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Human face of a Himalayan climate crisis

Updated: Aug 16, 2020

Article and Photo: Rastraraj Bhandari,


In a small riverbank community of Donggang below Mt Gauri Shankar, Janmu Sherpa runs a small teahouse. The settlement has two families who are still rebuilding their homes after the earthquake five years ago.

Janmu has a dozen goats, her primary companions in this wilderness near the Chinese border. The tea house is a rest stop for trekkers headed up to Tso Rolpa glacial lake, or onwards to Tashi Laptsa Pass to Khumbu.

With the Himalaya warming between 0.3-0.7oC faster than the global average, these mountains will lose at least one-third of their ice by the end of the century. And that is the best-case scenario, according to the  Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Climate Change, Sustainability and People put together last year by Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

The increased melting means melt water is accumulating in glacial lakes that absorb and transmit thermal energy to the glacier face, causing a positive-feedback loop and accelerating the thaw. The lakes are growing in size, and are at risk of bursting to flood downstream valleys.  Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) can be caused by avalanches falling into the lakes, or by earthquakes.

In the late 1990s, the risk of a GLOF event from Tso Rolpa led to panic among people living in the Tama Kosi Valley below. Scientists had been monitoring the lake which had grown seven times in size since 1957.

Twenty years ago, the Nepal government with international partners constructed a 70m canal that lowered the water level of the lake by 3m.  Scientists believed the water level needed to be lowered by 20m to mitigate the risk of a GLOF, but this was better than nothing.

The resulting decrease in pressure on the terminal moraine is probably why Tso Rolpa did not burst during the 12 May 2015 aftershock which was epicentred just 10km away. Nonetheless, the risk still exists as scientists  reassess the state and vulnerability of the lake.

Out of the 1,466 glacial lakes in Nepal, 21 pose potential risks and six are considered to be at a high risk of an outburst. There have been at least 14 glacial lake flooding events recorded in the last decade in the region.

A future Tso Rolpa GLOF would cost lives, property, infrastructure development projects including hydropower plants, livelihood, tourism and trade, forest, pastures and fisheries. ICIMOD estimates the tangible damage of a lake burst would range from $2-9 million depending on the duration, velocity and flooding level with almost 650,000 people up to 100km downstream affected.

However, people living along the Tama Kosi appear to be either oblivious or skeptical of the danger. Many think it is a hoax spread by the international community to mine precious stones. A hut next to the lake has a Maoist slogan that reads ‘End American Imperialism, Long Live the Nepal Maoist Party’.

“Ordinary citizens cannot understand why else the government and foreigners would spend almost $3 million dollars on future climate change when many villages in the region urgently need proper schools, health-post and roads,” explains Charikot resident Akal Man Maharjan.

Out of the 407 young undergraduate students from Dolakha and Kathmandu interviewed recently, more than one-third believe glacial flooding to be a hoax.

Janmu Sherpa’s is different. Despite having no formal education, her knowledge of global warming stems from her closeness to nature of which she considers herself to be a part. She has noticed erratic weather with an increased frequency of flash floods and landslides.

Tso Rolpa is directly upstream from Donggang, but the lack of alternatives and  fatalism has helped her put climate change at the back of her mind and carry on with her daily life. 

“No one knows when the lake will burst, so we cannot stop our daily chores.  Let fate decide,” Janmu Sherpa tells us.

This diverse narrative among Nepalis means that the government faces the complexity of turning public awareness into climate action while trying to reduce poverty, marginalisation of women, state neglect of indigenous communities, racial discrimination and out-migration.  

These socio-economic issues overlap, and policymakers are faced with the difficult task of identifying and implementing policy that prioritise climate adaptation alongside raising the livelihoods of mountain communities.

Up here in the Rolwaling, one thing is clear: the focus of research must shift to human-centric solutions, one that brings scientists, mountain communities, transient visitors, the government and activists together.  Indigenous mountain communities are well placed to observe changes and flood events, but they are often unaware of the predicted consequences.

Subsistence living, the inability to comprehend complex scientific studies, weak government institutions rampant with corruption, and traditional beliefs make matters worse. Hence the hoax theory.

Engaging local residents as citizen scientists who can contribute to data collection and documentation would be a step. Micro-insurance schemes are a great tool in protecting low-income communities against risks of climate change in exchange for a regular payment of premiums proportion to the likelihood and cost of the relevant risk.

The mountains are melting before our eyes. People living here are unable to stop it, they can only adapt to the changes. Some do it by putting it out of their minds and plodding along in forced denial. Others think the climate crisis is a conspiracy.

While the long-term impacts of climate change are widely understood among many residents of Nepal, it means very little to people who struggle to live in this harsh environment.

This article was first published in Nepali Times on April 8th, 2020.


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