Last Tuesday, at almost 3500m above sea level; cold, wet and muddy from a light snow storm that had been a steady drizzle a half-hour earlier, and out of breath from walking uphill for three hours straight, I considered myself fortunate. I was trekking through one of the most beautiful alpine regions in the world, Nepal’s Langtang region, together with 19 other fellow men and women, all prominent personalities from disparate sectors of the Nepali society. Our team was on a four-day mission to observe the impact of climate change on the Himalayan Mountain range and to learn about the ongoing climate change adaptation initiatives supported by USAID and the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) and led by local communities. The trek, called the Green Hiker-Green Planet campaign, was organized by USAID in partnership with WWF to raise the awareness of global climate change among non-development or academic professionals—particularly the media and members of Nepali parliament and the private sector—and to encourage collaboration among these diverse groups.
Along the trek route, we passed through several areas affected by landslides and forest fires that had completely destroyed villages and ruined water sources for thousands of people. The landslides and fires are direct causes of changing weather patterns and deforestation in the Himalayas. Many of the people who lived in the region that we spoke to were gravely aware of the gradual, yet steady, change in the previously predictable climate of the region. The changes had been particularly drastic over the last ten years they said, from changing rainfall patterns to extended dry seasons, hitting their crops—and thus, their livelihoods, the hardest.
Along the trail, a farmer we met at Jibjibe village recited a poem on climate change for us. Remarkably, her poetry was not about the sublime and dramatic snowcapped and jagged Himalayan peaks but about carbon credits, changing weather patterns, depleted water sources and the need for heightened attention and action on climate change. We were left in awe, somewhat shocked and surprised that a farmer in such a remote village of the Langtang region could so articulately talk about climate change and its impact. He summarized the purpose of our trek in plain, simple language – an often difficult feat for many of us, including those in the development profession.
The diversity of the group added greatly to the discussions during the trek allowing for different perspectives and exchange of ideas. We were not only learning from our interactions with the communities and from our site visits, but also from each other. Mr. Anil Chitrakar, a leading energy and environment activist in Nepal and chairperson of the Himalayan Climate Initiative, shared “climate change is so big and beyond us that it requires urgent action on the part of all. This trek brought together such a diverse group of passionate Nepalis committed to advancing the many social, development, and political issues of the country, stimulated excellent ideas, and helped create a strong partnership network. If we stay committed, this network can grow from 20 of us to thousands and spur stronger joint action on climate change and environment conservation. That’s our goal, and I know this team, together, can make that happen.”
The trek closed back in Kathmandu with an Earth Day press conference on April 22during which trek highlights and remarks by key experts on climate change were the major theme. Speaking at the press conference, Dr. Kevin A. Rushing, Mission Director of USAID/Nepal, remarked “it is especially imperative to address climate change in Nepal because of its largest glacier concentration outside the polar region. Nepal hosts eight of the world’s tallest peaks and around 3,200 glaciers and 1,466 glacial lakes—with approximately 1.3 billion people dependent on the water that comes out of the mountains’ many rivers. ”
The Green Hiker-Green Planet Campaign also served as a sounding board and an informal inauguration of USAID’s new environment program in Nepal called Hariyo Ban Nepal ko Dhan (or Green Forests in English) which will contribute to the reduction of threats to biodiversity and vulnerabilities of global climate change in Nepal through interventions in two priority bio-diverse landscapes: the Gandaki River Basin and the Terai Arc-Landscape. The many ideas from the trek will feed into the program once it is rolled out in a couple of months’ time.
The trek was also held to commemorate USAID/Nepal’s 60th Anniversary and WWF’s 50th Anniversary. With 60 years of development efforts in Nepal, USAID has a long history of successful and cutting-edge environmental programs in the country, including its work with community forest user groups to support environmental governance, conserve biodiversity, and promote sustainable livelihoods.
On that Tuesday at 3500m in a snow storm, we stopped for lunch and shelter in a tea house in Singompa, a picturesque village in a beautiful pine forest with a breathtaking view of the Langtang range. Huddled together sipping hot soup, the trekking team had one of its most stimulating discussions at the tea house. Sunil B. Pant, one of the three parliamentarians on the trek and an upcoming political leader, commented, “The next major conflict in Nepal and elsewhere will be caused by climate change if we don’t act now to mitigate the threats it poses. The Green Hiker-Green Planet campaign is a great opportunity to discuss how we can all work together as partners to address climate change and its effects. The momentum we gain during this trek needs to continue.” The fog rolled up the mountainside bringing more rain turned into snow changing with it the mood of the trekkers inside.
We felt euphoria first, because for most of us living in Kathmandu, the snowfall experience is limited to the movies and TV we watch. But the euphoria soon turned into reflective discussions because of the unusual April snowstorm; snowfall season even in these mountains should have ended by March. For any and all of the skeptics in us, there wasn’t a bigger moment of truth than this – climate change was happening and is inevitable. “What were we going to do to prevent and mitigate its negative impact?”