing climate”, she says.
Through her work, she demonstrates that, by prioritising the health and wellbeing of both people and the environment, agriculture can become a force for positive change in the face of climate change. Bindu also encourages other young individuals to consider pursuing a future in agriculture, highlighting the importance of sustainable and climate-resilient farming practices. While committed to her studies, she remains dedicated to supporting her parents in their farming activities, ensuring a sustainable and prosperous future for their family and community.
At a time when many young people are abandoning agriculture, Bindu’s story serves as an inspiration for others, demonstrating the potential in using and promoting climate-resilient agricultural practices at home and in the community.
Drought, extreme weather events, and shifting pest and disease patterns are some of the challenges posed by a changing climate that affect farmers all over the Hindu Kush Himalaya. One such farmer is Puna Rawat Bhandari, 31, from Dailekh District, in western Nepal, where she plays a vital role as a local resource person at the Community Learning Centre (CLC) in Bhandaritol, Ward 4, Dullu Municipality. The CLC, which was established on Puna’s land (3 ropani, just over 1500m2), serves as a centralised location in the community where various climate-resilient agricultural tools, practices, and techniques are demonstrated.
Such findings include Vermi Compost and Vermi Wash, nutrient-rich organic materials used for fertiliser; Tricho-Compost, a specialised compost enriched with beneficial Trichoderma fungi; Jholmal 1, 2, 3, homemade bio-fertilisers and bio-pesticides; and the Pitfall trap, a method of pest control that involves digging a pit around crop fields and installing a container or barrier to trap and capture insects, rodents, or other pests. These solutions have the collective aim of improving soil health, enhancing nutrient availability, reducing chemical dependency, and promoting sustainable farming practices. These benefits are invaluable for farmers grappling with the effects of the climate crisis. The primary purpose of the CLC is to showcase these resources to the community, allowing them to observe and eventually adopt the technologies and practices that best suit their needs.
Community engagement and ownership is a key aspect of the Green Resilient Agricultural Productive Ecosystems (GRAPE) project. To ensure this, the project has deployed local resource persons, orienting them to project activities, implementation methodologies, and action research processes. ICIMOD leads the GRAPE component on action research, which aims to enable change through innovation. Puna, in her role as a local resource person, oversees five farmer groups within the municipality (Bhandari Tole Bahu Udeshya Krishi Samuha, Him Shikhar Taza Tarkari Samuha, Gangalal Krishi Tatha Pashupalan Samuha, Jankalyan Krishi Tatha Pashu Palan Organic Krishi Sahakari, and Navajyoti Biu Utpadan Samuha). She fulfils various responsibilities, including social mobilisation, sharing information and knowledge, and providing support to activities conducted at the demonstration site.
However, Puna’s journey to this position was not without challenges. She reveals that in the past, opportunities for capacity building were exclusively available to her husband. Training courses usually require significant travel and time from participants, to which Puna was unable to commit, given her household responsibilities. The implementation of the project in her community has opened doors for Puna’s personal growth and enabled her to enhance her understanding of climate change and sustainable agricultural practices. The CLC has provided her with firsthand involvement in action research and demonstrating innovative solutions right from the initial stages. This hands-on experience has not only enabled Puna to design and develop solutions independently but has also empowered her to educate and train fellow farmers.
By actively involving farmers, action research considers their knowledge, expertise, and traditional practices, which leads to more relevant and effective climate-resilient agricultural practices.
The CLC is part of ICIMOD’S component on the GRAPE project which focuses on action research and knowledge production, fostering climate-resilient food production systems, and improving digital access to agro-advisories in selected palikas or rural municipalities of Sudurpashchim and Karnali provinces of Nepal. We are collaborating with The Center for Environmental and Agricultural Policy Research, Extension and Development (CEAPRED) to implement these activities in nine palikas across Dailekh, Surkhet, and Humla districts within Karnali Province.
