The Mountains Are Melting: A Discussion about Climate Change in Nepal

By Rastra Raj Bhandari

My first real awareness of climate change was at the age of 19 as an aid worker in the foothills of Mt. Everest after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. During my stay, I noticed that my hotel staff left the guests behind and hiked uphill for 2 hours every night seeking shelter over the fear of a potential glacial flooding, triggered by the recent earthquake.

My newfound curiosity about climate change gradually turned into a dedicated passion and career aspiration. To further a career in this field and make a difference, I did internships with the World Wildlife Fund working on projects ranging from conservation of the Great Barrier Reef and scaling climate finance in Fiji to representing the U.A.E in climate negotiations as a youth diplomat. I was initially anti-corporation as I saw them as only a part of the problem. But after working on the environmental divisions of a corporate firm, I had my perspective changed. I understood how closely linked all different stakeholders are, and that the private and the public sector are often working together in trying to combat climate change. Over my university years, my outlook on climate change expanded from naive, sophomoric activism to an appreciation for the depth of the problem.

It felt great to be around the drivers of climate finance and policy at such a young age. At the same time, I acknowledge that I was disappointed with how slow things were and how powerless I felt. However my experiences strengthened my aspiration to build a career in the field of climate change. Growing up, I used to travel with my father, who studied insects for a living. Some of my fondest memories are of hiking in the Himalayas and camping in the wilderness as a boy scout. I felt that I needed to act considering the future generation would never have the opportunity to experience nature like I did. Perhaps even in my generation many people have not had that chance yet. This was a powerful revelation, the one that prompted me to explore how people view nature and in particular climate change in present day.

Studying at a global university like NYU had its benefits as well as drawbacks. While I traveled the world and understood the global nature of climate change, I knew I was losing touch with the impacts of climate change in Nepal. Still, I looked back to my time at Everest and what must be happening with melting in the Himalayas. What surprised me was that there was very little I could learn about it, given that it’s rarely talked about. Conversations on melting glaciers are dominated by Antarctica and Greenland – while extremely important, they are not the only large ice-reserves in the world. Organizations like ICIMOD are doing incredible work in understanding glacial melting in the Himalayas, but their work was often limited to the science. While I respect science, I questioned what could happen if we channeled the money that goes into climate research towards solving climate change.

The lack of resources to understand what was happening in my country frustrated me. I could not find a single book that explored melting in the Himalayas and portrayed the human story of climate change. Why is climate change such an abstract concept of science and equations when it should be about the people living there? That prompted me to learn more – my mentors thought I should ditch my corporate summer plans and go back to Nepal and write a book that not only studies the impacts of glacial flooding to downstream communities but also explores the geopolitics of the Himalayas as a paradigm for the appropriate policies to address climate change.

The Himalayas are not just an aesthetically beautiful mountain range. They stretchs over 8 countries and contain the world’s largest volume of glacier ice and perennial snow outside of the polar regions. The melting of the Himalayas puts a quarter of the world’s population at risk from water scarcity and it endangers downstream communities from adverse climate induced disasters.

Presently, increased atmospheric warming and changing precipitation patterns are causing glaciers in the high Himalayas to retreat at an unprecedented scale. Alarmingly, there has been a 27% decline in glacial volume in the Himalayas in the past several decades. The resulting meltwater is accumulating to form glacial lakes which could potentially be tapped to produce hydropower but are also extremely vulnerable to bursting and causing downstream flooding, often triggered by large avalanches or earthquakes.

The most recent study by ICIMOD released in 2019 suggests that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rates, the Himalayas could lose two-thirds of its glaciers by 2100. Under such circumstances, temperatures in the Himalayas can increase up to 4.4. Degrees Celsius by 2100 causing radical disruptions to food and water supplies, and mass population displacement. China, India and Pakistan need to join hands to solve this crisis, this is a major political discourse that should be happening but is not.

But what could I do to help?

Over the summer, I set off on a motorbike from the border to India riding along the Koshi river – one of the largest rivers in South Asia – upwards towards the source of the river in the mountains. My destination was the infamous Tsho Rolpa Glacial Lake – one of the most vulnerable glacial lakes in the world. After 12 days of walking along the traditional walking route used by ancestral Tibetans moving into Nepal, I ended in the foothills of Mt. Gaurishankar – next to a massive 1.7km2 lake, which did not exist several decades ago. The lake is one of the only 3 lakes where the government has created an artificial outlet to drain water gradually and contain the crisis. Standing in front of this lake was a powerful feeling that I cannot fully express in words. It was difficult to comprehend that a lake this beautiful would be the cause of devastation for human society. That was when I fully realized the power of water.

Over generations, water has played an important role in shaping human civilization. From the ice-age to floodings to droughts. From culture to religion, water plays a central character more often than not. Anecdotes, personal stories, fables – water has played a role to play in shaping human civilization.

