Feature Story

Enabling Nepal to defend a vulnerable watershed

June 8, 2021

Panoramic view of a valley in the Marin watershed, Nepal
Photo: WWF-Nepal

Nepal’s steep topography and melting glaciers makes it vulnerable to many climate change-induced hazards, including floods, landslides, and debris flows, with impacts seen in mountains, hills, and valleys alike. These fragile and beautiful ecosystems are also now facing new pressures from large numbers of people returning to the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rural communities have taken in hundreds of thousands of Nepalis who lost foreign jobs when the coronavirus struck. Those jobs were previously the source of remittances that supported family farms that are already struggling in the face of floods, droughts, and landslides linked to a warming climate.

A new project supported by the GEF-managed Least Developed Countries Fund (LDCF) and implemented by WWF-US is enabling the Government of Nepal to invest in protecting the Marin watershed while bolstering the longer-term resilience of local and indigenous communities against climate emergencies.

It will support the deployment of nature-based solutions to the effects of climate change, such as forest protection, ecological restoration and regeneration, the stabilization of landslide-prone areas, and water protection measures that can support a more prosperous, less hazardous future.

Ghana Shyam Gurung, Country Representative of WWF Nepal, said the initiative in partnership with Nepal’s Ministry of Forests and Environment would help develop and build a “watershed approach” to climate adaptation, using nature-based solutions to protect the environment in areas that are highly susceptible to the impacts of climate change.

“The project will be vital in building capacity of local governments as well as enhancing the resilience of vulnerable communities in watersheds primarily inhabited by indigenous communities,” he said.

Marin was chosen from among several potential focal sites because of its high vulnerability to floods, water scarcity, and landslides caused by slope failures upstream and the presence of indigenous people who make up 70 percent of the area’s estimated population of 78,000.

Improved climate adaptation, especially for vulnerable people, is a major priority for the Government of Nepal. The country is already experiencing climate-related emergencies such as floods and landslides, with an impact on both ecosystems and local livelihoods. Droughts that have dried up water sources and resulted in extended dry spells leading to forest fires are another significant concern. 

The Marin watershed, an area of approximately 700 square kilometers, has a tropical climate and is extensively forested. Only about 14 percent of the total land area is arable. Some 78 percent of the population works in subsistence agriculture, forestry, and fish farming.

Without steps to improve climate adaptation, farmland in the Marin area is expected to become less productive over time and water resources scarcer. Faced with growing food and water insecurity, communities may be forced to collect firewood and other natural resources from surrounding forests as an alternative source of income.

The LDCF-supported WWF-US project aims to address these challenges by facilitating the use of climate-smart farming technologies and tools, shoring up disaster defences, and promoting sustainable management of forests and other ecosystems in Nepal.

To this point, issues of watershed management and climate change adaptation have been dealt with in isolation. Although river basin offices and watershed offices have been established and are, in some level, implementing basin management plans, these often do not adequately integrate climate change. The WWF- and GEF-supported project aims to integrate these considerations by addressing the threats caused by climate change in the watershed while also advancing other priority watershed management activities. These include the conservation of forest, freshwater and agricultural lands as well as the application of nature-based solutions that can help the country prepare for uncertain climate change scenarios, adapted to the local conditions in the most vulnerable communities of the Marin watershed.

The project team will facilitate training and exchange visits for community-based organizations, government agencies, and municipal officials in support of coordinated action, and will offer training for farmers in climate-smart irrigation methods, tools, and livestock management approaches that can improve yields while protecting ecosystems. Threats such as landslides, forest degradation, and riverbank cutting will be addressed through nature-based solutions including bioengineering for slope stabilization, floodplain restoration, riverbank management training, and the restoration of degraded forests and other landscapes.