The project actively supports gender-friendly tools and technologies, recognising the significant involvement of women in agriculture, particularly vegetable production. Plastic tunnels, drip irrigation, mulching, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques, and mixed cropping are among the methods encouraged by the project, aiming to minimise farmers’ efforts, reduce reliance on chemical pesticides, while maximising profits. Understanding that women in the community are often responsible for a multitude of tasks within their households, these tools and technologies significantly reduce the burden on women farmers. The technologies showcased reduce physical labour, improve time management, and alleviate the daily drudgery associated with traditional farming. These technologies contribute to a more sustainable, inclusive and equitable agricultural landscape, benefiting both women and the community as a whole.
Puna enthusiastically shares her newfound knowledge, for instance, she had no idea that using soap water and sticky traps could effectively control Tuta absoluta, a pest that affects tomato crops. These solutions have not been confined to the learning centre but have been adopted by farmers in the community. Almost 50% of the members of the farmers’ group have adopted at least one of the solutions demonstrated in the CLC, given their relatively low cost and local availability, and easy replication.
As a mother of four, Puna’s daily life can be incredibly hectic. Her mornings begin with preparing meals for her family, sending her children off to school, and tending to the livestock on her farm. Throughout the day, she juggles farm responsibilities with household chores, including cleaning and other tasks. Puna’s life is a constant balancing act between her family and farm duties. However, with the implementation of these innovative solutions, she has experienced a significant reduction in her farm-related workload without compromising production. In fact, vegetable production has increased by 10% to 15% compared to previous years, allowing her to not only meet her family’s consumption needs but also sell the surplus in the market. Previously, her family’s monthly income averaged NPR 20,000 (about USD 150), but now, thanks to sales of seasonal vegetables, including cabbage, cucumber and tomato, they have seen a significant boost, with monthly earnings reaching up to NPR 40,000. The additional income from the vegetable production has made a meaningful impact on her family’s financial situation. Previously, with her husband being the sole breadwinner, educational opportunities for their children were limited. But now, through the additional income, Puna is able to support her daughter’s education by sending her to a school with more resources in the neighbouring district of Surkhet. The family now has some savings, which they plan to invest in further expanding their vegetable production.
Puna finds immense motivation in the initial positive results showcased by the climate-resilient practices and solutions demonstrated through the GRAPE project. She actively encourages other women to participate in commercial farming and acquire knowledge about climate-resilient agricultural tools and technologies. Puna’s journey as a knowledgeable farmer exemplifies the transformative power of community-driven initiatives such as the GRAPE project. Through her role as a local resource person at the CLC, she has not only expanded her own knowledge but also become an agent of change, inspiring fellow farmers to adopt climate-resilient agricultural practices. With her unwavering determination and the innovative solutions demonstrated at the CLC, she has overcome challenges, increased productivity, and improved her family’s livelihood. Her story exemplifies the potential for community-based initiatives to create lasting change and inspire others to embrace the power of knowledge and technology in building resilient agricultural systems.
28 August saw the Government of Nepal set out its plans to support the growth of green enterprises, building on research developed alongside ICIMOD. Once a development nice-to-have, this work is now about backing the businesses of the future, argues Izabella Koziell, Deputy Director General at the Hindu Kush Himalaya knowledge centre.
This Monday, I joined the launch of Start Up Nation, a new strategy led by Nepal’s Ministry of Industry Commerce and Supplies, designed to turbo charge enterprise in Nepal.
From Silicon Valley to Shanghai we have seen the amazing things that are possible when the right policy frameworks and finance exist to allow start-ups to thrive. This initiative sets out to create a similarly fertile soil for start-ups right here in Nepal, in order to create thousands of jobs.
After two years in Nepal in my role as Deputy Director General of ICIMOD and from my marriage to a serial entrepreneur, I know for a fact that Nepalis have in spades two of the most crucial characteristics needed for a start-up to succeed: firstly, tenacity and secondly, inventiveness. Indeed, micro, small and medium businesses are already the bedrock of Nepal’s economy.
But what’s exciting about this framework is that it sets out to put climate and environment at the centre of this already strong entrepreneurial culture. This is important ethically, and for Nepal to meet its nationally determined contributions of course. But it is also, economically speaking, common sense. Pro-nature and pro-climate businesses are the growth sectors of tomorrow.
