Glacial Flooding & Disaster Risk Management Knowledge Exchange and Field Training July 11-24, 2013 in Huaraz, Peru HighMountains.org/workshop/peru-2013
Climate Change And The Sherpa People Of, Khumbu, Nepal: Incorporating History And Culture Into The Adaptation Process Alton C. Byers, Ph.D. The Mountain Institute Summary: The Sagarmatha National Park has a permanent population of approximately 3,500 people and is made up of the Chaurikharka, Namche, and Kunde-‐Khumjung Village Development Committees (VDC). The region is particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts because of its extreme topography, remoteness, lack of transportation facilities, and tourist-‐driven and dependent economies. The two fundamental climate change vulnerability drivers appear to be (a) irregular precipitation patterns that result in increased water scarcity, loss of crop productivity, and reduced hydropower generation, and (b) increasing temperatures that have triggered widespread glacial recession, new and emerging glacial lakes, and new crop diseases and pests. This paper traces the history of the Sherpa people and societal transformations that they used to adapt to political, economic, and other forms of change over the past 500 years. It concludes that the Sherpa, in fact, have a long history of adaptation to change that suggests a promising future in the face of new climate-‐related impacts. Climate and non-‐climate vulnerabilities, however, will remain high so long as livelihoods in the Khumbu region are so heavily dependent on the tourist trade. Introduction: As a compliment to its NAPA planning process (National Adaptation Programme of Action), the Government of Nepal (GON) has developed a national framework for Local Adaptation Plans for Action (LAPA) to integrate climate change adaptation into local development planning and climate-‐smart development (GON 2011). The aim is to (a) enable communities to understand the consequences of climate change, (b) to determine adaptation options and priorities, and to (b) implement flexible climate-‐ resilient adaptation plans. The GON and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) expect that the LAPAs will provide a mechanism to mainstream climate change adaptation into the development agenda of local government bodies (USAID 2013). The LAPA’s seven-‐step process to produce includes: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7.
Community climate change sensitization (inherent to all steps) Climate vulnerability and adaptation assessment Prioritization of adaptation options Developing and formulating the LAPA Integrating the LAPA into and with other planning processes Implementing the LAPA Assessing progress and learning (inherent to all steps) 1
As part of the Nepal High Mountain Glacial Watershed program (HMGWP), community consultations have been conducted on a regular basis throughout the Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) National Park (Khumbu) since September, 2012. Consultations to date have focused on the first two steps of the LAPA process. This has included the provision of introductory information to local communities on climate change, vulnerabilities, adaptation mechanisms, and prospective pilot project opportunities. Stakeholders have also been kept informed of the forthcoming UNDP Community-‐Based Flood and Glacial Lake Outburst Risk Reduction Project (USAID 2013), ensuring that they are part of the glacial lake project process and dialogue from the beginning. Results of recent scientific studies of Imja Lake (e.g., ground penetrating radar (GPR) surveys, bathymetric surveys, flood modeling, and risk reduction strategies) were also presented during the consultations. This sharing of scientific information, as well as its integration into the overall LAPA design process, has been a deliberate effort to reverse the contemporary trends of scientists excluding local communities from their research activities, and more specifically in sharing the results. A series of final consultations will be held in July-‐August 2013, with completion of the final LAPA expected by November 2013. Preliminary results of the consultations held to date (i.e., identified vulnerabilities and suggested adaptation options) have been covered elsewhere (HMGWP 2012). One question of interest that has been discussed by the HMGWP team during the course of the consultations concerns the role of a people’s history and culture in their prospective abilities to adapt to climate change. That is, can an understanding of a peoples’ historical adaptation capacity in different sectors (e.g., political, agricultural, economic) provide insights into their prospective capacities to adapt to contemporary impacts brought about by climate change? A quick review of the history of the Sherpa people, the primary stakeholders in the Khumbu LAPA initiative, is provided as an example below. Sherpa of Khumbu: The ancestors of the Sherpa people are believed to have come to the Khumbu region of Nepal from Tibet some 500 years ago, crossing the Nangpa La (5806 