Rising heat and snow-capped peaks chill Nepal’s mountain economy


Originally posted by Thomson Reuters Foundation on Tuesday, February 9, 2021 03:30 GMT

Hurt by COVID travel restrictions, tourist towns relied on local visitors – but lack of snow linked to climate change means few have come

* Nepal is warming at the rate of 0.6 degrees Celsius per decade

* High altitude regions experience the greatest temperature increases

* Lack of snow leaves hotel rooms empty and affects crops

DHAMPUS, Nepal, February 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – During the 12 years that Baburam Giri worked as a cook in a hotel in the village of Dhampus – a major tourist draw with its view of the towering mountain range of the Annapurna – winters became less snowy.

“The snowfall we had five years ago was over 2 feet deep – but we didn’t have any significant snowfall afterward,” lamented Giri, standing in front of his stove in the Yama Sakura hotel.

As hotels around the world feel the financial pain of travel restrictions to curb the coronavirus pandemic, Giri said his community in central Nepal mainly relies on Nepalese tourists, who come every year attracted by the wintry weather.

But this year, bare ground means few visitors.

“Many national and local tourists come to this region to play in the snow whenever there is snowfall,” Giri told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“But (now) the hotel is almost empty.”

From tourism to agriculture, industries based in the mountains of Nepal are suffering from declining income due to lack of heavy snowfall in recent years – a phenomenon that scientists associate with rising temperatures.

Hotel worker Baburam Giri cooks on the stove at the Yama Sakura Hotel in Dhampus, a town overlooking the towering Annapurna mountain range in north-central Nepal, January 16, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Aadesh Subedi

According to Arun Bhakta Shrestha of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), studies using remote sensing technology show that snow cover has steadily declined in Nepal and the Hindu Kush Himalayan region.

“Nepal’s temperature is increasing at the rate of 0.6 degrees Celsius (1.08 Fahrenheit) per decade,” said the regional director of the program.

A report released by the Nepalese Department of Hydrology and Meteorology in December predicted that the average temperature in the country this winter would be above normal and average precipitation below normal.

For Budhhi Man Gurung, the owner of the Yama Sakura hotel, the combination of climate change and COVID-19 has resulted in an 80% drop in income compared to last year.

“It has become difficult for me to pay staff salaries,” he said.

There are no comprehensive studies on the economic impact of reduced snowfall on Nepal’s tourism industry, but Dhananjay Regmi, CEO of the country’s tourism board, said that at in the long term, climate change would undoubtedly reduce the number of visitors.

“Most tourists come to Nepal to see snow capped mountains, but if those mountains turn into black hills, it will ultimately affect tourism,” he said in a telephone interview.

The council had made plans to promote snow tourism, such as ski vacations, to attract more tourists to the area, Regmi said.

“But the irregular snowfall these days has made us wonder if this plan will succeed,” he added.

Cold weather pest control

Tourism is not the only industry struggling with the lack of snow in central Nepal.

Shanta Bahadur Bishowkarma, a farmer from Dhampus, said just a few years ago that he could feed his family with the food he grew in his field.

Now, without heavy snow, he is struggling to access enough water to grow enough corn, millet and vegetables to feed his family.

During the winter growing season, he depended on melting snow to water his crops. These days, he says, he sometimes has to resort to using potable water.

Snow and cold were also good for keeping his crops free of pests, Bishowkarma explained, noting that the cold temperatures harmed many insects and diseases that could destroy his plants.

“Since the days of our ancestors, there has been the belief that there would be a bumper crop in a year that saw enough snowfall,” said the farmer.

But as warmer temperatures hit his fields, “I now have to buy food from outside,” he said.

Farmer Shanta Bahadur Bishowkarma looks at the produce on his land in Dhampus, a town overlooking the towering Annapurna mountain range in north-central Nepal, January 16, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Aadesh Subedi

Arjun Rayamajhi, a plant protection official at the government’s Agriculture Knowledge Center in Darchula, one of Nepal’s mountainous districts, said low temperatures reduce insect reproduction rates.

And just like in other warming parts of the world, the warmer temperatures in the mountains of Nepal are attract pests that once found them too cold.

“Due to the rising temperatures in the higher regions, the insects are moving from the lower belt, so new pests are seen in the higher regions these days,” Rayamajhi said.

Global warming is also preventing mountain farmers in Nepal from growing traditional crops that typically thrive in colder climates, such as apples.

“Even cattle are affected, because the lack of snow … leads to a moisture deficit in winter and the grasses they feed on cannot grow properly,” he said.

“The mountainous districts are already grappling with food insecurity and these things are making the problem worse.”

Unusual warming

Climate scientists warn that snowy winters will become rarer in Nepal in the coming decades.

A Evaluation of the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region published by ICIMOD in 2019 predicted a 50-60% drop in snowfall in the Ganges basin, which covers part of Nepal, by 2071-2100.

The research shows “unusually large” temperature rises in high-altitude areas of the region, the report notes, adding that “warming is estimated at nearly two to three times the global average.”

Sushil Raj Poudel, president of the Association of Trekking Agencies Association of the Western Region of Nepal, said the group members could no longer count on the tourism boom they used to see some days after each heavy snowfall.

“Not to see any snowfall at this time of year in Nepal is a very strange thing,” he said.

“I have heard that climate change is happening in other countries, but now we are experiencing it in front of our eyes.”

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