The good news is that while San Francisco and Singapore might be more synonymous with start-up culture, few places on Earth can boast as much experience and potential, and unique products, as Nepal has when it comes to green, and resilient, businesses. This is an arena in which Nepal already leads the world.
This strategy is also trailblazing for having inclusivity at its heart. Again, this is not just the right thing to do, from a development lens. It’s also the smart thing to do: all the research shows that greater diversity leads to increased innovation, better problem-solving, and customer understanding – all fundamental building blocks of business success.
Nepal, in common with many countries, faces challenging times ahead. For Nepal, economic challenges are uniquely compounded by climate and environment change. Boosting and backing green, resilient, inclusive start-ups is a big step forwards in terms of ensuring Nepal’s economy is able to face down these challenges and be fit for the future.
ICIMOD applauds this strategy and stands ready to support the Government of Nepal’s efforts moving forwards. And I look forward to meeting the future stars of Nepal’s start-up landscape in all their diversity of backgrounds and experience as they forge their future-fit businesses.
Nepal faces both economic and climate challenges, making the need to strengthen the resilience of the country’s businesses mission critical. The launch of the Government of Nepal’s Green, Resilient, and Inclusive Entrepreneurship Policy Framework, which ICIMOD helped shape, this Monday was an important step forward in bolstering the enterprise sector against these threats.
The paper was launched as part of the Startup Nation 2030 Conference, held from 28 to 29 August in Nepal, which set out to build a more ambitious and vigorous start-up ecosystem in the country.
This conference marks a significant milestone in Nepal’s journey toward becoming a startup nation, showcasing the country’s potential to thrive in the face of climate challenges and foster green innovation.
The startup ecosystem in Nepal is dynamic, shaped by the country’s unique challenges: climate vulnerability and a dwindling workforce due to youth migration. To navigate these challenges, Nepal must optimize resources, cut carbon emissions, empower youth, and create equal opportunities while transforming risks into opportunities.
Climate innovation, be it in energy or agriculture, is poised to become the fastest-growing sector in the near future. Thus, the jobs of the future must be climate and nature-positive, placing our planet at the forefront.
The nation’s micro, small, and medium-sized businesses already form the backbone of its economy. The Green, Resilient, and Inclusive Entrepreneurship Policy Framework, launched during the event, aims to fuse this strong entrepreneurial culture with a focus on climate and environmental opportunities, propelling enterprises toward a greener and more resilient future.
To expand Nepal’s success in building green startup ecosystems across the Hindu Kush Himalaya region means collaborating, customizing, and committing. Sharing knowledge, forming tailored strategies, and partnering with international organizations will be essential. Governments, access to finance, cross-border collaboration, and inclusivity will be our drivers. By nurturing green startups and fostering innovation, we can shape a sustainable future for our economies and youth.
As Nepal’s Startup Nation 2030 Conference sparked change, our collective dedication will propel us toward a greener, more resilient Hindu Kush Himalaya.
Several key figures at the conference shared their insights and visions for Nepal's startup future:
"Through this conference, we've successfully harnessed the collective power of government, academia, and the private sector, catalyzing Nepal's transformation into a dynamic startup nation. The Government of Nepal has been fostering partnerships with both the private sector and academia to drive this progress." - Hon. Minister Ramesh Rizal, MoIC
"Political changes have paved the way for entrepreneurship.
In the 1990s, we had one newspaper and one TV station, and even had to take tokens for lunch. Now, we have 753 startups with resources and a mandate, thanks to these changes. " - Anil Chitrakar
"As we move forward, let's learn from our neighbours like India, China, and Bangladesh. We're working on three levels: Ministries, Universities, and expert partnerships.
Together, we move mountains, driven by the anchor force of Antarprerana, to shape a brighter future for Nepal's economy and youth." - Anu Joshi Shrestha, ICIMOD
"Creating green and resilient businesses is no longer a nice-to-have; it's an urgent necessity. We must focus on bringing in green opportunities to turbocharge the enterprises of tomorrow, ensuring that the jobs we set out to create today are the right ones - for people, for profit, but also for the planet." - Izabella Koziell, ICIMOD
Chhirak Maya Rai, aged 82, has lived all her life in Ward-8 of Dhankuta District, nestled in the mid-hills of Koshi Province, Eastern Nepal. A revered member of the Aath Pahariya Rai, an Indigenous community native to Dhankuta, Chhirak Maya Rai has witnessed remarkable changes throughout her life, though water was never an issue in her community. The resilience of her community has been put to the test by an unprecedented water crisis that has been unfolding over the past few decades.
