Mingma Nuru Sherpa left the village he was born in the region below Mt Everest at age 18 to study environment science in Kathmandu. When he goes home for his holidays he has seen the mountains change from year to year.
He is specialising in climate science at a college in Boudha and is determined to help his people adapt to the shrinking glaciers and receding snowlines of the Khumbu.
“From the house I grew up in, I could see the snowlines of the Phari Lapcha peak receding year by year. It was heartbreaking to see the change,” says Sherpa. “The mountains are impacted by climate change and our livelihoods depend on tourism. Without the mountains, we are nothing.”
A study by the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) last year showed that the Himalayan mountains are melting faster than forecast, and more rapidly than the global average. At this rate, one-third of the ice and snow will be gone during this century, with catastrophic impact on the people of the Himalaya and millions living downstream.
Sherpa is one of the 400 members of a youth-led activist group called Nepalese Youth for Climate Action (NYCA), a network established just for youth engagement to plan adaptation, activism and awareness about the climate crisis. The platform is a training ground for climate activism, to organise issues-centred campaigns and engage in conversations with experts on climate science and policy.
Inspired by the international climate movement such as Fridays for Future, the youths used to organise ‘Friday’s Strike’ where young activists sit in front of Parliament and other public spaces every Friday to protest against the lack of action on the climate crisis.
The youth-led team is currently leading a national campaign called Red Alert Nepal to foster climate action awareness among children and youth and get them engaged in shaping their own future through climate policies.
Although street gatherings had to be suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate action group continued with its campaigns. The national coordinator for NYCA, Shreya KC says, “In a sense, the momentum we were gaining in getting youth involved in climate action in Nepal was dissipated by the coronavirus crisis. Which is why we shifted the movement to virtual gatherings.”
KC says it has been a steep learning curve, and there are pros and cons of online activism. “The benefit is that we have been able to be connected with people from all over Nepal and the world. However, limited bandwidth and an unstable internet have been challenging.”
At age 22, KC has been a key member of NYCA for the past four years, she spends most of her time learning and advocating as a climate activist, and was a delegate at the UN Climate Change Conference, COP25 which was moved from Santiago to Madrid last year because of unrest in Chile.
“Sometimes I get demotivated when the leaders turn a deaf ear to us. However, working closely with other youth from all over the country, I feel empowered and optimistic,” KC adds.
Nepal contributes less than 0.3 tons annually per capita of carbon, compared to 37 tons for every Qatari. Yet, Nepal is in the list of top countries to suffer gravest consequences of the climate crisis.
“Climate change has not yet been a priority for Nepal’s leaders, awareness is limited and there is even less action. Old and young, everyone should know what is happening and should also feel responsible,” says KC.
Nepal is party to the United Nations Framework on Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC) and has ratified the Paris Agreement, and to help the process NYCA is pulling together ‘Youth Priorities’ to contribute to Nepal’s climate action plan.
“If the leaders hear our appeals and include youth-led priorities, that will be a historical achievement to all of us fighting to preserve a future, we are hopeful,” she says.
The visibility of the youth climate movement on social media has created a feedback loop so that more and more young Nepalis are getting involved. While Mingma Nuru Sherpa is from the high mountains, Shreya KC is from Kathmandu, Gaurav Thakur, also 22, is from Janakpur in the Tarai – making it a truly हिमाल-पहाड-तराई initiative.
Thakur’s interest is in climate resilient agriculture so that farmers in Nepal’s grain basket in the plains are protected from erratic monsoons and extreme weather events due to global warming. He is worried about what could happen to farming communities in the Tarai, who have to face floods, droughts, even tornados and locust invasions.
After years of attention only on the north and south polar regions, the international community is finally also focusing on the ‘Third Pole’, as the Himalaya is called. Youth activists admit Nepal is suffering disproportionately from the effects of the climate crisis, but it also needs to do more to reduce its dependence on petroleum – not just to help protect the planet but to also save its own economy.
Nepal’s youth climate activists like Sherpa, KC and Thakur know that they have to step in because it is their future that is at stake. They will now also advise the UN on the climate emergency, providing perspectives, ideas and solutions. As a result of the inadequacy of climate action from present government and leaders globally as well as nationally, a wave of powerful young people positioning themselves as leaders, are demanding stronger action. A ray of hope is the promise that the United States will rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement in 2021.
Climate change activism is not a new development in Nepal, but the role of youth at this scale today, is. Says KC: “The process of change is slow but our generation is louder and demand more action and less talk.”