Covid-climate crises hit Everest region

Dawa Steven Sherpa Photo: MARCO FERRARI

There is an ancestral attachment to the mountains for Dawa Steven Sherpa. His grandfather regularly crossed Nangpa La to trade with Tibet, his father is an eco-tourism entrepreneur, and he is an environmental activist helping his people deal with the dual impacts of climate change and Covid-19.

At 36, Dawa has led dozens of expeditions to Mt Everest and summited three times, and four other eight-thousanders. He trekked the entire 1,555km Great Himalayan Trail across Nepal in 99 days.

During the pandemic in September when the mountains were closed for climbing, he led a 45-day expedition supported by the Swiss fashion brand Bally to clean up base camps of Cho You, Everest, Lhotse and Makalu and climbed Baruntse, bringing down more than 2 tons of trash. En route, he had to cross previously snowbound high passes that now entail technical rock-climbing. Glaciers that could be easily traversed are now lakes

This week, just after mountain biking from Kala Pattar below Mt Everest to Namche Bazar, he sat down for a zoom talk with Himalayan anthropologist Ruth Gamble of La Trobe University in Melbourne. Gamble began by asking him which was a bigger threat for the Sherpa people: climate or covid?

“Covid, of course, is an immediate threat to the health and has devastated the tourism-based economy of the region, but in the longer term it is the climate crisis. We see the mountains melting in front of our eyes, and the process is accelerating,” Dawa said in the talk organised by the Geopolitics and Ecology of Himalayan Water initiative on 6 December. 

The receding North Ama Dablam Glacier and new bedrock lakes created by the melting ice. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

Climbing routes on Nepal’s mountains have become more dangerous, high passes are rock bound and trekking groups now even need rubber dinghies to cross expanding glacial lakes. The climate crisis may be a slow-moving disaster, but it can unleash sudden catastrophes if these lakes burst, unleashing flash floods downstream.

The Himalaya is warming up to 0.7oC faster than the global average, this process is accelerating, and scientists predict that the mountains will lose at least one-third of their ice during this century. Other impacts include abnormal monsoon rains and winter droughts, forest fires, more frequent landslides, springs drying up, and the impact on farming.

“The whole of 2020, there has been no income in the Khumbu because there have been no tourists,” said Dawa, “agriculture was the only other source of income, but the potato crop was destroyed by an unusually wet monsoon. There is nothing to fall back on.”

The Khumbu region was opened to trekking in October, and was immediately closed off again after a Covid-19 outbreak. Trekkers are now allowed, but need mandatory PCR negative test results to fly to Lukla.

The Everest region used to get about 60,000 hikers and climbers a year, and this year the trails and mountains have had a respite. Local communities have used the time to repair hiking routes, clean up trash on the trails, and upgrade lodges for a tourism revival next year. 

Dawa Steven Sherpa has also been involved in bringing down 23 tons of garbage from Mt Everest in the past 13 years, and says that whole region can now return to a “better normal”. 

“The media like to call Mt Everest the highest garbage dump in the world, but it is now actually the cleanest mountain in Nepal. ‘Everest cleaned up’ is not an attractive news headline,” Dawa said. “I was at Everest Base Camp this month and there is absolutely no garbage left to pick.”

Dawa sees tourism as a “force for good”, and that responsible tourism can be a catalyst for change. Only by making Nepalis financially more stable can they fend for themselves to respond to crises like climate and Covid-19.

“While the world debates about reducing carbon emissions and the Paris agreement, for us the most urgent action is to adapt to the impact on the ground,” Dawa said. “But the Arctic and the Antarctic get all the attention, and the Himalaya is just a footnote even though its ice towers are the source of water for billions of people living downstream in Asia.”

Dawa says his father, Ang Tsering Sherpa of Asian Trekking, taught him that good businessmen protect their assets, and Nepal needed to protect its wilderness and keep the mountains pristine. 

And he remembers his grandfather saying: “The mountains have always protected the Sherpa people, now it is our turn to protect the mountains.”