"I am 82 years old now, and this is the first time I am taking any training on water management and sanitation” says Chhirak Maya Rai, a member of the Aath Pahariya Rai community in Dhankuta.
Springs are a major source of water in the area; however, like other mid-hill communities across the Himalayan landscape, neighbourhoods in Ward-8 have direct experience of the springs drying up.
Not so long ago, the Aath Pahariya Rai was a thriving community, carrying on their way of life that had remained unchanged for generations. Once known for its ample water resources, Ward-8 has now become synonymous with aridity, becoming one of the driest wards in the entire Dhankuta district. The people living here, including Chhirak Maya Rai, face relentless challenges posed by this profound water crisis.
The drying up of springs has many severe consequences for the sustainability of Himalayan landscapes, river systems, ecosystems, and biodiversity. This scarcity has infiltrated into every aspect of life in these communities, reshaping the way of life as the loss of water sources has made it increasingly difficult to cultivate land. Many men are forced to move out in search of work, leaving women and children to make up for the missing labour force; this increases the drudgery of women and children. For instance, in Khambela village, once known for its many cash crops including tomato and beans, the water shortage has become so acute that residents can only fetch water once every four days – a task which takes at least 2 hours each time. This means they can no longer grow cash crops and can only cultivate species which need the least amount of water. Production overall has decreased significantly. With climate change exacerbating the situation, it is crucial to understand the characteristics of water and the value of every single drop for sustainable water management. Managing water sustainably entails ensuring a sufficient supply and responsible use of water for people, animals, farming and business, to meet the needs of current and future generations.
The remoteness of the location also adds to the daily difficulties of communities such as Ward-8, Dhankuta Municipality, “We live 20 minutes away from the main bazar yet very far from opportunities and access to facilities or resources,” says Sanjita Aath Pahariya Rai, describing the journey by vehicle.
Dhankuta Municipality recognises the need for planned investment in managing the watershed – the area of land that drains or sheds water into a specific waterbody. A watershed management approach would result in extra ground water storage and flow, thus ensuring a regular supply and encourage responsible use of water and other resources for domestic, agricultural, and development purposes on an equitable basis.
An interdisciplinary team of experts on watershed and river basin management, community-based adaptation, Nature-based Solutions and environmental management and impact assessment from ICIMOD provided technical support to the Nibuwa-Tankhuwawatershed management plan, which the municipality started implementing in 2021. The plan focuses on six major components: i. Sustainable conservation, management and use of water resources, ii. Sustainable land use management, iii. Diversification and improvement of livelihoods options, iv. Climate change, disaster risk management and sustainable infrastructures, v. Strengthening institutional mechanisms, and vi. Interdisciplinary action research and extension.
The ICIMOD team’s long-standing partnership with the Dhankuta Municipality seeks to address these issues head on. Following preparation of the Nibuwa-Tankhuwa Watershed management plan, we are now supporting the implementation of the interventions proposed in the plan.
It is crucial that our scientifically proven interventions incorporate what is feasible for the Dhankuta region: our answer is in ‘water smart solutions’.
A water smart solution is an approach or technology that improves water management and efficiency, ensuring sustainable and responsible use of water resources. It integrates innovative technologies, data-driven systems, and sustainable practices to optimise water usage, reduce wastage, and enhance overall water resource management.
Considering the efficiency and sustainability of water smart solutions, we initiated three activities in Dhankuta Municipality to address the water crises: rainwater harvesting, groundwater recharge activities and a programme to plant vegetation.
