Climate migration is already happening

Dhey village, Nepal. Photos: TASHI BISTA

When reporters want to depict the impacts of the climate crisis, they go to what was once the trans-Himalayan village of Dhe (pictured above).

Located in Mustang, the arid district in Nepal that juts out into Tibet and is in the Himalayan rain shadow, Dhe village has been featured in The New York Times, dissected by researchers, filmed by international documentary makers, and this newspaper did a multimedia package on Dhe as far back as 2016.

But none of these outputs have been by a Mustang native until Tashi Bista produced his film When Glaciers Go in 2020, which profiles the inhabitants of Dhe (also spelled Dhye, or Dhey).

The activist shows how a chronic water shortage caused by climate breakdown forced Dhe's relocation to a new village, Chambaleh. When Glaciers Go premiered in 2020 at the Mountain Film Festival in Telluride and was selected for the 2020 Banff Mountain Film Festival.

Thanks to Bista’s film and extensive news coverage in Nepal and abroad, Dhe is one of the best-documented examples of climate migration. The immediate impact of glacial retreat, springs going dry, and prolonged winter drought in the high altitude desert region limits livelihood options for inhabitants of this fragile and harsh region.

The local government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) supported Dhe’s relocation to newly developed homes and apple orchards. But many members of Dhe’s older generation find it difficult to be uprooted from their ancestral homes and traditional livelihoods.

As a result, inter-generational nuclear families have split. Tashi Bista’s When Glaciers Go shows the struggle families now face traveling to-and-from Dhe to balance building new economic opportunities with maintaining strong familial ties. Despite these hurdles, the film instills viewers with a strong sense of optimism for Upper Mustang and Nepal’s rapidly changing Himalayan landscape.

As world leaders tried to hammer out a new deal to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions at COP27, it is clear that human mobility driven by climate change has been happening for some time already.

Nepali Times spoke to filmmaker Tashi Bista about climate migration in the Himalaya as he continues to explore and document the crisis.

Nepali Times: When do people decide to move due to climate change?

Tashi Bista: Climate migration started about 10 years ago in Nepal’s Annapurna Conservation Area (ACAP). I first started hearing about Dhe and the water shortage there after volunteering for a micro-finance project organised by UNDP and ACAP. From one year to the next, it’s quite hard to tell how much the water levels truly fluctuate but it is possible to track social conflict over water resources.

There was, for example, conflict over who gets to water crops first and how much water could be used. Dhe’s springs and reservoirs kept drying and, as conflict became more intense, the first families began to leave. In another village, Samzong, people were forced to move after flash floods battered homes with debris as rainfall patterns have become more unpredictable in the past 15 years or so.

Have you and people in Upper Mustang perceived a change in climate?

When I was growing up, there was less rain, temperatures did not fluctuate so dramatically, and glacial meltwater allowed people to irrigate their land in spring. When I was a child, Upper Mustang didn’t even have apples but warmer temperatures at higher altitudes have now enabled people to set up orchards. In addition, migratory birds flew over our villages during the harvest, but now they migrate much later since it does not get colder until later in the year. There are locusts and other bugs that never before reached Upper Mustang, and there is much less snow. It is very clear that the climate is changing.

Do you believe that migration is a necessary adaptation strategy?

People do not want to move, and they are emotionally shocked that they must. In When Glaciers Go, we tried to film the family tension as the grandparents stayed in Dhe but the younger generation wanted to move so that they had better livelihood options. Adapting to climate change in the same place would be ideal, but we do not yet possess the technology or knowledge to ensure quality of life in a climate-stressed environment.

Why does the older generation want to stay on? 

Mostly, grandparents decide to stay because they cannot leave their livestock and ancestral homes. They don’t want to move after living their entire lives in the same place. Families try to travel back and forth often while the grandparents take care of the livestock. Others travel abroad and send remittances back to their families.

How can society combat the climate crisis? 

Climate change and the need to move due to water scarcity or other climate stressors is a global phenomenon so much larger than a small village in the Himalaya. People do not want to give up their daily comforts across the globe to confront climate change, but the sacrifices are small if we act globally- turn off your lights, take shorter showers, etc.

Is there government support for climate migrants?

There are no subsidies for moving. The government doesn’t have a budget for climate migrants or climate change because it prioritizes education, social security, etc. When climate impacts the economy, the government may help but climate migration has not had a major economic impact yet. However, it will.

How do you stay optimistic in the environmental science field?

I’m quite positive for Nepal, because Nepal can easily promote the local market and we have a strong sense of community. We will fall into our own hands.

What are you working on now?

I continue to document climate migration in the Himalaya. I am working with a foreign film team to chronicle human-wildlife conflict post-migration in Samzong, where snow leopards now target livestock as so few people live in the original village.

Watch When Glaciers Go here. 

Also watch High and Dry, a Nepali Times video from 2016.

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