What is lost cannot be repaid

Climate breakdown puts the very survival of a community in Nepal’s Mustang region in question

View of Lubrak village in the gorge below, looking west toward the Kali Gandaki valley. All photos: WEN STEPHENSON

This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of The Nation magazine.

My first glimpse of Kagbeni in Mustang came with a mix of relief, elation, and a cold foreboding.

I had been walking north with my Nepali guide, sturdy 50-year-old Manoj Tamang out of Pokhara, for four days. Dhaulagiri at 8,167m looming to the west and the Annapurna massif to the east, until we had put them behind us. 

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Now in their rain shadow on the north side of the Himalaya, the landscape quickly turned from alpine to arid high-mountain grassland and desert. We would spend two nights and a full day in Kagbeni at 2,804m before continuing up to Jharkot and Muktinath (3,800m), still the ‘foothills’ by Himalayan standards. Hence the relief, especially for my 56-year-old back and legs which were no match for Manoj’s.

As for the elation, it came not only from the vista of Kagbeni’s terraced fields and orchards appearing, like some miraculous oasis, at the foot of barren cliffs and snowless mountainsides.

Kagbeni
A view of Kagbeni, looking north up the Kali Gandaki valley.

Since the 12th century, Kagbeni has been the “gateway” to the ancient Kingdom of Lo, known today as Upper Mustang, a restricted area on Nepal’s border with China. Yet today’s Mustang, as recent scholarship by the anthropologist Emily Amburgey and others has shown, is no idyllic Shangri-la, thanks to its mix of poverty, uneven development, government neglect, out-migration of the young, and, increasingly, symptoms of climate change (like those snowless mountains during my January visit).

Indeed, the foreboding came when I remembered why I was there. Last August, Kagbeni suffered a devastating flood—brought on by extreme rainfall—the likes of which no one living there had ever experienced. I wanted to see the damage and the recovery effort for myself—and I wanted to hear from local people about what climate change means for their lives and communities in the fast-warming Himalaya.

*

Kagbeni is built along both banks of the Kag Khola river where it flows into the Kali Gandaki from the east. The original 12th century town, with its traditional flat-roofed mud houses and its medieval monastery and fort, lies on the north side, and the newer part of town to the south. 

The confluence of the two rivers, sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists, has made Kagbeni an important stop on the age-old pilgrimage route to the ancient Muktinath temple complex farther up the Kag Khola Gorge. The area is now heavily touristed thanks to a major road completed in 2008.

That first afternoon, I made my way along the new town’s main street until it opened suddenly onto what still looked, five months after the flood, like a war zone. The grey rubble of rock, sand, and dried-mud debris, a block wide and a story high, stretched a good 200 yards along both sides of the narrow river. 

Kagbeni flood
Kagbeni flood

 The floods that sweep down these river gorges do not just carry water, they consist of a thick, heavy flow of cement-like silt, mud, and rock that levels everything in its path and raises the riverbed by many feet. Think of it not as sea-level rise but riverbed rise, putting homes, schools, stupas and temples, infrastructure, and fields in greater peril with each new flood, which comes more often as global warming alters the South Asian monsoon.

Rinzin Namgyal Gurung, the Kagbeni rural municipality chair, laid out the extent of the flood damage for me in an email: eight buildings completely destroyed, including a hotel, a government ward office, a health centre, and a police station, and 19 that suffered partial damage, including the monastery and the secondary school. 

In all, 27 buildings designated as residential or hotels were destroyed or damaged, plus nine ‘crucial public structures’ (water supply and treatment, irrigation canals, sewers, electricity stations, bridges, and river retaining walls) ‘were also severely affected’.

This is a town of just 600 people. Gurung also listed the full extent of recovery funding and assistance the town received from Nepal’s national government: “Ministry of Home Affairs, 10 heavy tents and 15 blankets.” Assistance received so far from international NGOs: none.