Rainwater harvesting is the process of collecting and storing rainwater to meet future water needs. We installed rainwater harvesting systems in two locations in March 2023, working with our partners on the ground, mainly Dhankuta Municipality, Kathmandu-based company SmartPaani Pvt. Ltd., which promotes, develops, and installs water-related technologies, and HUSADEC Nepal, an NGO whose focus is on advocacy and development work with vulnerable and excluded communities in Nepal. This system conserves up to 10,000 litres of water to meet the water needs of 20 households. The other system installed in a school will store up to 1,000 litres. These interventions will help reduce water stress but also inform the community of alternatives to address water scarcity. With use of an effective filter, the conserved rainwater is also fit for drinking. We were able to distribute ‘Tripti Water Filters’ – tabletop filters with four distinct levels of filtration for safe drinking water – to 20 households of Aath Pahariya Rai, Khambela village.
The rainwater harvesting structure that has been installed has taught us how we can use rainwater in the area facing an acute water shortage - Ward 8-Chairperson, Ras Bahadur Rai
In Khambela village, we can see the fruition of these interventions – we moved the water source closer to the community, which reduced the time people spent collecting water from four hours to a few minutes. During our follow-up visit to the community in May 2023, we were greeted by a pleasant sight surrounding the water tanks – happy faces, mostly women, as they waited their turn to collect water in their empty pots and jerrycans from the tanks that had collected water from the previous three days of rain. We could see how these women, their shoulders once burdened, now stood tall. “We feel we have a newfound sense of strength and freedom,” said Rahan Shwori Rai. The transformative power of water, harnessed through our collective efforts, has substantially reduced the drudgery of women in this village, whilst having a positive impact on the time used for such tasks.
One of the major drivers of the water crisis in the area is the drying up of springs, which is the main source of water. Of the 97 springs mapped in the Nibuwa-Tankhuwa watershed, 23 were completely dried up. The water flow or ‘discharge’ from the remaining springs continuously decreased, leaving residents worried about the future of their water supply.
To address this growing challenge, the ICIMOD team used our six-step protocol for spring revival and management. With this proven framework in hand, we set out to revive two critical sites in the watershed: Suke Pokhari in Ward-1 of Dhankuta municipality and Dhoje Danda in Ward-2 of Chhathar Jorpati rural municipality.
We dug 50 trenches in the Dhoje Danda area to collect rainwater and runoff for groundwater recharge, and rain gauges were installed on sites to collect rainfall data. These gauges provide important data on rainfall and discharge both before and after the intervention, a useful tool to track the impact of our work.
“Traditional ponds and flowing springs were once plentiful, but today they’re a rarity. As a result, we’re facing a severe water shortage. Through capacity building, we now understand the importance of groundwater recharge and linking traditional ponds with springs.” – Krishna Kumar Thakuri, Ward-1, Dhankuta Municipality.
What’s next? Keeping the area green with native vegetation is another main activity that is crucial for the success of our Nature-based Solution interventions. Nature-based solutions (NbS) are those actions which encourage the protection, sustainable management, and restoration of natural or modified ecosystems to address societal challenges while simultaneously supporting human wellbeing and biodiversity benefits. We launched a large-scale campaign to plant trees, plants and shrubs in Dhankuta, together with a comprehensive selection of local stakeholders including: local government (Dhankuta and Chhathar Jorpati Rural Municipality), Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal (FECOFUN), Division Forest Office, Soil Conservation and watershed Management Office. Working with our partners on the ground, we were able to take on the critical task of ground water conservation and revival.
Over 1000 participants planted 46,000 seedlings and saplings of 22 different native species across various areas identified through careful field data analysis and stakeholder consultations, making sure that every tree was planted in a spot that would have the most impact. Even a small patch of green can go a long way in promoting healthy ecosystems and maintaining sanitation at the source.
Although we have seen immediate benefits of the rainwater harvesting system in Dhankuta, the long-term goal is to reap the full benefits of the other interventions – spring revival and tree planting. Moving ahead, we need to analyse the economic and social value of our ongoing efforts. These are two critical aspects of any watershed management. Having a clear understanding of the economic and social value of these interventions can help us make better decisions on the benefits for people, the economy and nature. Hence, monitoring the ongoing project activities including rainwater harvesting, planting, and groundwater revival activities is critical for the solutions to be sustainable in the long run. Funding for such water smart solutions needs significant improvement as they promote sustainability and effective water resource management in various sectors, aiming to balance increasing water demands with limited supply while mitigating environmental challenges and population growth.
