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Himalayans find monsoon changes 'very bad for business'

Fourth in a series. Click here for part 1, here for part 2 and here for part 3.

KATHMANDU, Nepal -- Rain pummels the chaotic streets here. Cars, rickshaws and motorbikes pack the roads, swerving around the occasional cow. The unrelenting blare of honking that is the music of this city seems to amplify with every falling drop.

Dipak Khan looks outside his jewelry shop in Thamel, where vendors hawk yak wool blankets and wallets decorated with Buddha eyes. It is the first day of Dashain, the Hindu festival that marks the end of the long monsoon season. A group of tourists ducks under a doorway for cover from the downpour. Khan is worried.

"This is the global warming," Khan says with conviction. "The rains should not come this late. It hurts everything. The tourists do not want to walk around in this. It is very bad for business."

Climate change cannot be linked to any one weather event. But scientists, environmental activists and Nepalis themselves say the monsoon season so critical to agriculture is undoubtedly changing. Whether driven by cyclic changes, rising global temperatures or both, they say, the new patterns shaking up the June-through-September South Asian monsoon season are hurting crop yields and exacerbating already-existing problems of poverty and failed development.

The breathtaking Himalayas and the fate of their glaciers may capture the majority of climate change attention in Nepal. But activists point out that from the fertile plains to the overcrowded capital of Kathmandu, the landlocked country sandwiched between China and India faces widespread threats to crop production, livestock and water availability.

The national flower tries to adapt

"When the issue of climate change comes here, people understand about the glaciers and the Himalayas. It is true that the Himalayas are melting, but when you come inside Nepal, you see the other impacts," said Manjeet Dhakal, director of Clean Energy Nepal.

Farmers in the plains are seeing more sedimentation and land erosion, higher river flooding and even unusual blossoming times of the rhododendron, Nepal's national flower. Just a few years ago, winter droughts and a delayed summer monsoon left agricultural land uncultivated. Oxfam called the 2008-2009 drought one of the worst on record, with 3.4 million people estimated to need food assistance.

This year, Nepal is seeing the highest rate of rainfall in 30 years.

"The monsoon is so unreliable, and the farmers who depend on it for agriculture are getting the brunt," said Shubash Lohani, deputy director of WWF's Eastern Himalaya program. Because the country's irrigation system is not well developed, he said, people rely almost completely on rainfall for 80 percent of the country's agricultural needs.

In Kathmandu, meanwhile, water demand is exploding. The population rate has tripled in the past 20 years to about 4 million people. Most of the city's drinking water comes from the Bagmati River system, but officials say it is poorly managed -- used as a dumping site in some areas -- and can only meet half the city's demand.

Tunnel vision

"Kathmandu in particular is expanding very rapidly. The whole water balance is being screwed up, and that is fundamental. Now, on top of that, with climate change we are going to have erratic rain patterns," said Bhushan Tuladhar, coordinator of Climate Change Network Nepal and a technical adviser on water for U.N. Habitat Nepal.

Since 2007, the Nepal government has worked hard to develop a strong presence at the U.N. climate talks and to build awareness inside the country of the threats. Recently, the prime minister developed a climate change council aimed at integrating knowledge about the impacts of rising global temperatures with local planning.

Yet in places like Kathmandu, according to Tuladhar, that's a serious challenge. Plans are currently under way to divert water to Kathmandu through a 28-kilometer tunnel from the Melamchi River in a neighboring valley. The Melamchi is a tributary of the larger Indravati River basin, fed in part by the Himalayan glaciers.

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"If the glaciers are melting very fast, when we dig that tunnel, Melamchi may not have as much water as we thought," Tuladhar said, adding that he hopes a growing understanding of climate change in Nepal will somehow provide an opportunity for policymakers to develop better water planning methods.

"It highlights a lot of issues that we should be taking care of anyway," he said.

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