Climate change is a disaster in the Nepal Himalaya

Floods, a declining yarsagumba crop and collapse of trekking combine to impoverish farmers in Nepal’s remotest district

October is buckwheat harvest time in the distant highlands of Dolpo. In the village of Tso, Namdak Sangmo watches other women from her village fling their sickles, stoop over to sling the sheaves on their shoulders, and bring the crop in.

Sangmo, 68, does not have her own crop to harvest because she does not have any land anymore. Her riverside terraces were washed away by a flash flood in 2012, and another one in 2019 destroyed what was left, leaving a barren boulder-strewn slope.

“It was a raging torrent, and it came down suddenly and swept everything in its path, I do not have any land left to farm,” says Sangmo. She is not the only one, almost half the villagers in Tso lost their standing crop and fields when a wall of mud and boulders raced down from the slopes of the 6,883m high Mt Kanjiroba that towers over the district.

Scientists have not drawn a direct correlation between the climate crisis and extreme weather events like this, but they say there is evidence that droughts, record downpours, and erratic monsoons in the Himalaya are a result of a hotter atmosphere. This year’s monsoon has seen freak downpours and unprecedented rainfall in the trans-Himalayan regions of Nepal. Unseasonal rains this week unleashed deadly floods and landslides, especially in western Nepal.

The Himalayan mountains are warming between 0.3-0.7°C faster than the global average, causing glaciers to shrink, snowlines to recede, and increasing the danger of floods when expanding glacial lakes burst.

Sangmo remembers well that September day two years ago. “It had rained non-stop for two days, and suddenly we heard a big roar from up the mountain, my brother-in-law told us to run,” she recalls.

There was unusually heavy rain where snow used to fall, and the fragile moraine ridges below Kanjiroba just dissolved, sending the debris flow racing down to the village below. A similar flood in June on the Melamchi River damaged Kathmandu’s water-supply project, Nepal’s most expensive infrastructure scheme. In Manang, a trans-Himalayan valley north of the Annapurnas, there was record-breaking rainfall that unleashed deadly floods.

“There is more and more evidence that extreme rainfall events are caused by climate change, and these trigger sudden floods that destroy farms and settlements downstream,” says Arun Shrestha, a climate specialist with the River Basins and Cryosphere division at the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

There has not been enough study to determine if the Dolpo flood was caused by a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF), or just extra-heavy rainfall on sediment deposits in high mountain valleys, but the result was just as devastating.

The tongue of the glacier below Kanjiroba from which the floods came down.

A recent Himalayan Glacial Lake Inventory by ICIMOD and UNDP mapped 3,624 new glacial lakes on Nepal’s main river basins and found that 47 of them could burst at any time, with the risk of catastrophic flooding down valley. Of these, 25 lakes are in Tibet, but flow into tributaries of Nepal’s main rivers.

While communities in Nepal have historically learnt to reduce risk from these floods by not settling along riverbanks, new poorly-designed roads, settlements and infrastructure are vulnerable to these climate induced disasters.

While GLOFs can happen at some point in the future, weather extremes caused by the climate crisis have already unleashed a creeping disaster in Himalayan villages like Tso. This year, a 7-month winter drought led to wildfires and floods in Dolpo, displacing farmers, and forcing them to migrate.

As Dolpo is connected by road, most men have left rural areas for work in the cities or abroad to supplement their income, and it is the women who stay behind who bear the brunt of the impact of climate change -- the drudgery of having to walk farther for water, or suffer from failed harvests.

Massive flashfloods in 2012 and 2019 that came down from Mt Kanjiroba washed away fields and homes in Tso village.

“Climate change adds to the extra load of women in rural areas because of unpredictable rain, floods droughts and springs going dry,” says Abid Hussain, of the Mountain Agriculture and Livelihood division of ICIMOD. Most of Nepal’s subsistence farmers are dependent on rain-fed agriculture, and 83% of the country's women are fulltime farmers.

Namdak Sasngmo’s husband died 15 years ago, and her children are married. Without her fields, she finds it difficult to take care of her family. Nepal’s central or local governments should be helping her, but there has been no compensation for the loss and damage. Without her fields, with no income from trekking tourism due to the pandemic, and a decline in the yarsagumba crop, Sangmo is worried.

Left to fend for themselves, she has fallen back on her faith in the Tibetan animist belief system that has deep reverence for the mountains as divine creations that have their serene and destructive sides that need to be appeased through prayer and good deeds.

“We may have angered the gods of Kanjiroba with our deeds,” says Sangmo.“We made the river impure and many outsiders came and polluted the lake.”