On Thursday in New Delhi, India’s Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Ms Nameeta Prasad, convened the second meeting of the ICIMOD National Coordination Committee in India.
The National Coordination Committee has been created to serve as the key body to guide, drive and coordinate plans and programmes co-developed with ICIMOD in India, and the meeting brought together key stakeholders from central and state ministries, academia and other stakeholders.
At the event, Joint Secretary Prasad praised the body’s “comprehensive mandate”, saying it would “serve as the hub for scientific solutions in the Himalayan region” and “play a vital role in addressing pressing environmental challenges.”
ICIMOD Director General Pema Gyamtsho welcomed the deepening of ties with India the meeting signified, with its implications for “the scope, scale and ambition of the work we might be able to deliver as a result.
“Everywhere we look, we are seeing the rapid and escalating threats faced by the Hindu Kush Himalayan region. This meeting is a crucial step not just in reinforcing the Government of India’s longstanding commitment to ICIMOD, but in recognising the need for closer coordination and greater collaboration to drive faster progress to reduce risks, and protect people and investments in this crucial mountain biome.
“The NCC puts this important work on a much firmer footing, and will enable us to work in a more streamlined way with key strategic partners and identify more opportunities to join forces to have faster impact.”
Along with a strong delegation from India’s MoEFCC, whose secretary represents India on the ICIMOD Board of Governors, the event was attended by Dr Sunil Nautiyal, Director from Govind Ballabh Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment (NIHE), ICIMOD’s focal institution.
Also represented were state governments of Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh & West Bengal, the Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of External Affairs, the Ministry of Earth Sciences, the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, WWF India, Unesco India, Niti Aayog, G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment, National Institute of Urban Affairs Gandhi University, Sikkim University, JNU, and North-Eastern Hill University.
The National Coordination Committee for Transboundary Landscape programmes in India was established in 2018. Following the publication of the HKH Assessment Report and country consultations held to firm up the HKH Call to Action, its mandate was widened in 2021 to include all ICIMOD programmes in India.
Springs are drying up across the Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH). This is a cause for serious concern for mountain communities whose lives and livelihoods depend on spring water.
In 2018, half of the estimated three million springs in the Indian Himalayan region had either dried up or had reduced flows, as reported by the country’s apex policy-making body, NITI Aayog. About 35 per cent of 6,555 water sources in Bhutan were drying up, a recent assessment found.
This is also the case in Nepal, where over the past 10 years, approximately 20 per cent of springs have dried and 50 per cent of springs have experienced a decrease in spring flow. This is particularly acute, as an estimated 10 million people in Nepal depend on spring water for drinking, household use and minor irrigation.
Governments must invest in promoting science-based and socially inclusive management of springs in the hills and mountains of the HKH. This public investment in anticipatory adaptation is necessary to build resilience against climate change and other evolving threats to water security in these areas.
The standard approach to addressing water insecurity in hill and mountain settlements is to tap a nearby source and deliver it to users. This hard-engineering approach, which, although well intentioned, is unsustainable in a context where water sources are drying up everywhere.
Water projects centred on only delivering engineering solutions are concerned about the source, not the resource. Typically, as a project becomes inadequate or begins to fail, the scale of the response, both in terms of cost and engineering, is raised.
As a result, growing urban centres in the hills and mountains are laying disproportionate claims on water resources from their hinterland, creating what has been described as “rings of dryness” around them. This is typical of a hard-engineering approach, where tapping water from distant sources is justified by demand and the disproportionate heft of urban power centres.
In contrast, the springshed management approach focuses on resource sustainability and community stewardship, keeping in mind growing water needs and even anticipating disputes around future water needs.
Springshed management involves not just the management of the sources (springs) but also the recharge area, through which water infiltrates and reaches the aquifers, where groundwater is stored and emerges at the surface as a spring.
However, not all big hill and mountain towns can be supported through nature-based solutions like spring revival. For instance, a large city like Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, which sits in a bowl-shaped valley, would continue to be dependent on inter-basin transfers to meet its needs.
