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Computing challenges from the roof of the world

Speed read
  • Nepal’s diverse geography presents challenges to technological infrastructure
  • Supercomputing could reduce losses in event of future earthquakes
  • Current HPC initiatives focus on weather forecasting and climate services

Among the highlights of the ISC High Performance conference in Frankfurt was our conversation with Umesh Upadhyaya, an advocate for advanced computing in the Himalayan country of Nepal.

Upadhyaya spoke to us at length about the need for HPC resources in his country and what challenges must be overcome to make that vision a reality. 


China has the two fastest supercomputers in the world. India is the world’s fastest growing tech economy and the second most connected nation. But squeezed between these IT powerhouses is the tiny nation of Nepal.

Umesh Upadhyaya, of the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), would like to see Nepal follow in its neighbors’ footsteps. He envisions a future in which his country embraces technology to solve scientific challenges and bring prosperity to its citizens.

A multi-lingual, multi-ethnic country about the size of New York State, Nepal possesses incredible geographical diversity, from lowlands on the border with India to eight of the world’s ten tallest mountains, including Mount Everest, the highest point on the earth.

Umesh Upadhyaya speaks at ISC2017 about high-performance computing in Nepal. There are great challenges, but the promise HPC brings to Nepal is even greater.

But all those dramatic mountain ranges and high altitudes hinder infrastructure development. The region is also prone to natural disasters such as avalanches, landslides, forest fires, monsoon floods, and earthquakes.

Combine with low population density, political instability, and abrupt power outages, and you have a real challenge to technological advancement.

Despite a large number of students studying science and technology at Nepal’s universities, says Upadhyaya, “many students are still unaware of what high-performance computing is, what it does, and what it is used for.”

“Because of the lack of supercomputing facilities, our university students get only theoretical knowledge and they don’t have the practical skills.”

What HPC can do for Nepal

Devastating earthquakes in April and May of 2015, increased the urgency of the need for a technological upgrade.

Hundreds of villages, homes, and UNESCO world heritage buildings that the country relies upon for tourism were destroyed. The likelihood of another earthquake remains very high.

“After the earthquake, Roger Bilham, professor in the department of geological sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder,  came to Nepal and showed us their earthquake simulations,” says Upadhyaya. “This generated interest in hosting an HPC center in Nepal.”  

(See Dr. Bilham's presentation about Nepal here.)

In addition to earthquake simulations, Upadhyaya envisions HPC in Nepal to be used for everything from agricultural science to Ayurveda.

"This will require bringing in scientists, researchers, and technology experts from interested areas to work together," Upadhyaya adds.  "With a support from national governments, universities around the globe, and national and international research organizations, this vision is possible."

Naturally Nepal

More than half of the country’s population lives in rural areas, where families depend upon forests and small-scale agriculture for survival. Rising temperatures and drier conditions caused by climate change increase the risk of forest fires that can wipe out a way of life for hundreds of villagers in a few hours.

The Himalayan region is also extremely vulnerable to rising air pollution. Thick haze and increased winter fog affect agriculture, tourism, and the livelihood of some of the world’s poorest people.

<strong>Degrees of difficulty.</strong> Earthquakes render a difficult existence even more trying in Nepal. Investment in HPC resources will equip Nepal with powerful tools to meet many needs, such as preparing for earthquakes and managing disaster relief efforts. Courtesy Laxmi Prasad Ngakhusi; UNDP Nepal. <a href= 'https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/legalcode'(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)</a>

ICIMOD’s Atmosphere Initiative, established in 2013, seeks to reduce air pollution in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region through increased understanding of the impact of climate pollutants and atmospheric change.

By measuring emissions, the initiative aims to promote fact-based policy-making around issues of air quality. 

SERVIR Himalaya, an ICIMOD joint initiative with NASA and USAID, provides GIS information to improve environmental decision-making and resilience to climate change. SERVIR’s satellites can spot forest fires in their initial stages — or even before they ignite — and send automated text messages to alert fire fighters and local officials.

But to establish a HPC resource center and make the vision come true, says Upadhyaya, “we need a lot of support. From the national government, universities, research institutions and from international organizations. We need funding, equipment, training and workshops.

“We looking forward to see agricultural based discoveries, smarter cities, research on climate change, and on earthquakes to save lives,” says Upadhyaya. “We want to keep up with technologies around the world, and give these opportunities to our young students.”

Travel assistance to ISC 2017 was provided to Umesh by CraySTEM-Trek, and the ISC-HPC group.


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