Café Climate: A Café Scientifique on 'Climate Change and Water' with Dr Garrett Kilroy


On 25 March 2011, the British Council and ICIMOD’s Asia Pacific Mountain Network organised a Café Scientifique on ‘Climate change and Water’ at Café Imago Dei in Naxal, Kathmandu. Facilitated by Mr. Pranay Rai of the British Council, the event was attended by some 50 young Nepalis, including climate champions.

Café Scientifique is an ongoing British Council initiative that brings together subject specialists and committed young people in an informal setting to exchange knowledge on a particular climate topic and learn from each other. It is a platform for equipping young people with the knowledge and tools they need to rally around their pet climate issues.


Dr Garrett Kilroy, an ICIMOD expert on integrated water resources management (IWRM), was the guest specialist at this year's Café Climate. He gave a PowerPoint presentation on ‘River basins and climate change’, based on his work in Europe and the Hindu Kush-Himalayas.

He laid the groundwork by giving a primer on the basics of water science encompassing the water cycle; inter-relations between cryosphere, river basins, sub-basins, and catchments; how groundwater is depleted and recharged; and how climate change is driving a plethora of water-related issues at various scales – glacier melting, glacial lake outburst floods, water hazards, water availability, changes in monsoon patterns, water conflict, and so forth. He emphasised the need for an integrated water resources management approach to address water and related issues in a holistic and equitable manner. He contrasted Europe, where all EU countries are governed by the same water management legislation, with South Asia, where the transboundary management of river basins is necessarily bilateral, and, hence, much more challenging. 

He talked about the impacts of climate change and adaptation. Not all impacts are bad, for example, the south-eastern part of Ireland may emerge as a wine-producing area, thanks largely to climate change. Not all impacts will be good either, hence, the need for adaptation taking into account the various degrees of uncertainty, be it win-win type adaptation, no regrets, low regrets, or flexible adaptation. Concrete international and local examples of adaptation were provided as follows: 

  • Water is planned to be pumped from the Shannon river basin in the centre of Ireland to the water-deficit Eastern river basin including the capital city, Dublin, for domestic and industrial use.
  • Due to sea level rise, salt water is intruding into the agricultural land in the delta region of Tamil Nadu. The affected farming community is adapting by switching to shrimp and prawn farming.
  • In Madhya Pradesh, India, farmers are capturing rainwater in ponds and tanks for irrigation. In Punjab, farmers are adjusting their rice planting time to limit water loss from non-beneficial evapotranspiration.
  • The two to three century-old hexagonal water well in Sindhuli Gadhi is a perfect example of adaptation based on traditional knowledge.
  • Farmers in Panchkhal, Kavre district, Nepal are dealing with drought by digging trenches in dry riverbeds and pumping water to irrigate their fields; however, this approach may not be equitable to all members of the community.

    He also talked about adaptation challenges such as institutional capacity, social inequity in decision making, and the concentration of settlements in disaster-prone areas. It is hoped that the 2010 National Action Plan on Adaptation (NAPA) prepared by the Government of Nepal will address these challenges. 

    He flagged the need for long-term monitoring of cryosphere and major river basins in the Hindu Kush-Himalayas, highlighting the scarcity of data in the region, and the large uncertainties inherent in modelling including the difficulty in modelling the monsoon. He touched on the unpredictable dangers associated with glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), and contrasted that with the 2008 Koshi flood, which was more of a systemic management issue. In both cases he highlighted the need for effective early warning systems.

    Some of the take-home messages of the presentation were: 

    • Every individual has a responsibility to conserve water 
    • Climate will impact on river basins, but it is not the only driver!
    • Harness autonomous adaptation
    • Transboundary cooperation essential at river basin scale 
    • Community based approaches essential at local scale 
    • Disaster risk reduction (early warning systems) 
    • Promote IWRM at different scales
    • Environment-appropriate adaptation 
    • Focus on win-win, no-regret, low regret and flexible adaptation options 
    • Demand and supply measures needed


    In his presentation, Dr Kilroy said that an estimated 50 per cent of drinking water supply in Kathmandu valley comes from underground water, adding that 21 million cubic metres (MCM) of water is extracted per year and only 10 MCM is naturally replenished. A member of the audience picked up on this unsustainable trend, and posed these questions to the floor: “How can we recharge underground water?” “What can be done to meet the growing water demands of valley residents?” 

    Dr Kilroy replied that artificial recharge is possible, but that aquifers need to be transmissive enough for recharge to take place. He said that the diminishing land area in Kathmandu and the growth of the concrete jungle leave little room for recharge. One participant said that harvesting rainwater, rather than relying on underground water, is the way to address household demand. Another pointed out that underground water is fast depleting because extraction is totally unregulated in Nepal and proposed that it be licensed. Another said that talk of inter-basin transfer of water from the Melamchi river to Kathmandu valley has been going on for some time, but with little progress on the ground; the ongoing work needs to be ramped up both to meet the water needs of the valley and for recharge. One participant pointed out that residents in water-deficit areas have no choice but to buy water of dubious quality from water tankers, and another added that 80 per cent of underground water is unsafe for drinking because of bacteria and proposed safety measures such as filtering, treating, and boiling. One participant said that her research on water accessibility shows that the Government doesn’t really support Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Limited (KUKL), nor do consumers. Another said that UN Habitat has mapped potential areas for recharge in the Kathmandu valley and proposed that these areas be conserved. However, with land prices rising owners may feel compelled to sell off these potential recharge areas bit by bit for housing and other kinds of development. It was suggested that schools and local NGOs conduct projects to recharge depleted wetlands in and around the valley and raise awareness about their restoration. The trend of encroachment of public space was discussed: slums are coming up along riverbanks, exacerbating the already dire water situation in the valley. Decentralisation was suggested by one participant who proposed shifting the capital to another part of the country. Toward the end of the discussion, another participant encouraged youths who are concerned about water issues to join Mission Naya Nepal, a citizens’ forum, to voice their grievances to the Government and seek answers on many of the issues discussed here.

    Role playing

    Next, roles, such as Prime Minister of Nepal, businessman, first-time tourist to Nepal, supermodel, cow, slum dweller, and environmental activist, were randomly assigned to a dozen or so members of the audience. They were then asked to share their perspectives on the water situation in the Kathmandu valley. The supermodel said water was a non-issue for her as she drank only soft drink and bottled water. The first-time tourist to Nepal complained that the toilets in Kathmandu’s hotels had little or no water and that she had to pay extra for a shower. The rich businessman, CEO of a water company, said that the water problem was good for his business and hoped it would persist forever. The environmental activist said that he had been talking about rooftop rainwater harvesting for ten years now, but nobody listens, least of all the Government. The moral of the role-playing exercise was that people often look at water from different perspectives, and justify water use based on their narrow self-interest. The challenge is to manage their various expectations and legitimate demands optimally.


    Mr Pranay Rai, the facilitator, underscored the complexity of water issues in the context of climate change and advised youths not to give in to the fatalistic ‘ke garne?’ mentality. He encouraged all to engage with water issues near and dear to their hearts, wherever possible, and to advocate creatively for appropriate policy and action in relevant fora.

    - Ujol Sherchan,