A Virginia Tech program is analyzing how climate change in Nepal affects distribution of invasive species, livelihoods of smallholder farmers, and food and land availability.

People in Nepal, especially in rural communities, are dependent on natural resources, and a significant portion of the country’s economy relies on climate-sensitive industries, such as ecotourism. Rich biodiversity and a fluctuating topography also make Nepal a model for studying the effects of climate change on different types of land.

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management and its implementing team at Tribhuvan University in Nepal found that as Earth’s mean temperature slowly rises, Nepal’s Himalayan temperature is increasing at an even higher rate. Areas of the country at higher elevations are typically cold, but as they warm, the team’s research shows certain invasive weeds spread more rapidly.

Muni Muniappan, director of the Innovation Lab, said invasive species respond faster to climate change than native vegetation. Not only do invasive species wipe out vital native food and cash crops, but they also cause trillions of dollars in global damage every year.

The Virginia Tech-managed project funds 22 science and technology researchers in Nepal who are in the beginning stages of their careers. All students who have completed degrees through the program have acquired positions either in local universities or the government.

In addition to mapping the spread of invasive weeds, the project is analyzing climate change’s negative impact on future land availability. Buckwheat and finger millet, two highly nutritious cereal crops grown throughout Nepal, will both eventually be threatened, according to the team’s projections.

Availability of land for buckwheat is projected to shrink by up to 8.2 percent by 2050 and again by 8.3 percent by 2070, while finger millet land availability is projected to shrink by up to 6.9 percent and 7.6 percent by 2050 and 2070, respectively.

The project also tracks patterns of research to find gaps in knowledge about climate change and studies local communities’ perceptions of how climate change alters livelihoods.

“Our studies project major losses of land that will result in the reduction of grain yields and, ultimately, the reduction of food availability,” said Pramod K. Jha, professor emeritus at Tribhuvan University and head of the project in Nepal. “This will be a real detriment to smallholder farmers who already have limited resources to fall back on and will threaten the many local varieties of the crops that have helped sustain them for so long.” 

Developing countries disproportionately represent some of the more biodiverse regions in the world but are also often less capable of underwriting mitigation efforts as major threats loom. Nepal boasts 118 different ecosystems, and agriculture is the main source of income for two-thirds of its population.

The program’s students are compiling management methods that will be implemented in Nepal to help communities adapt to climate change. These include biological control — the use of natural enemies to combat pests.

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management is funded by the United States Agency for International Development and is housed at the Center for International Research, Education, and Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs.

Written by Sara Hendery