The Climate+Change exhibition has come a long way. From its grand launch in Kathmandu in December 2013 to a quasi-permanent residency the following year at the International Mountain Museum in Pokhara, this multimedia installation sought to inform and educate visitors about the perilous path we are treading in our pursuit of prosperity. But no matter how well executed such projects are, there remains a sense that we are still confined by the white space of the gallery: that we are detached from the realities presented to us. This is inevitable, but not insurmountable. The original exhibition used a clever combination of sweeping glacial vistas and personal stories to explain climate change to metropolitan Nepalis. Over the last week, more localised presentations in east Nepal have served to bring that message home to places where climate change is as real as it can get.
Kurule Tenupa VDC, reached by a rough four-wheel drive up from Dharan, may not be an obvious site for an exhibition (especially one that requires the transportation of ten six-foot prints mounted on iron frames). But these sparsely populated, multi-ethnic hills in the eastern reaches of Dhankuta district are fast emerging as a case study of climate change. The settlements scattered across the basin of the Tamor River are already suffering the consequences of what to many is still an abstraction, despite recent warnings by scientists that “global warming is not something down the road, but it is here now and it affecting us now.” Graphs correlating rising CO2 levels and global temperatures furnish us with the big picture so governments can be pushed to act now; more local evidence of the consequences of drying springs and streams reveal the ground reality of climate change, as measured in lives lived by people quite like us.
This edition of Stories of Climate+Change, featuring work by photographer Kishor Sharma, was put together by photo.circle and hosted by KTK-Belt in “learning grounds” in Kurule Tenupa (Dhankuta) and Yangshila (Morang) last week. Community members and students in particular were welcomed, with slide presentations exploring the cause and effect of what is already an emergency for those in Kurule. The learning grounds are farming land or forested areas that have been set aside by the KTK-Belt initiative for a range of locally driven activities including permaculture, water table regeneration and educational hubs, encompassing ecological communities from the Tarāi to the Himalaya (the Koshi to Kanchenjunga Belt). In placing the exhibits here, the organisers make a practical as well as political point: we all know the communities most affected by climate change are least responsible for it, which is why we are bound to help them understand, then combat, its impacts.
Kurule Tenupa is drying, and dying. As the captions to Kishor Sharma’s descriptive images inform us, 70 to 80 houses are abandoned each year as their occupants decide pastures are, literally and figuratively, greener elsewhere, be it the market town of Itahari or the desert cities of the Gulf. In the rest of Nepal, it may be the case that men leave to pursue livelihoods in order to support their rural homesteads. Here, there is less and less to stay on for. Thirty years on from a water project brought in by local politician (and five-time premier) Surya Bahadur Thapa, many are forced to drink river water, and up to 150 springs have run dry. And though it is hard to relate the torrential rains that greet us in Yangshila with Sharma’s photos of the dusty red ridges of Kurule, even in the monsoon it is obvious to us something is not quite right. We don raincoats for the first hour’s walk out of Rajarani towards Kurule, but for the rest of the day we come across streams that are shadows of their former selves, and a farmer tells us he is not planting rice this year. There is simply not enough water.
Mountains melt, forests are felled, rivers flow and ebb, and where are we? A fatalistic line of thinking may accept the inexorable flow of globalisation and urbanisation as the way of things. It is tempting to imagine that climate change is too big for small places like Kurule to adapt to, that such far-flung communities are better off taking their chances in the city. But people still live here, and on the evidence of the two hundred kids crammed into the schoolroom where the slide presentation was made the day after we reached Kurule, there is strong interest in mitigation and adaptation. Stories of Climate+Change is a step towards understanding the phenomena that have begun to warp their lives, as well as a way to let local communities know others are aware of their problems. Such an understanding is a precondition for KTK-Belt’s learning grounds, which, if executed properly, may help people live where they want to, even better than before, rather than casting their fortunes into the whirligig of an unpredictable global economy. The desiccated landscapes in the exhibits alternate with the sombre visages of its inhabitants – the young ready to throw in their lot with the remittance economy, the old and the infirm hoping for a better day. But as 80-year-old Padam Prasad Ghimire is cited as saying, “If there were a project that could bring back water, I think people would return.”