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Leading transformation in the Hindu-Kush Himalayas

The Himalayan region is being severely impacted by climate change, with its rate of temperature rise five times higher than the global average. In an area which contains the third largest ice mass in the world, any temperature rise is sure to have a noticeable impact, and with a rate of temperature rise this high, it is no wonder that the Himalayan region is attracting considerable global concern.
Climate change is affecting not only those in the upper reaches of the Himalaya, surrounded by mountains and ice-melt, but entire ecosystems and communities further downstream, including the 1.5 billion people who rely on the water from the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau. 

Dr Krishna K. Shrestha and Dr Hemant Ojha, from the UNSW School of Social Sciences, have spent two decades researching environmental, social and political issues in the Himalayan region, generating critical knowledge that will help put policies and practices in place to build resilience in the region; allowing productive, sustainable livelihoods and fostering economic development in the face of climate change and various social and political complexities.

Exploring societal change through food security

Dr Shrestha and Dr Ojha are currently in the late stages of a five-year project, looking at how community forests and smallholder farms in the mountains of Nepal are enabling enhanced food security.
Authorities in Nepal are allocating responsibility for forests to local communities, resulting not only in reduced carbon dioxide, but increased timber for villages, which is both sold and used for domestic purposes. Through these initiatives, local water resources are becoming more responsibly managed, with the environmental benefits of community forests flowing through to rivers, streams and lakes in the area, and responsible communities gaining a better understanding how water is impacted by climate change. Over 2,000 households are involved in this action research project, working to form community-based institutions and bring about positive social and environmental change on-ground.

Dr Shrestha said that while there are multiple benefits being observed from these community forestry and agroforestry initiatives, they are focusing their research on the process of change in this context—specifically exploring how land, forests and water resources are changing societies.

“We are interested in discovering how societies are evolving through the introduction of these initiatives. Are they adapting with the changing environment? If so, how is this change happening? And, as scholars, what can we do about it?” said Dr Shrestha.

The results of this research are being fed through to national and regional decision-makers. In a region which has historically implemented top-down approaches to environmental and development policy, with limited success,  this new approach introduces the idea of local, community-led institutions, and divulges their many benefits.

Cities adapting to climate-change

And it’s not just rural community initiatives Dr Shrestha and Dr Ojha are studying.  In 2016, they started a new research project on Climate Adaptive Water Management in Cities of South Asia, with four case study cities in Nepal and India. With expert contributions from Professor Anthony Zwi and Professor Eileen Baldry from UNSW, this latest research, funded by Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC), aims to test climate-adaptive water management practices and institutionalise them in city level planning systems and higher-level policy processes.

The three-year project was formally launched in May 2016, and is being undertaken in partnership with Southasia Institute of Advanced Studies (SIAS), the University of Sydney, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in India and Center for Ecology, Development and Research (CEDAR).

 “This project aims to generate high quality scientific evidence on possible adaptation pathways in the urbanizing regions of Nepal and Indian Himalayas,” said Dr Ojha.

"We are engaging city level stakeholders in transformational dialogues to identify and test climate-adaptive and equitable water management practices in the context of the two Himalayan countries.”

The UNSW team is working with partners in Nepal, India and Australia to examine which types of local institutions are the most effective for equitable water resource management. They are then using this information to work with decision-makers to roll out new policies for integrated water resource management.

The knowledge being extracted by these UNSW researchers and their partners is compelling cities and governments in the Himalayan region to better address the impacts of climate change through policy decisions.

Building disaster resilience

Also important in the context of water management in the region are the effects of natural disasters. The April 2015 earthquake, centred east of the Gorkha district in Nepal, killed over 8,000 people and obliterated water and sanitation facilities, adding insult to injury in a country already struggling with so many social, political, economic and environmental challenges.

With input from Dr Ojha, Prof Baldry and Prof Zwi, along with Dr Popular Gentle at CARE Nepal, Dr Shrestha is leading a research project to investigate how disasters disproportionately affect the poor and other minorities in Nepalese communities, in a study on what is known as ‘disaster justice’.

Funded by CARE, this research project draws on the expertise of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at UNSW, and on the participatory development experience of CARE Nepal. Taking two communities in the Gorkha district, both of which are prone to disasters (and have been massively affected by the 2015 Nepal earthquakes), this research explores how existing social-cultural situations, social interactions, and local institutional framework shape the preparedness and recovery capacity of marginalised groups. Findings from a preliminary scoping study have already been published in The Conversation.

Through this analysis, the study will also analyse what kinds of social interactions and institutional framework are conducive to producing better disaster justice outcomes through qualitative research and case study approaches.

Examining climate governance

Dr Ojha is also co-leading a research project with Prof Baldry, working in partnership with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). This project is examining how different political actors engage in the production and transformation of governance through political violence and deliberative processes, in relation to climate change adaptation and resilience-building in the Nepal Himalayas. Funded by the Swedish Research Council, the project explores the link between political transition and climate change adaptation opportunities in Nepal.

This research expands on UNSW’s strong partnership with the European university, drawing on the longstanding collaboration between Dr Ojha and Prof Nightingale of SLU on environmental governance in the Himalayas.  Dr Ojha and Prof Nightingale have previously spearheaded dialogues among scholars across Asia, Australia, and Europe under the Future Himalayas initiative which was funded by the British Council.

Collaboration the key

UNSW researchers are also reaching out to the wider global scientific community who are working on various Himalayan issues.

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is a regional intergovernmental learning and knowledge sharing centre serving the Hindu Kush Himalayas, which is led by Dr David Molden, a member of the UNSW-GWI International Advisory Committee. ICIMOD has recently invited Dr Ojha and Dr Shrestha to contribute as the Coordinating Lead Author and Lead Author to the first Himalayan-scale assessment of environment and development across the Himalayas. The Assessment engages some 60 experts from around the world to analyse the trends and challenges of the Himalayas - including those related to transboundary water management.

The incredible work being spearheaded by these UNSW researchers emphasises the importance of understanding water issues not just within an engineering or scientific context, but also within the wider social and policy contexts. While there is plenty yet to learn and much action to be taken, UNSW is leading the way in feeding social science into policy and practice.

Relationships between water, resources, landscapes, infrastructure and social, economic and political practice are complex and unique, with social considerations vital to developing truly effective and holistic solutions in this extraordinary region of the world.