However, several areas along the valley rim could be self-sufficient with water from springs in the adjoining hills and decouple from the main supply systems, reducing overall demand.
Such large investments must also be viewed against the backdrop of demographic change in the hills and mountains across the region. As mountain settlements become increasingly depopulated due to outmigration to larger urban centres within the same countries or to other countries across the region and globally, we need to revisit the scale and viability of engineering projects.
In this context, an appropriately scaled nature-based solution like spring revival is a better investment of public resources, with a clear restoration plan and the necessary infrastructure to deliver sufficient safe water for household use and minor irrigation, in a way that reduces the time and effort needed for the communities to collect and use it.
Investing in spring revival as a nature-based solution not only improves local water security, but it also delivers important co-benefits. Landscape restoration, conservation of aquatic and riverine biodiversity, contributions to streamflow in non-glaciated catchments, (that is, areas of land where runoff, or water flow, doesn’t come from glacier meltwater) and sustaining winter and dry season flows across numerous river basins of the HKH are some of them.
Combining spring revival with already-built infrastructure could potentially restore the value of dead investments in cases where the source has been degraded. This could prevent putting good money after bad investment and cut government spending, enabling investment in other critical infrastructure.
Community-based spring revival could also guard against maladaptation, since it involves groundwork and community mobilisation, blending science with local knowledge and building inclusive community institutions rather than a one-off project that only focuses on an engineering solution and distorts local understanding of resource availability.
For instance, maladaptation here could refer to an increase in cultivating water-intensive crops just because a project is delivering water. At the landscape level, investments in spring revival can bring communities together in complex geographies, such as when one community’s spring recharge area is located within another community’s land or forest.
Such collective action can forge landscape-level conservation partnerships and yield important conservation outcomes.
To address the issue of water stress due to the drying up of springs across the mid hills and mountains of the HKH, we have collaborated with partners to revive springs and advance springshed management based on a six-step protocol that combines hydrogeology (geology that deals with underground or surface waters) with social science methods and community-empowering participatory action research.
There are three aspects of this work aimed at building autonomous water security in hill and mountain settlements. The first is knowledge co-creation, which involves communities working with interdisciplinary teams of hydrogeologists, social scientists and foresters. They also work with experts in watersheds — the area of land that drains water into a specific waterbody.
Village Water Security Plans are co-designed using participatory tools, combining traditional knowledge with hydrogeology, identifying recharge areas for restoration and facilitating cooperation among communities inhabiting the springshed area.
The second aspect is the creation of a cadre of ‘para-hydrologists’ from within the communities who, although not formally trained in hydrology, receive training in monitoring and collecting data on spring flows and on mobilising communities to take part in activities designed to revive groundwater or springs.
Such activities include springshed restoration, including physical works like digging trenches or afforestation or developing measures or structures that store and buffer rainwater.
The third focuses on building water user groups, village water security plans and embedding springshed management within local institutions and plans that is inclusive — ensuring that women and socially marginalised groups participate in and have a say in spring revival and water use.
The results of our work with partners in Bhutan, India and Nepal show improved spring flow, demonstrating an inclusive and sustainable model that can be upscaled to enhance water security across the HKH.
Alternative hard engineering solutions are often made and influenced by narrow interests and political considerations; as such, they undermine the agency and decisions of local communities.
A community-based approach to springshed management reduces the chances of ‘elite capture’, that is, where public resources are biased for the benefit of a few individuals of superior social status in detriment to the welfare of the larger population and socially marginalised groups are excluded from benefits.
By supporting collective action, spring revival as a nature-based solution can improve local resource conditions, resilience and social cohesion within the community.
Our research shows that spring revival enhances water access, improves livelihoods and contributes to countries achieving several Sustainable Development Goals.
While dry springs and water stress receive attention and investment, our focus needs to quickly shift from source management to resource management with simple, low-cost, nature-based solutions instead of unsustainable and high-cost engineering solutions.
Many springs are drying up or becoming seasonal, indicating widespread water stress in the not-so-distant future if we do not act now. This is an impending crisis, so instead of resorting to quick technical fixes, we must invest in nature for long-term water security.