Where should we start?
Some thoughts to get us going.
By Tom Hammett
Climate Conversation: Session 1: Global Perspectives
The first session of our year-long series of conversations on the climate crisis began with a broad discussion based on global data and observations about what we are facing. We were blessed to be joined Dr. Tom Hammett whose years of work and research in the Himalayas provided a important perspective on what is happening in one of the most vulnerable parts of the world. (See his slide show for a sense of what these changes look like.)
He talked about the challenges of climate change, especially in terms of the impact of shrinking glaciers on the land and the quality of the water, but he also pointed out in stark terms the negative impact population growth (slides 5-6) and the demands for development are having on the ecology of Nepal as well.
We tend to limit our thinking about climate change to what happens directly to the environment, but Tom reminded us that the impacts are felt in economic and social terms as well. As the glaciers disappear what remains beneath them is generally dry, rocky soil unfit for farming. River beds change shape. They broaden and fill with glacial debris as a result of spring and summer flooding (see slide 10). Road building (see slide 7-8) is reshaping the mountain sides creating more danger of run off and mud slides. Without considerable irrigation efforts, the land is unproductive and does not support the kind of population growth (see slide 5) that is occurring in Nepal. The rapid pace of climate change also means that greater engineering and economic input is required to irrigate the land and provide food for the population (see slides 12-15).
Tom told us that there were signs of hope in the efforts of people in Nepal to change their farming methods, to conserve water, and to change more sustainable kinds of crops (see slide 16). All of that causes some level of social disruption, of course. In the extreme, Tom shared that there are now signs of climate migration—people are moving to places that can support their basic food needs and needs for wood for their cooking fires (see slide 19). We also discussed how the melting glaciers and the degradation of the land is beginning to be felt further south on the Asian subcontinent. Shortage of drinking water, changes in the patterns of the monsoons, and the need to shift to more sustainable crops are all seen as impacts in India and Bangladesh, for instance. Ultimately, those areas depend upon snow melt from the high Himalayas.
We then brought the experiences of Nepal closer to us here in Maine (see slide 17). Working in small groups participants discussed how Tom’s observations could be seen in Maine, certainly to a lesser degree, but none-the-less important. It was a lively discussion and brought out the fact that there is a great deal of awareness and concern among our participants about what is happening here.
In each session we will end by asking participants to identify an action that they will take based on our discussion. There were some very interesting ideas and people seemed dedicated to doing something that will make a difference.
UPDATE: April 6, 2020
Today, we came across an article in the New York Times (see the link below) about the impact of the climate crisis in Nepal. It brought our first session with Dr. Tom Hammett into clear focus again. Nepal seems far away until we recall the way that Tom linked what’s happening there with what is happening right here in Maine.
Tom has recently returned from another trip to Nepal. Here’s what he has to say about what he found when he returned to Nepal as well as his reactions to this article.
Whether you understand or accept that the climate is changing, the article brings up some critical questions that we might discuss. Last summer, I took 6 students to do service work in the Mustang area in the village of Dhumba which is very near to Dhye, the village focused on in the news story. This was the fourth group of students that I have taken there. The experience for them is eye opening to say the least. It is a four to five-day trip from here in a very remote area of Nepal. We have been working there during the past five years to repair the village water system damaged by the earthquakes in 2014. The water is needed in Dhumba and Dhye villages to irrigate fruit trees – one of the few cash crops that grow in the area. This valley is in a “rain shadow” as mountains to the south block the prevailing winds that bring rain. Most of their water is diverted from streams coming from snow and glacial melt. They depend on those glaciers to nourish their crops and livestock, and supply drinking water. What moisture that does come into the region settles on the tops of nearby mountains as snow. This past summer the students could see clearly the browning of the glaciers just above the village. This darkening is caused by dust and smoke that has drifted from the dusty roads and industry in the south and in India. The glaciers are no longer white and reflecting solar energy – they will melt. Part of this conversation could center on flash flooding which has destroyed the water intake dam for Dhumba’s water system two of the last three years and will reoccur as the glaciers break apart. We can’t imagine is how desperate the situation has been for these villagers.
You may remember our conversation in October, when we first presented the Climate Conversation and some of the questions that were brought up. What lessons can we learn from this story? The tradition of these subsistence farmers is to grow enough food to eat and sell any excess from their harvests to support all the other family expenses. Let’s try to put ourselves in the position of these villagers, lacking resources and not having enough water to raise crops.
Not too long ago, Waterford harbored numerous small farming families who faced challenges, some left while others quit farming. They had alternatives. What is most telling about this story is there is so little support for the villagers of Dhye to recover from this increasingly serious situation. With few alternatives and savings, the villagers were forced to move. Imagine how wrenching such a move must be. What I fear is that by moving lower to settle in the river bottom, these villagers may be in danger when there is a flash flood – also caused by climate variability. It is beginning to be spring there and those who were able to leave for the winter to work in India or southern Nepal will return to start planting their crops. Our hope is for these climate migrants alternatives will emerge to help alleviate their suffering and allow them to stay in their new village, near their traditional home.
I look forward to continuing this conversation with you during the coming months. Stay safe and well. Tom