Himalayans on the frontlines

Imja Glacier has turned into a lake 3km long and 1km wide in the last 30 years due to global warming. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

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

Nepal needs a post-Covid strategy to revive its tourism industry. The Khumbu, Annapurna, Langtang and Manaslu areas have been hit particularly hard because trekking provided 80% of the income for families.

What has made the situation worse has been winter drought, extreme monsoon weather in the last two years. This has meant poor harvests, wildfires and other disasters that have made it difficult for people to cope.

The pandemic hit just as Nepal was preparing to welcome the Visit Nepal Year 2020 campaign. The tourism sector had invested a lot of resources through bank loans to promote Nepal and upgrade facilities. But when tourism collapsed, the loans added to the burden for businesses.

A post-Covid resurgence of tourism in Nepal could be adopted with the following strategies and policies:

Banks should reschedule repayment of loans, demand only interest payments now and the principal a year after tourism revives and the cash flow is better. This would lessen some financial burden of the already floundering industry.

As tourism recovery seems uncertain, there is a need for state support for those dependent on trekking and mountaineering.

Read also: The great Himalayan thaw, Ajaya Dixit

Covid vaccination should be prioritised for frontline tourism workers. More PCR test centres should be opened at airports for hassle-free entry for tourists without quarantine. Health protocols should be followed but without making a Nepal trip unpleasant for travellers.

Introduce and promote more tourism destinations and products, such as sky diving, winter skiing, high altitude ice hockey competitions, mountain biking, agro tourism, etc.

Tourism infrastructure should be rebuilt using an eco-design approach to optimise the use of locally-available resources and expertise that generates employment.

Special packages must target repeat international tourists, the Nepali diasporas, expatriates and domestic tourists.

Provide vocational skills (plumbing, carpentry, electrician, masonry) for local people dependent on tourism jobs.

Revival of tourism will only happen if there is survival. More than anything else, we need to get people back to work so that they can look after themselves. And that means we need to get tourism up and running, as it is one of the biggest employers.

We need to let the world know that the best way to help the Himalayan people is by visiting the country. Visitors will also see first-hand the enormity of the climate crisis, and will thus help focus global attention to it.

The Himalaya is not just a tourist destination providing income to Nepalis. It is also a gigantic water tower for much of humanity that lives downstream in Asia. Saving the Himalaya means saving the planet.

Read also: DANGER: Nepal’s glacial lakes are filling up, Nepali Times

Ang Tshering Sherpa is a tourism entrepreneur and has served with the Nepal Mountaineering Association.