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Gadariya, Nepal • The far western terai region of Nepal raised its thirsty tongue skyward in mid-June, desperate for monsoon rains that villagers said were more than a month late.
Shovati Chaudhary walked slowly across fields already tilled and neatly carved into rectangular paddies, meant by this time to be sodden and sown with emerald-colored rice shoots. Instead, his farm and others about 20 miles northeast of the western Nepal-northern India border town of Dhangadhi looked like a mosaic of dusty concrete blocks reaching to the horizon.
Midafternoon heat that day pushed to 113 degrees, a searing seven-year high. The isolated village and many like it in Nepal's farm belt are suffering from rising temperatures and declining precipitation, part of a broader pattern of climate change.
"This year it is hotter than last year," Chaudhary said. Each of the past six years, he said, the problem has grown worse.
The 30-year-old farmer reached a small, sophisticated meteorology sensor mounted several yards outside the clan's mud cottage. The weather gauge is one of about 30 similar sensors stationed across western Nepal to collect temperature and rainfall data in a U.S.-funded study involving Utah State University.
While some in the West dispute whether climate change even exists, its devastating effects are increasingly apparent in Nepal.
The country's average temperature is climbing at about one-tenth of a degree per year countrywide and faster at higher altitudes, local experts say. Glaciers and snow lines are receding and the monsoonal rains are becoming more volatile. A series of complex atmospheric factors including greenhouse gases, deforestation, airborne soot and industrial pollution may be involved. But however the discussion over climate issues and their implications might be framed in more affluent countries, facts on the ground in Nepal are undeniable.
With climate-related crises surfacing on many fronts dwindling water stocks, flash floods, landslides, wildfires and a mass urban migration borne of declining rural agriculture hundreds of government, academic and international-aid organizations are working to help the central Asian country, with Utah's state climatologist among them.
Initial analysis of weather data and satellite imaging from two western districts of Nepal reveals "a frightening picture," said Rob Gillies, director of the Utah Climate Center in Logan. "They're moving very, very rapidly into drought."
As these weather patterns continue to shift, few places in the world will be hit harder than this Himalayan nation, landlocked between India and Chinese-occupied Tibet and already among the world's poorest countries. Nepal's diverse geography, lack of development and weak government institutions make its more than 26 million residents uniquely vulnerable to these worldwide weather trends, according to the United Nations and other global observers.
Especially concerning, Gillies said, are plummeting levels of winter precipitation in an area that, much like the Wasatch Front, relies on snow pack for water supply and aquifer replenishment.
"Groundwater is dropping very dramatically," the Utah professor said. "As climate change takes hold, they're going to get absolutely clobbered."
Gillies is a lead scientist in the weather study funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to add granular detail to weather models already compiled across Asia, including Nepal. After paying for an initial seed project, USAID recently approved spending $450,000 for three more years of research.
The primary goal, Gillies and other say, is to better understand a complex web of microclimates across Nepal's widely varied topographies in hopes of developing new farming, livestock and water conservation methods for large numbers of rural poor who depend on subsistence agriculture.
Using a U.S. model for networking volunteer weather watchers, Nepali villagers such as Chaundhary are collecting precipitation and temperature data in remote parts of Kalaili district, in the country's western lowlands, and in Bajura district, further north toward the Himalayan foothills.
Helen Keller International, a U.S.-based charity working with farmers to battle malnutrition, plays a crucial role. Through HKI's Nepal field offices, the study's weather data is downloaded from village sensors and compiled by field workers who also interview villagers about health, nutrition, education and farming techniques.
The data is being run through some of the most sophisticated computer and mathematical systems for modeling yet developed by humankind. Researchers at nearly 24 major institutions are involved, in work that dovetails with scientific analysis being done by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Yet even with accurate data on how its small-scale climates are changing, it is unclear whether Nepal, where malnutrition is already widespread, can avert further upheaval, if not full-blown famine.
According to the worldwide Christian charity World Vision, half of Nepal's residents are jobless and subsist below the poverty level and a third live without clean water. The U.N.'s most recent index for human development based on measures of life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living and quality of life ranked Nepal about 157th out of 187 nations.
Among Asian nations, only Afghanistan ranks lower.
Though planning for climate change is built into government policy, it is unclear how these plans will be implemented.
Nepal's government all but collapsed earlier this year, when Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai suspended the country's democratically elected assembly after it missed several deadlines for drafting a constitution. Nepal emerged from a 10-year civil war in 2006 and the country's political elites remain divided over proposals to address regional and economic inequalities and a deep-seated caste system.
It remains an open question whether fresh elections in November will resolve the impasse.
But the country's biggest challenge in facing climate change may be its breathtaking geography.
The difficulty of adapting farm techniques in Nepal alone is staggering, given that elevation reaches from the highest peaks on Earth to less than 330 feet above sea level over a landmass roughly the size of Iowa. Terrain ranges from towering mountains to foothills to flat farmlands on the upper lip of India's Ganges river basin.
Weather-related problems with farming in Nepal's rural areas are already driving a massive migration to the capital, Kathmandu.
The latest national census showed Nepal's urban population grew 40 percent in the decade ending in 2011. More than 2.5 million people now live in three city districts covering the Kathmandu valley, an area of about 348 square miles, well less than half the size of Salt Lake County.
The resulting population surge is severely straining the city's water, electrical, transit and housing resources, while greatly exacerbated health problems with sewage, garbage and air pollution. One recent study ranked Kathmandu among the 10 dirtiest cities in the world.
City native Nirmala Pandey remembers her girlhood adventures along banks of the Bagmati and Bisnumati rivers that wend through the capital, stories of swimming and cupping her hands to drink their clean waters.
A generation later, these Himalayan snow-fed rivers falling from high elevation through Nepal to India are clogged with trash and blackened by open sewer flows.
"Water supplies are miserable," said Pandey, citing a lack of infrastructure and over-drilling of water wells. Without robust urban planning to deal with years of migration to Kathmandu, she said, "they are turning it into a hell."
Now an agricultural and food-security coordinator, Pandey works with rural farmers for Helen Keller International, the charity partnering in USU's climate-change study. Many of her strongest allies, she said, are progressive young women holding key social positions in their villages, whether as volunteers in health outreach programs or working with Nepal's patchwork of thousands of rural village development committees, known as VDCs.
Shielding her head against a merciless mid-June sun, Pandey tried to rest as she rode with colleague Ratanpati Joshi along potholed dirt roads outside Dhangadhi in far western Nepal. Around them, a vast arid countryside was occasionally broken by one of several immense river beds reduced to thin rivulets.
By the day's end, her laptop held data on weeks of zero precipitation and a record-breaking hot spell. She had heard a long series of drought anecdotes: parched cattle, hatchling chicks dead from sweltering heat, empty reservoirs, efforts to save urine for fertilizer, well samples tainted with arsenic, and a quest for grant money to build water storage tanks.
The main crops in this part of the terai are rice, wheat and lentils, Pandey noted, and about 70 percent of the acreage is rain-fed. Area farmers have usually transplanted rice shoots from nurseries to their fields by now, she said, "but they are still waiting."
About this series
P Saturday • Utahns trek to their faith's homeland
Sunday • USU climate study key to Nepal's future
Monday • Utahn helps Nepali clinic fight blindness