Reflections from Sunsari I: On Climate Change Effects and Awareness

Author: Shuvam Rizal

Members from the GMC Nepal team visited Sunsari district between the 2nd and 6th of August 2021. Across the three municipal jurisdictions visited — namely Ramdhuni, Koshi, and Bhokaraha-Narsing municipalities, the team hosted a number of different exploratory open-ended discussion events to gauge the state of local attitudes and experiences towards federalism six years after the promulgation of the 2015 Constitution.

The ‘Reflections from Sunsari’ series chronicles assortments of experiences, observations, conversations, and thoughts from this field visit.

The GMC Nepal team’s visit to Sunsari district was planned with the primary agenda to trigger discussions aiming to better understand local experiences of five years of federalism. However, I also carried a supplemental assortment of questions with a curiosity about local attitudes relating to the effects of climate change, unsure about how much information we would be able to get. To my welcome surprise, we found that respondents were quick to recount several subjects connected to the climate crisis without even needing specific prompts.

I came away from this trip with a few different learnings. First, even though almost everyone I interacted with was aware of environmental issues such as increasing wildfires, pollution, effects of pesticide use in soil health, and increase in unpredictable weather, many did not have the conceptual framework to tie these separate concepts together into the overarching topic of climate change. Second, there was also a lack of discernment of the cascading nature of its effects — such as, say, how wildfires may contribute to air pollution, which may then affect farm productivity.

What intrigued me most, though, was a consistent pattern our team noticed across our interactions with residents of different municipalities. In each group discussion, we found that young people exhibited a level of awareness of climate change that far outweighed those of the local government representatives in attendance. This phenomenon is consistent the world over, as surveys have shown that attitudes towards climate change differ by generations, and that Gen Z and millenials are currently leading the campaign, both on and offline.

“Elders say that the Sunsari Khola used to be almost twice as wide 10 years ago,” said Aafiya B, an active youth leader from the Bhokraha-Narsingh municipality. “Women in the nearby areas around Koshi Tappu have to travel farther to collect water, which creates problems at home.”

Aafiya chose not to elaborate further on what these problems were but if one were to take a guess, one could perhaps rely on the body of literature from around the world connecting travel distances with increased risk of injury and illnesses, increased chances of dropping out of school, and cases of violent crime such as sexual assault and domestic violence.

“It is because of the heat,” said Munaf H, one of Aafiya’s colleagues in attendance. “It is getting hotter every year. The river is drying and there is less rainfall. And when it does rain, it causes flooding in surrounding villages.”

Other participants corroborated Munaf’s claims, adding further that the seasonal floods trigger an annual entry of snakes into riverside homes and farms. The municipal council representative in attendance was quick to defend the local government’s involvement in the matter, claiming that the ward ensures snakes are evacuated after the flooding subsides.

“There have been no deaths by snake bites in the past two years because of our quick response,” he claimed, rejecting Munaf’s theory that the rise in temperature is connected to the annual snake nuisance.

This dissonance in awareness between young leaders and the representatives who govern them was also evident in Ramdhuni municipality. Activist Manish K shared, “Unpredictable rainfall and unproductive harvest due to the summer heat are driving residents away from agriculture. Even families with generations-old farms are selling their land to pursue employment abroad.”

The topic of biodiversity loss also came up. Pawan P, resident of Koshi municipality and a reporter for a local publication, shared his observation of a decline in the population of a distinct bird species that was once abundant in the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve.

“I don’t know what that bird is called but it used to be everywhere! Now you cannot find it without actively looking for it,” he said.

He believes that the changing climate and unpredictable weather patterns have to do with the endangerment. Although his description of the bird was not detailed enough for identification, it wouldn’t be completely out of question that climate change is causing endangerment.

It is worth noting that each of the conversations recounted here involve youth activists, community leaders, and influential personalities. Their sentiments may thus not be perfectly representative of average community members who are less likely to concern themselves with social and environmental issues as often and as deeply.

Still, it is cause for optimism that donor-backed programs and the internet are creating an awareness of climate change, which climate justice movements around the world have cited as one of the most important impetus for driving systemic change, among the people that are the least responsible, yet most vulnerable to its effects.

The views and opinions expressed in the piece above are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). They do not necessarily represent the views of Governance Monitoring Centre Nepal and/or Centre for Social Change.