In the absence of such aid, the Mustang community in Nepal and abroad, has stepped up with a grassroots fundraising campaign. As Mustang faces another monsoon season, the question of longer-term survival is on some people’s minds.

*

Laxmi Gurung is 49 years old and was born in Kagbeni, where her ancestors have lived for eons.

She was away in Kathmandu when I visited Kagbeni, but I caught up with her the following week in the capital’s Swayambhu neighborhood. Laxmi and her brother, a former local-government chairperson, own and run Kagbeni’s Hotel Mustang Gateway and its iconic YacDonald’s restaurant

Together, they founded the Fama Foundation to help preserve Mustang’s traditional culture as the region rapidly develops. Educated at universities in India and New Zealand, Laxmi attended COP28, the latest United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Dubai last December with Nepal’s delegation to advocate for the establishment of a ‘loss and damage’ fund at the UN.

Last year’s August flood had damaged the hotel and restaurant, sending a car through a wall.

Kagbeni flood loss and damage
Laxmi Gurung's hotel and restaurant was damaged in the Kagbeni flood. She says the 'loss and damage' fund cannot pay for everything that is lost.

Laxmi described that night in harrowing detail: the intensity of the rain, unlike anything Kagbeni had experienced in the past (the old town’s mud houses, which have survived centuries in the region’s arid climate, are now dissolving under the recent downpours), the warning calls from villages upriver, which saved lives (Kagbeni had no fatalities), the unforgettable sound of heavy debris crashing into buildings in the darkness and of buildings collapsing, the agonising wait to see the damage in first daylight. 

“It was the longest night,” Laxmi said. But it was the flood’s aftermath that was the most revelatory. “The next day we see everywhere heaps of mud. And we don’t know what to do. Everybody is crying,” Laxmi said. 

Houses and belongings were buried under the debris, while some items were carried down the Kali Gandaki as far as Lete, 25 miles away. “All the people, from Lubrak, from Muktinath, every village from Upper Mustang to Lower Mustang came with something in hand to help Kagbeni, to move the debris. They came personally to help us, and they also contributed financial help. Mustang is an example that community exists.”

“From the government, we still have not got any relief funds,” Laxmi said. Nepal’s Home Ministry and a variety of NGOs “came and watched—they see, they study, and [are] gone.”

Pointing out that Kagbeni’s carbon emissions, like Nepal’s as a whole, are negligible, Laxmi asked, “Why are we the ones who suffer a lot? Our memories, heritage, structures, landscapes: gone. And who is to blame for this? Should we blame ourselves? We should get compensation. But who will listen to us? We are a small community, a small mountain village, in one corner of—beyond the Himalaya. Even Nepal’s government believes we are beyond the Himalaya, and we have been neglected.”

When asked about her advocacy in Dubai for loss-and-damage funding, and if there are losses that cannot be compensated, she said: “The financial help can establish new houses, infrastructures, but our heritage, our ancestors’ properties, we cannot rebuild. The loss of memories, values, culture, customs cannot be repaid.”

*

Yungdrung Tsewang Gurung, 36, is a freelance researcher, conservationist, and photographer from Lubrak, a tiny village a few miles south of Kagbeni. Dating back to the 12th century, it has 14 households and is the last village in Mustang entirely following the pre-Buddhist Tibetan Bön religion.

Working with Amburgey and other scholars, Yungdrung has researched the effects of climate and social change in Mustang. In June 2021, his family’s small ancestral home in Lubrak was destroyed by a major flood. They have since built a new house higher up the steep mountainside, and he has documented and reported for the Nepali Times on how Lubrak is shifting ground as the floods and rising riverbed overwhelm its ancestral fields and now threaten the heart of the village itself.

“Knowingly or not knowingly, local people are already struggling,” Yungdrung said. “In Lubrak, my family was living with the threat of when the flood would happen and we would lose our house. In 2021, it happened overnight. And when we see the snow melting and how the rain pattern is changing, and flood is one of the outcomes, we cannot do much. In our village, most of the old traditional things are already damaged, and we do not have [many options for a] livelihood.”