I am going to tell you the human story of glacial flooding in Nepal. Before I begin sharing these stories, in no way am I arguing that the local people are right. What I am trying to do is to share what they have to say about climate change.

According to traditional beliefs, there used to be a big garden in the Himalayas for yaks to herd. Then one day, god came to the dream of the Sherpa people, and told them to take their yaks away. Some people didn’t agree and the next day, many yaks were killed because the mountain suddenly melted to form a lake. Among the older generation, it was common to hear that environmental disasters were happening because we are upsetting the mountain gods, a classic ‘act of good’ – common in other societal beliefs as well. Some locals were upset with the recent influx of workers from the South of Nepal to work on the reconstruction efforts after the earthquake as they were unaware and unaccustomed to respecting local norms. For instance, I was told that urinating and defecating near the water sources are the causes for flooding.

I spent a few days over the summer with a wonderful host-mother, Janmu Sherpa. She runs a small tea house along the river bank – she is positive, full of energy, and has 11 pet goats that she looks after. Like many of her age in the mountains, she believes in fatalism – a belief that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable. She also knows that glacial floods are very unpredictable, just like earthquakes. All Nepalese know that there might be an earthquake again – but none of us know when it will actually hit. So does that mean we stop living ? No, we keep it in the back of our minds and move on. What else can you do when you have so many other priorities? Let fate decide, she said.

Simply put, there are too many other things for people to worry about when climate change is classified as part of the “uncertainties.” At the same time, although the Himalayas disappearing by 2100 seems close, it is very long term for people who struggle to put food in their plates every night.

For instance, I interacted with several tour guides who were there to scope a potential trek. Tsho Rolpa Glacial Lake is formed next to Tashi Labtsa Pass – a treacherous mountainous pass which famous mountaineer, Sir Edmund Hillary, acknowledged to be one of the hardest passes to cross in the world. Tashi Labtsa is special because for those daring adventurers who can cross it, it provides an alternate route to the over commercialized route to Everest. And with more melting in this section, some tour guides believed the pass will open up and be more accessible. One of them, who chose to remain anonymous said, “Climate is definitely changing! When we used to take tours a decade ago we had to walk in snow for many days. Today, there is barely any snow in the routes. For instance, Everest Base Camp was very difficult to reach because of the weather, and very few people went there. Look at today, it doesn’t snow at all, and even children go to base camp! It’s much warmer but we don’t complain as we are getting more work.”

Then, the most surprising of stories! There was an overwhelming majority of people who thought that glacial flooding was a hoax, primarily created by the Japanese. According to local beliefs, the Himalayas are full of rare gems and minerals; and foreigners (particularly Japanese people) have for a while attempted to find excuses to mine the Himalayas to find them. The Japanese were pioneers in glacial research and were the first ones to discover the threats of glacial flooding in the region. They were, however, not particularly well received, and at one point, there was news of local sherpas threatening the Japanese scientists for sensationalizing the threats of glacial flooding. During my 3 months stay in the mountains, it was common to hear discourse on the inefficiency of the government. For instance, “Why is the government interested in spending millions of dollars to mitigate climate change when the government has never invested in schools, health-posts and roads in the mountains?” There was large mis-trust over the intent of the government.

After hearing these stories, I wanted to know if the youth felt the same way. That was hard to do because there are simply no young people in the mountains. Most of the Nepalese youth are either studying in India, Australia or the U.S. or working primarily in the Gulf and raising remittance for the Nepalese Economy.

I traveled to the nearest big city and conducted a survey among 250 university students and a similar survey among the same demographics in Kathmandu – the capital city of Nepal, to make a comparative analysis. I learned about their awareness and perceptions of climate change, and I estimated their willingness to pay to protect the Himalayas and the lives that depend on the mountains. Awareness was based off their knowledge about glacial flooding while perception was based on their attitude towards climate change and priorities. In doing this, I found that perception of the environment is directly correlated to an increased valuation of the environment while simply knowing about climate change has no effect.

Indifference towards climate change might occur because someone is not directly affected by it or because they have other priorities. Regardless, this revelation has a message for policy makers around the world. How do you incorporate climate policies in an environment where climate change is not as big of a priority in the minds of local people?

But, there’s also the question of why we expect people to make individual sacrifices when the top 100 companies are responsible for 70% of global emissions.

The mountains are melting fast with people who are unable to stop it neither adapt to having to put the problem off their minds to continue to survive. Alongside a massive shift in the responsibilities of the top 100 companies, there also needs to be a shift in our global consciousness. We will not simply be losing the Himalayas in less than 100 years, which should be sad enough, but rivers will run right through the lives of real people, almost 1.4 billion of them.

Photograph by Rastra Raj Bhandari

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