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Collaborating with Nepalese visiting scholar, Kashish Das Strestha

May 18, 2015
Bibhas M. Suwal/TNM
Jerry Brown, Governor of California, read “Approaching a State Shift in Earth's Biosphere,” a publication that resulted from the culmination of a year’s work of 22 biologists from 4 countries that identified major biological problems due to human interactions with the Earth and was astonished to learn that this news was not spread beyond the community of scientists. "If these are such big problems, why aren't you scientists shouting it from the rooftops? And why are you scientists only talking to each other? Why don't you give policy makers and the general public something we can use?"
With that challenge, 16 scientists, including Elizabeth Hadly, Professor of Biology, collaborated with the Office of the Governor to write, Maintaining Life Support in the 21st Century, a consensus statement that delivers scientifically accurate information that is easy to understand. Professor Hadly invited Kashish Das Shrestha, an independent policy analyst, to Stanford with the support of a seed grant from the Office of International Affairs to serve as a liaison and to share the work of the consensus statement with the citizens and policy makers of Nepal.

Q: There are many places in the developing world that are suffering from similar environmental problems. Why have you decided to focus on Nepal?

EH: I am totally enamored by this charismatic country. It captures the romanticism of Mt. Everest and the Himalayas, a Shangri-La with wonderful people and wilderness, yet is one of those countries that can fall through the cracks. Nepal also has a wealth of environmental problems and doesn’t get the attention of the larger surrounding countries including China or India. Yet Nepal is small enough to actually accomplish environmental progress so the opportunity to set an example is unparalleled. Nepal is the least urbanized country in South Asia, but at the same time it is the fastest urbanizing country in the region. 


Q: How did you come to meet Kashish and why did you choose to invite Kashish?

EH: I actually never met Kashish in person until he came to Stanford. My very first interaction with Kasish was simply as his Twitter follower. We had been doing some research on Himalayan biodiversity in Nepal and how climate change was affecting small mammals. My research was highlighted in the New York Times’ Dot Earth blog, which caught his eye and so Kashish wrote about my research on his blog, Sustainable Nepal.  Then we began following each other on Twitter, occasionally holding virtual conversations about environmental issues. Subsequently he invited me to speak at a couple of events on World Earth Day and Environment Day, but I was never able to make these in person. I actually participated in Environment Day by Skyping in for my presentation.
As an the advisor to the Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture, Energy, and Natural Resources, Kashish helped bring a lot of issues to the Committee’s attention which have resulted in hearings and subsequent sustainability oriented policy changes. He is also a co-author of the Chairman’s election manifesto “Towards a Sustainable Kathmandu.” 


Q: What is the ultimate goal of the consensus statement? 

EH: The consensus statement identifies the five pillars of global vulnerability, all of which should be considered together because of their synergistic effects on the planet:
•    Climate disruption
•    Extinctions
•    Wholesale loss of diverse ecosystems
•    Pollution
•    Human population growth and consumption patterns
The ultimate goal of the consensus statement is to translate scientific language and make it accessible to everyone and hopefully to use it as a resource for decision-making. Thus policymaking decisions are grounded and supported by scientific evidence. It is imperative that we make policy changes to protect the earth from further deterioration. The water that flows from the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas provides water for a quarter of the world’s population. Once this water is gone, melted from the effects of global warming, it is gone and there is no way of recapturing it. Nepal thus is experiencing all these global threats within their own boundaries in real time. The Nepalis have much to lose if we do not effect change, and their lives are already rapidly changing in ways that we in the United States can only imagine.

Q: Kashish spent a lot of time outside your department talking with other Stanford communities, state policymakers and local businesses. How and why was this important to you? How is this valuable to the larger Stanford community?

EH: Kashish is a Renaissance man.  He is remarkably inspiring. A fourth generation photographer, he has self-funded most of his research through his work as a photographer in New York and Nepal since 1997. He has been a great example to my students, and to others he met, because he demonstrates by his behavior how one person, with no real funding, can make a huge difference. During his visit at Stanford, he gave several talks to different units on campus—Woods Institute for the Environment, the Department of Biology, the Center South Asia and the arts community. He has the ability to pivot the discussion to suit the audience because of his breadth of experience, strong sense of curiosity and intensity of focus. I believe this derives from his holistic approach to issues of sustainable development in Nepal. 

"Kashish has been generous with his time and met with many students outside of my department, including graduate students from the Graduate School of Business, School of Medicine and the and made himself available as a resource for their own research projects. For our students, making connections with visiting scholars from other countries is invaluable." - Elizabeth Hadly

He encouraged students to follow up with him if they had questions and he made connections to others who could be helpful in sustainable development in Nepal, such as young engineers.  He also met with electric vehicle engineers at Tesla and young medical students interested in starting a business in Nepal. The most important meetings included our time with members of the Governor’s office. Kashish came prepared to seek the advice of Governor Brown’s office in achieving carbon emissions targets for 2020, and offered his network in turn to the Governor’s staff. It was a very productive visit and we have plans to meet again in advance of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) this upcoming winter.  I could not have sponsored Kashish without the support of the OIA.  What a wonderful opportunity!


Q: What were some of the outcomes from the visit?

KDS: The opportunity to engage with the Stanford community was important for me as researcher and policy advisor to get a sense of where the work I am doing in Nepal stood in the broader context. The research at Stanford, and the Governor’s endorsement and use of it, the Consensus document in particular, not only gives a scientific grounding but also a global political foundation to the ideas that Parliamentarian Gagan Thapa and I have been working on for years in Nepal, many of which we have managed to steadily take to policy level already. I think that it’s also important for the public to see that some of the policy work being done in Nepal is not in the isolation of Kathmandu, but very much in sync with policymakers around the world trying to address issues of sustainable urban development and build climate resilience. To have the opportunity to engage scholars like Professors Harold Mooney and Paul Ehrlich on issues in Nepal, and for them to offer their time and feedback, was also important to me personally. 
With the Kathmandu Commitment document that we are drafting in the lead up to the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) meeting in December, we are taking a similar approach to that of Governor Brown by identifying five-year sustainable transition benchmarks from now to 2030. Keeping these two engagements alive – with Stanford and the Governor’s office – I think will be very helpful for Nepal’s sustainable development aspirations. And I hope for Stanford too.  

Q: You seem fairly confident that you can influence policy changes very quickly in Nepal. How is that possible?

KDS: Nepal is the fastest urbanizing country in South Asia, and so the future Nepal is an urbanized one. Which is why this is the moment in time we need to decide how we will urbanize; will it be sustainable or ad-hoc? In the last year our Livable Kathmandu campaign has already pushed through a policy vision document, the Unified Kathmandu Valley Development Plan, which is the first master plan vision for Kathmandu that has been endorsed by all 15 elected representatives of the Kathmandu Valley. This was important because in order to solve Kathmandu’s problems we wanted policymakers to begin seeing Kathmandu as one ecological unit instead of multiple municipalities or constituencies. The campaign has been very public and the representatives have said their time in office should also be judged on their commitment to and work on these issues. With the Kathmandu Commitment document, I believe that the five-year benchmarks will both help realize and gauge the policy visions into tangible outcomes. 
This is also important because we can take lessons from Kathmandu and adapt them to emerging municipalities; there is no reason to repeat the mistakes of Kathmandu. We can transform the problems into lessons learned for the new urban areas so all of Nepal can urbanize sustainably.