Float or sinkHome Minister says there are no boats to rescue flood victims; what did we do with all of that climate money then?`
While covering the floods in southern Nepal for the BBC last month, I had an opportunity to see how locals try to cope with such difficult conditions. What was striking was the way they were using bamboos to make makeshift bridges, camps and rafts. Army personnel were also doing the same in some places inundated by floodwaters.
This is known as adaptation in the world of international climate negotiations.
But in the face of such heavy rainfall and severe flooding that left many places cut-off, there was only so much they could do. In effect, they were overwhelmed by the extreme weather event and were forced to take refuge in temples and even under trees.
In Saptari, the worst-hit district, cattle were kept on rooftops or taken to far off highways. Mothers kept their children and babies outside because there were snakes in their houses. A helpless wife was wailing that her husband was trapped in their hut because he broke his leg after falling over while trying to rescue their only remaining buffalo—the others had been swept away by the floods.
Locals were asking us how we had made it to such cut-off locations and how we had come to know about them in the first place. There were many such places in the districts of Sarlahi and Saptari, where people waited endlessly for rescue and relief.
When news of the floods first reached Kathmandu, reporters asked Home Minister Janardan Sharma why the government was not responding. “For rescue operations in floods like this, we need boats and we don’t have them. This has become a major challenge to reach the cut-off places,” he said.
At least Minister Sharma had the honesty to admit this. But while making this candid comment, perhaps he did not realise how much climate finance the country has already received in the name of helping people cope with extreme weather events. And in Nepal’s case the most common extreme weather event has been floods, particularly in the Tarai. That is something well documented in the country’s first climate adaptation document: the National Adaptation Program of Action (NAPA) that was prepared in 2010. And yet, seven years down the line, authorities are telling us there are no boats and rafts for flood rescue and relief operations.
This leads to a fundamental question: What is happening with the climate finance Nepal is said to be receiving?
If you listen to experts—particularly some representing Nepal in the UN climate negotiations—we have done some exemplary work in preparing climate adaptation plans. They boast of how the UN climate meets have been so appreciative of the fact that Nepal has prepared plans so effectively. First it was NAPA, and then came Local Adaptation Programme of Action (LAPA), and now the National Adaptation Plan.
In the meantime, the country has also prepared its climate change policy that requires “at least 80 percent of the total budget from climate change fund to implement programmes at the community level.”
Try telling the communities living with floods and landslides of all these plans, and you will understand how things are easier said than done.
Plans without action
The environment ministry seems to be mindful about the preparation of climate plans one after another. It therefore has offered this “explanation” on its website: “As NAPA addresses only the most urgent and immediate adaptation needs, formulation of plans that addresses the medium and long term adaptation needs has become imperative. Accordingly, Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at its Sixteenth Session (COP 16) decided to formulate and implement National Adaptation Plan (NAP).”
Note that the ministry says NAPA is for the most urgent and immediate adaptation needs. The question now is how many such urgent and immediate needs have been addressed. If they really were addressed, perhaps the home minister would not be telling us today that there are no boats and rafts to rescue people from places cut off by floods.
An investigation I did for the BBC in 2014 showed that of the 500 NAPA projects planned for the 47 least developed countries including Nepal, hardly 50 were actually implemented in over 10 years. The rest were almost abandoned because there were no funds and all these countries were embarking on the NAPs as required by the UNFCCC.
The UN climate process required that least developed countries prepare and implement the NAPA climate plan. But if the NAPA was such a fiasco, what is the guarantee that NAPs will now be a success?
And mind you, just because you are associated to an international convention or an alliance does not mean that you will get your act together automatically.
In Nepal’s case, help from the UN apart, huge financial and technical assistance has poured in from other multilateral as well as bilateral donor agencies.
Very few of these financings have produced results. One of them is the early flood warning system that has become operational in almost all major basins, and water levels are constantly monitored as well as updated online. Scientists with the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) take direct calls from locals as they monitor water levels live so that they can issue timely early warnings.
But all that can have a limited preventive role when there is massive rainfall in a short span of time—as was seen in recent floods. The DHM had been issuing warnings that water levels in rivers would cross danger marks and that there could be severe floods. But that did not mean all people left their homes and went to the mountains or higher altitude areas. No matter how severe the warning, there will be people who will stay put, not because they are stubborn but because they value what little land and other possessions they have. They also hold a similar and equally strong sentiment in regards to their home regions, no matter how flooded and cut off they are.
Given these ground realities, having boats and rafts ready is basic preparation on the part of the authorities—both at the central and local level. Other basic and urgent needs also have to be addressed in the wake of climatic changes.
Perhaps communities will begin to believe that the government—and donors—are serious about helping them adapt to some of the inevitable impacts of climate change if and when these basic and urgent needs are finally addressed.
Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London