The double-barrel crisis of climate and Covid has hit Nepal’s Himalayan communities hard with its impact on livelihoods and the natural environment.
I myself have witnessed first-hand the vast changes in the lives of our people in the mountains for over six decades. As a mountaineer, trekker, environmental activist, and someone in the mountaineering, trekking and tourism sector, I have seen the impact of the twin crises.
Although we share the Himalaya with Bhutan, India, China and Pakistan, it is Nepal that hosts most of the highest peaks. Both the Buddhists and the Hindus who live here consider the Himalaya sacred.
Much of our socio-cultural practices of diverse ethnicities from the mountains to the plains evolved amidst the great lakes and rivers emanating from the Himalaya. Protecting the precious natural beauty of the mountains is important not just for Nepal, but also for the planet.
Much of Himalayan region is poor, many remote areas still do not have electricity, health facilities are dismal, children are deprived of quality schooling, and educated youth migrate because there are no jobs.
Nepal is known for its mountains, but it is the spontaneous warmth and natural friendliness of its people that impresses visitors. This multi-ethnic society living in harmony for centuries has weaved a rich cultural tapestry.
Read also: Global heating melts mountains, Nepali Times
The Himalaya, and more specifically the Khumbu region represents the opportunities and challenges of Nepal in a microcosm. I grew up there taking my family’s yaks to graze, climbed for a living to support my family, and awakened to my life’s mission. The mountains are literally melting before my eyes. Hundreds of glacial lakes have swelled up dangerously in recent decades. Imja is now one of the biggest, and I have seen it grow enormously since my childhood. As children, we used to cross the Imja Glacier with our yaks. Then ponds started to appear, and grow. The lake is now 3km long and 1km wide, and in danger of bursting. The Khumbu Glacier in the adjacent valley may not have a big lake, but the firm ice we used to walk on is all gone, replaced by boulders and debris.
The Himalaya is already one of the most seismically active areas of the world. Future earthquakes can bring down avalanches into these lakes, causing them to top over the fragile moraine dams, sending vertical tsunamis rushing down the narrow valleys.
In my lifetime, I have seen two of these glacial lake outburst floods with my own eyes: in 1977 below Ama Dablam in Pangboche, and in 1985 after the Dig Tso burst in Thame. Both caused death and destruction downstream, washing away trails and bridges, drinking water systems, a hydropower plant and decades of development.
We in Nepal’s mountains did not cause the global climate breakdown, yet we are paying the price. This is why I formed the Climate Alliance of Himalayan Communities (CAHC) to bring the impact of climate change in the Himalaya to world attention, and work on risk reduction through traditional knowledge and native experience.
Trekking and mountaineering had also fouled the mountains, giving Mt Everest a bad reputation for being overcrowded and garbage-laden. But in recent years, through initiatives like the annual Eco Everest Expeditions and the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, the routes are much cleaner. The ‘Cash for Trash’ started by Asian Trekking has brought down 24 tonnes of garbage from Mt Everest in the past 14 years. Seven bodies of climbers have also been retrieved for dignified funerals.
Cleaning Himalaya is not as easy as picking garbage in the streets of Kathmandu. Some of the frozen bodies were brought down from Balcony at 8,400m, below the summit of Mt Everest. The Sherpas risked their own lives to dig out the bodies entombed in ice.
Tourism has played a pivotal role in the economic transformation of the Khumbu. But it has suffered many crises. The deadly avalanche at Everest Base Camp in 2014, the earthquake the next year, and in the past two years the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as more recent conflicts and instability.
Read also: Living below Nepal’s melting mountains, Alton C Byers