Namdak Sangmo, 50, harvests buckwheat in a neighbour’s field because her farm was washed away by the flood.

To prevent future calamities, the monk at the local monastery, Khenpo Lama, performed a ritual to appeal to Mt Kanjiroba with a shebchu at a small stupa with offerings of buckwheat and barley. Sangmo believes it worked, because “everything has been quiet on the mountain after that”.

From his monastery, Khenpo Nyima himself has noticed the change in weather, and the snow retreating higher and higher up Kanjiroba. Although he does not connect this to the global climate crisis, he is convinced outsiders are to blame.

“We have seen the mountains changing, and that is because there are more and more outsiders coming here and they are desecrating nature,” he says, looking up at the icy tongue of a glacier below Kanjiroba, the top of which is veiled in monsoon clouds.

He says the modern world has also changed the traditional ways in Dolpo. Local people no longer rely on dorima that determines the schedule for planting, harvesting, and the timings for taking yaks and goats up to high pasture. “They also do not put up prayer flags in the yulsa every year, and this has displeased the gods,” Khenpo Nyima adds.

However, the local government and the Shey Phoksundo National Park are not relying on prayers to protect citizens here. They built an embankment along the river after the 2012 flood to shield Tso’s village and farms, but it was washed away in the second flood in 2019.

“We may need a bigger budget to build a proper wall that will save the village the next time there is a big flood, I am trying to convince the municipality authorities, but we need more help,” says Nima Lama, the ward chair.

However, studies have shown that people in mountain regions across the world have been adapting to the changing climate without knowing why it is changing, and using local belief systems and traditions to do so. Anthropologist Ben Orlove of Columbia University’s Earth Institute interviewed people in locales including the Peruvian Andes, and found that while villagers were aware of the changes, they were adapting to them without necessarily linking it to climate change.

Orlove proposes framing the ‘climate change’ narrative as a need for ‘community change’ so the focus is on how villagers can benefit from the measures they take to adapt to lack of rain, water shortages, or flood-prevention embankments.

That appears to be already happening here in Dolpo, an arid trans-Himalayan region of Nepal where people are falling back on a sense of community and traditional belief systems to cope with the impacts of the climate crisis.

Yarsagumba is a fungus that grows on a caterpillar, and is harvested in spring in the Himalaya. It is in high demand across the border in China.

The climate and ‘Himalayan viagra’

As the climate crisis impacts on the pastoral lifestyle of the people of Dolpo, the women who remain in the remote villages have started relying more and more on yarsagumba, the caterpillar fungus that is prized in Chinese medicine for its supposed aphrodisiac properties.

These days, it is mainly women who climb up to the high slopes where the fungus pokes out of the ground after snow melts in spring. They harvest the yarsagumba and sell it to middlemen who in turn sell it to wholesalers at the Chinese border, 4 days walk to the north.

However, a combination of unseasonal snowfall, long periods of drought and warmer weather is affecting the yarsagumba, too. Schools in Dolpo close at yarsa harvest time so students can accompany parents to the pick the fungus, but this year they have returned empty-handed.

“We went up in April, but the yarsa was not fully mature and it was soggy, there was nothing to pick,” says one student, Sangmo Lama.

With her trekking income gone, and farm washed away by floods, Namdak Sangmo used to depend on yarsagumba picking. But even the growth of the fungus has been affected by weather extremes caused by climate change.

While over-harvesting in the past has been one of the reasons for the decline in the yarsa crop, it should have revived in the past two years when the pandemic reduced the numbers of pickers. That lends support to the theory that a warmer Himalaya is also affecting growth of the valuable fungus and contributes to the end of the yarsa gold rush.

Local people who relied on tourism and livestock for income had earnings from the fungus as a fall back. Now, that option is also gone. Yarsa made up more than half of the annual income of an average Dolpo household. While the fungus is sold for only Rs5,000 per kg to the Chinese traders at the border, it can fetch as much as $75,000 per kg in Shanghai.

After she lost her fields to the glacial floods, Namdak Sangmo of Tso village used to rely solely on yarsa income. She used to collect at least 100 pieces of fungus in the past, two years ago she found only six pieces, and this spring none at all.

“Without yarsa what do we eat? How do we survive? The mountain was angry and took away my fields, there is nothing to do but pray,” says Sangmo, as she sharpens her sickle to help the other women in their buckwheat fields.

This report was supported by the Road to COP26 campaign implemented by the British Council and funded by UKAID.