Do Village Traditions Trump Adaptation?

The village of Manang, high in the Himalayas in Nepal, is using economic diversification to stave off the effects of climate change, but will soon reach a point where more adaptation is needed, Katie Konchar and her coauthors warned in a new study in the Journal of Ethnobiology. The team used semi-structured interviews and innovative photography techniques to gain insight on current village perceptions and adaptations.

Annapurna Base Camp (Courtesy of:Matt Zimmerman/Flikr, please contact the photographer before using)
Annapurna Base Camp (Courtesy of:Matt Zimmerman/Flickr, please contact the photographer before using)

Nearly three-quarters of respondents perceived increased temperatures especially during the winter months – consistent with the regional instrumental observations. The uniquely structured interview style allowed for more detailed responses. For example, one villager stated “[b]efore in winter water was ice; now we can easily wash our face in winter.” The authors argue that the unique ecological knowledge of locals is vital to the development of placed based adaptation plans.

Villagers offered a variety of explanations for climate change: CO2 concentrations, pollution, or development, while others, usually the elders, believed it was due to actions of gods. One of the participants who mentioned CO2 was part of an outreach program by the Annapurna Conservation Area to educate the villagers on the effects of climate change.

Entrance gate in Manang (Courtesy of: Greg Willis/Flikr, please contact the photographer before using)
Entrance gate in Manang (Courtesy of: Greg Willis/Flickr, please contact the photographer before using)

The village relies heavily on glacier meltwater for its traditional agriculture economy, since it is in the rain shadow of one of the tallest mountains in the world, Annapurna, so that seasonal rainfall is insufficient for raising crops. This region has seen a change in the predictability of rain, leading to an abnormally varied growing season. Though the increased temperatures and varied rain make it difficult to maintain their traditional agriculture, the participants pointed to an increase in cash crop such as vegetables as one of the most important changes in their livelihoods. The authors state that the transition from traditional crops–chiefly grains and potatoes, adapted to cold climates–to milder climate cash crops is an important step to adapting to climate change. Tourism has also increased ,due to improved transportation in the area which allows foreigners to trek into the area, helping to diversify the economy even further.

The authors point to the diversification as an important adaptation, but they also warn of future dangers in an even warmer climate. Glacier retreat could lead to decreased water availability, less attractive scenery to attract tourists, increased glacial lake flooding and an unreliable traditional agricultural calendar. The authors argue that the traditional practices, reinforced by spiritual lamas, need to adapt alongside the economic changes already being seen.

Prayer stones in front of Gangapurna glacier (Courtesy of :Vera & Jean-Christophe/Flikr, please contact the photographer before using)
Prayer stones in front of Gangapurna glacier (Courtesy of :Vera & Jean-Christophe/Flickr, please contact the photographer before using)

The interviews in this study were validated in part by a unique technique of repeat photography-pictures taken during the week of interviews were compared to historical pictures to see climatic changes. These “… photographs illustrate the changes in woody vegetation coverage surrounding the village, the increase in the size of Gangapurna Lake [due to increased glacial melt], and the rapid retreat of the Gangapurna Glacier highlighted during interviews.”

Though the authors applaud the villager’s added economic resilience of planting more cash crops and increased focus on tourism, they say there will come a point when the agricultural society will not be able to live off of the glacier meltwater or rain seasons that they traditionally depend on, and need to start adapting at an even quicker pace. “Continued development of relevant, place-based adaptations to rapid Himalayan climate change depends on local peoples’ ability to understand the potential impacts of climate change and to adjust within complex, traditional socio-ecological systems.”

Climate Awareness Impedes Adaptation

A lack of awareness about the threats posed by climate change in mountain communities in Tajikistan, Central Asia may endanger traditional modes of life and local economies, according to a study published recently in Climatic Change. If these communities do not begin adapting to climate change before temperatures pass the threshold, it will be too late to make a difference, the authors wrote.

Faces of Wakhi kids by Imran Schah

In discussions with local communities, the authors found that many villagers do not consider glacier loss a serious issue. Some believe that the glaciers will grow again, since they can’t differentiate between temporary snow and the permanent ice on the glacier. Others believe that God will prevent their glacier from disappearing. Researchers found that these notions impede the adaptation process, since people see glacier retreat as a threat that can be resolved by nature or a higher power, rather than through their own actions. The inability to perceive climate change as a factor that contributes to glacier loss makes these communities particularly vulnerable.

 “The adequate presentation of information on climate change to all social groups and a social learning process appear to be crucial to avoid a ‘casual structure of vulnerability,’” the authors wrote.

Mountain communities in Tajikistan rely on agriculture to support the continually growing population. By 2050, the population in the region is expected to double, reaching 5.093 million. More than 47% of these people live below the national poverty line – most people have never used a computer before and most women are illiterate according to the World Bank.

Compared to more developed countries, Tajikistan’s ability to address climate change is limited by a lack of capital and technology to address the issue, the new study found. For people living in remote and less-developed areas, there is not enough money and power to change the current situation. Researchers found that if villagers could unite to develop a collective strategy for adaption to climate change, they may be able to improve the intellectual and general ability of local communities to better understand glacier melt and its impacts, and also to act and adapt collectively.

Beautiful Tajikistan mountains by Steppe by Steppe
Beautiful Tajikistan mountains by Steppe by Steppe


If communities can learn to understand the interrelationship between the environment they are living in and how heavily their lives depend on it. The authors proposed that mountain communities in Tajikistan use a scenario-based participatory learning process to help villagers better understand how climate change may affect their lives if they don’t start adapting.

The scenario-based participating learning process allows scientists and researchers to develop models that assess the challenges that communities will face while also assessing their vulnerability. Many villagers live in areas that are not close to glaciers, so they may not associate glacier melting to their daily lives, but the scenario-based participating learning process is a more visualized method that allows villagers to connect climate related changes to their daily life.

When the awareness has been established, people within the community can better cooperate and work towards the same goal. Communities can be taught about labor immigration for the purpose of building water reservoirs, skill training for villagers to learn about agricultural adaptation, engineering for water reservoir construction, irrigation and processing of oil seeds. By forming a strong kinship or social bonding within the community to act together, communities may still have time to improve their adaptation ability, the authors concluded.  

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Nepal tourism adapts to climate change

“Weather can ruin the vacation while climate can devastate a holiday destination. Climate change not only impacts on tourism directly by changes in temperature, extreme weather events and other climatic factors, but it will also transform the natural environment that attracts tourists. Despite the global nature of tourism industry and its economic contributions, scholars of climate change research have hardly acknowl- edged the threat of climate change to the tourism industry.”

Read more about Nepal’s tourism industry’s efforts to deal with climate change in this study in the International Journal of Disciplinary Studies.


Pakistan needs more glacier data-sharing to mitigate disasters

“‘Our elders used to say this glacier was very high, so high there was no one living here. This was a giant glacial lake,’ Sajjad Ali said. Standing on a cliffside, he pointed down at the Hopar Glacier, more than a 1,000 metres below, its surface covered by massive boulders it had swept out of its way as it carved a valley through the Karakoram mountains.”

Read more about in Pakistan’s efforts to monitor glaciers in IRIN Asia.


Austrian and Swiss Alps look back at their history…way, way back

“The landscapes in mountain regions are often strongly influenced by the steep climatic gradients and by past variations in climatic conditions. Therefore, the study of geological landscape features such as moraines, landslides and rock glaciers with appropriate geochronological approaches allows insights into past variations in climate.”

Read the full study in the July 8, 2014 issue of Quaternary Science Reviews.