Kagbeni flood victim
Yungdrung Tsewang Gurung, of Lubrak village, at Paradise Trekkers Home in Kagbeni in January 2024.

The people of Lubrak are actively discussing whether, how, and where to relocate as a community—a prospect complicated by the fact that, under recent national policy, the community's ancestral land is now owned by the Nepali government. “We cannot build and claim that it belongs to us, like our parents and older generations,” Yungdrung said. 

His family was the first in Lubrak to lose its home, and the plot on which they rebuilt was allocated through the village’s traditional community decision-making process. But now their ownership, and the village’s ability to relocate on ancestral land, is uncertain. 

“We do not fit in the Nepal government’s policy,” Yungdrung said. “How can we survive here?”

Kagbeni now faces the same issue. Nepal’s central government recently overruled a local decision to allocate community land to flood victims for building new homes. “As authorised land documents remain unavailable, the affected individuals and local authorities are actively pursuing procedures to acquire land from the government,” explained Rinzin Namgyal Gurung, the chairperson.

*

Asked what would happen if there were suddenly a significant amount of loss-and-damage funding for Mustang, if it would make a difference or if there was a mechanism through which to use the money, Yungdrung did not sound confident. 

“I don’t see a way through, directly,” he said. “The political situation is not stable. Many people at different political levels will benefit from it, and many NGOs are influenced by political parties. So for now, even if you say in 2024 there will be lots of grants for loss and damage, I don’t think it will reach the ground level. It won’t reach the people who actually suffer.”

There’s a simplistic narrative about loss-and-damage funding, which took a long-overdue stride forward at COP28. It suggests that if wealthy Global North nations create a pot of money to compensate the most vulnerable developing countries, among which Nepal ranks in the global top 10, that it will address the problem. 

It is as if, where the culpable rich nations once said, “They’ll adapt,” the thinking now goes, “We’ll compensate them.” In other words: We’ll help pay for your losses (“Here, will this pocket change do?”) while we keep burning the world, melting your glaciers, and wrecking your monsoon.

Kagbeni flood
Buildings damaged by the August 2023 flood in Kagbeni, as seen in January 2024.
Kagbeni flood
Damage and debris from the August 2023 flood in Kagbeni, as seen in January 2024.

Full loss-and-damage funding for poor countries is a moral and geopolitical imperative. Debt cancellation for developing nations might be a start. But it’s a naïve ‘first world’ fantasy to think that a government like Nepal’s has the capacity to implement climate relief and adaptation measures at scale, however much money is spent, without deep political and structural reforms (as any number of Nepali experts will tell you).

What the United States, Europe, and the world’s other advanced economies truly owe the Global South goes well beyond compensation—especially when money itself cannot compensate for what is lost. We owe them nothing less than to break the grip of fossil fuels on our economic and political systems and end the use of coal, oil, and gas as fast—and as equitably—as possible.

That will require a political mobilisation like nothing we’ve yet seen, one that is still, at this late date, nowhere in sight.

What, then, do you say to a person like Laxmi Gurung as she looks you in the eye? I had no adequate words. But maybe we should be looking to her for answers. In Kathmandu, I asked Laxmi if she thinks her community will ever abandon Kagbeni or whether her people will stay and fight, come what may.

“The day we got the flood,” she told me, emotion in her voice, “we became strong. We said, ‘We should fight.’ We all are traumatised, we feel scared to stay in Kagbeni, but we thought, ‘No, this is our place, this is our home. No matter what, we should fight.’ So we all get together, and then the community all came. Then we began to say, ‘Oh, if we stand, everybody is with us. Why not stand?’”

Wen Stephenson is a veteran journalist, essayist, and climate-justice activist. A frequent contributor to The Nation and The Baffler, he is the author of What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice (2015). His forthcoming book, Learning to Live in the Dark: Essays in a Time of Catastrophe, will be published next year.

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