Working together to build climate resilience | WWF

Working together to build climate resilience

Posted on 01 November 2011    
The Indrawati River in Nepal flows from the glaciers of the high Himalayas (including Mt Everest) into the larger Koshi River, and on into the Ganga River in India. The Indrawati River Basin has a population of over a million (including Nepal's capital Kathmandu), yet the combined drainage basin of the Himalayan river systems is home to some 3 billion people in 18 countries (almost half the Earth's population).
By Seth Jackson

Whilst efforts to reach a global consensus on combating climate change continue, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh will hammer-out a regional climate resilience roadmap at the upcoming Climate Summit for a Living Himalayas on the 19th of November. For the 4 nations involved this is an absolute necessity - the time for action is running out. Nowhere is this more evident than the mid-hills of Nepal.

The mid-hills of the Himalayas

The mid-hills of the Himalayas is a region of dramatic landscapes. Steep sloped terrace-striped hills link silver-washed river valleys with the high-Himalayas. Life here, however, is not quite so picturesque. A combination of unpredictable weather conditions, melting glaciers, deforestation, and poor natural resource management has led to water scarcity becoming a dominant issue.

“The weather these days is quite unpredictable,” says Upendra Bastakoti a vegetable farmer from the region. “Erratic rainfall and high flooding washes away our lands, and then no rainfall and droughts destroy our crops - even when the weather is OK there are too many people. What little water we have is being used too quickly.”

And it is not just the farmers that are suffering, he says, “every person when you speak to them has the same opinion - each year the water we need is becoming scarcer and scarcer.”

WWF working in partnership

In order to address this situation WWF, in partnership with the government of Nepal, is working to better integrate conservation efforts in the region, starting with the Indrawati River Basin.

The project is run from a ramshackle old house overlooking the mid-hills of Nepal. From here Harris Chandra Rai, the WWF Field Project Officer, leads the Indrawati Sub Basin Project with 6 members of staff.

He says, “The major goal of the project is to enhance local livelihoods through the sustainable use of water resources, whilst maintaining the environmental balance.”

The key to the project’s success, however, lies with the development of local water resource management committees. The committees consist of representatives from different villages with different vested interests such as drinking water, agriculture, irrigation and forestry.

The committee members work together to develop targeted sustainable water resource management projects based on priority; such as maintaining spring sources, reforestation, rain water collection, and developing drinking water reservoirs. The committee also oversees the raising and distribution of funds, and ensures equitable usage and participation. This approach allows different water users to have a say in the projects actions, and creates a sense of ownership and therefore responsibility among the community members.

“Before [WWF’s intervention] we had a big need for irrigation,” says Upendra the vegetable farmer, “but the only source of water was the river a long-way-away using an electric pump and pipes that cost money, and didn’t bring much water.”

With financial and technical support from the Indrawati Sub Basin Project, Upendra, along with other members of his community, built an irrigation reservoir. Rain water is now collected during the wet season to be used in the dry season. This allows Upendra and his neighbours to diversify the types of crop they grow, and increase the quantities they produce.


So far 4 committees have been developed, representing over 50 villages; 28 of which have benefited from integrated resource management interventions. The project is only in its second year though, and there are many more communities that could benefit from its intervention.

The projects greatest achievement so far has been in spreading the idea of ‘working together to overcome water scarcity’ to the ground level communities. Providing a platform for different community members to communicate, and through completed projects, demonstrating the benefits of different parties working together to develop solutions to a common problem.

An accomplishment Upendra highlights when asked of why he joined his local committee. He says “I observed other water management activities in my area and realized they were helping people’s lives – alternative agriculture, drinking water, irrigation and education. So I joined the committee and organized an intervention in my own village. Our knowledge of water management is now improved and is being passed on to other villages.”

Trial and error

This is a new approach for Nepal so there are no tried and tested techniques. Instead WWF is relying on the involvement of different water users, right from the start, to implement interventions for their own benefit, but with guidance and education. This method should ultimately enable local water users to sustain the interventions, even after the WWF project has ended.

This integrated approach brings its fair share of challenges though. As Harris explains, “not only are we dealing with different members of local communities, but also government line agencies and partner NGOs. No one party is used to dealing with another, so maintaining proper coordination and communication is a struggle.”

This is not the biggest challenge though, he says, “The biggest challenge is the desperate need of the people - the project cannot cater for the demands of everybody.”

Water scarcity is an issue that affects almost every rural community in Nepal, and the impacts of climate change, combined with rapid population growth, are predicted to decrease water availability in coming years, and worsen the situation. Harris says, “The issue is so bad that at times it feels like a development project, focusing on infrastructures such as reservoirs and irrigation. It could be easy to lose sight of the environmental goals.”

When asked of whether or not water resource management can be called conservation, Harris chuckles, he says, “That is perhaps the biggest point. Water resource management may not at first feel like conservation, but once we bring all the components together from different project areas such as reforestation, sustainable land management, and species protection, it will definitely become more obvious - conservation of ecosystems, conservation of forests, conservation of species.

Bhawani Dongol, WWF-Nepal’s Freshwater Programme Officer agrees. He says, “This is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 60% of the population relying on agriculture to survive. You cannot go straight into biodiversity conservation. In the beginning you need to first address the needs of the people.”

He says, “For now WWFs focus on sustainable resource management and communities is vital. We are able to provide communities with the education and training they need to make informed decisions on how best to address the issue of water scarcity in the face of climate change, together.”

Setting an example

The Climate Summit for a Living Himalayas aims to address the issue of water scarcity in the region by also fully integrating sustainable livelihoods with climate adaptability, and will be looking to existing successful projects for examples. The Indrawati Sub Basin Project could therefore be seen as a pilot project and representative of not only the situation in Nepal, but across the rest of the Himalayas.
The Indrawati River in Nepal flows from the glaciers of the high Himalayas (including Mt Everest) into the larger Koshi River, and on into the Ganga River in India. The Indrawati River Basin has a population of over a million (including Nepal's capital Kathmandu), yet the combined drainage basin of the Himalayan river systems is home to some 3 billion people in 18 countries (almost half the Earth's population).
© WWF / Seth JACKSON Enlarge
A significant proportion of the Indrawati River Basin population live well below the poverty line. Approximately 60% subsist on crop agriculture, relying on cash crops such as rice and vegetables to make a living. Water scarcity is threatening the livelihoods of these people.
© WWF / Seth JACKSON Enlarge
Harris Chandra Rai, WWF's Field Project Officer (far left), and Pradip Kumar Sah, the Government of Nepal's Project Manager (far right), run the Indrawati Sub Basin Project in partnership, with 6 members of staff.
© WWF / Seth JACKSON Enlarge
Upendra Bastakoti and his neighbours show WWF staff their recently completed irrigation reservoir. Rainwater can now be collected in the monsoon season to be used in the dry season.
© WWF / Seth JACKSON Enlarge
With increased water availability Upendra Bastakoti and his neighbouring farmers can adapt the crops they grow to the changing climate, and grow higher value crops to sell to the vegetable markets of Kathmandu.
© WWF / Seth JACKSON Enlarge

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