m) into the Thame valley, from which the Bhote Kosi (river) flows into the Dudh Kosi to the southwest. Khumbu is one of the many beyuls, or sacred valleys hidden by the 8th century Buddhist saint Padmasmbhava, as refuges for the devout when the world becomes too corrupt for spiritual practice (Bernbaum 1980; Byers 2005, 2013a, 2013b). The first several generations of Sherpa probably stayed in the upper Thame valley, pursuing an agro-‐pastoral life style centered on barley-‐buckwheat cultivation and yak breeding. Later, they moved further down valley into the Kunde-‐Khumjung-‐Namche Bazaar region, and eventually into the Gokyo and upper Imja valleys further east, as well as to other regions within highland Nepal. The landscapes they found upon arrival in the Khumbu could not have been better—i.e., grasslands dominated the south-‐facing slopes of the valley, created by generations of other ethnic groups who brought their cattle to the region each monsoon, year by year cutting down the fir-‐birch-‐rhododendron cloud forests that existed on the region’s south-‐facing slopes at the time (Byers 2005). Remaining forests on the north facing slopes provided abundant wood for fuel, and hundreds of edible and medicinal wild plants. Certain areas, such as Pangboche, were already known to be
meditation sites, and the valley was the perfect place to begin building the monasteries, chortens, and mani walls characteristic of the Buddhist cultural landscape. The wealthy Sherpa migrated south down the Dudh Kosi to the better agricultural land and warmer climate, while the poorer Sherpa remained up high in the more marginal regions (Spoon 2013). Regardless, life must have been difficult in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s, until about 1850, when the potato was introduced, probably from Darjeeling (Jeffries 1991). Suddenly, there was sufficient food for everyone, a pivotal point in the Sherpa’s history, and populations grew as the state of general nutrition and health most likely improved. Shortly afterwards, the Sherpa began crossing yaks with cows from the lower altitudes to produce an animal known as the dzopkio. Dzopkios have a better temperament than the yak, can carry more weight, and can work at altitudes below 3000 m that yaks cannot tolerate (Jeffries 1991; Byers 2013a). This was another innovative and pivotal point in Sherpa history, adding an additional income generating opportunity to their portfolio by becoming Himalayan cattle breeders. In the early 1900s, the Sherpa established a trade system between Tibet and Nepal, exchanging Tibetan salt for Nepalese rice and other goods. Namche Bazaar became a bustling trade center because of its strategic location along the main trading route, and many Sherpa enjoyed a monopoly and new wealth as a result. In fact, three of the Khumbu’s monasteries—Phakding, Pangboche, and Thame—were built in the 1930s with donations and contributions made by individuals who had profited from their new role as Himalayan traders (von Fürer Haimendorf 1975). In 1959, however, China invaded Tibet and the border between Nepal and Tibet was closed. This could have been catastrophic for the Sherpa economy, except for the fact that Nepal had opened its borders to the outside world in 1950, and Mt. Everest had been climbed in 1953, opening the doors for a new breed of cash cow, the adventure tourist. Although only a handful of expeditions and trekkers are recorded for the 1950s and 1960s, tourist numbers grew dramatically over the following decades and reached more than 36,000 in 2012. When porters and support staff are added, the total number of non-‐local people visiting the Khumbu, and particularly the Everest basecamp root, is well over 100,000. In recent years, over 50 flights per day at the Lukla airstrip have occurred on a regular basis during the peak season, and as many as 200 climbers have reached the summit on a given day (UK Guardian 2013). This new breed of adventure tourist ranged from the hard core climber to the group-‐led or individual teahouse trekker, but they all brought money, and year by year since the 1970s the cultural landscape has transformed from the traditional, two story stone building into scores of multi-‐floored lodges with flush toilets, hot showers, internet service, and western food. Many families have become wealthy as a result, especially those owning land along the main trekking route to the Everest basecamp, and today as much as 85 percent of the Sherpa population relies on tourism in one form or another for their livelihoods. The Sherpa had once again adapted to change by transforming themselves into Himalayan
lodge owners, climbing guides, and trekking leaders, characteristically exhibiting a cheerfulness and desire to help that has endeared themselves to generations of foreign clients. However, this latest transformation and new dependency on tourism has come at a cost, largely fueled by the world’s relentless fascination with the world’s highest mountain (Anker et al. 2013), climate change, and unregulated tourist management. Tourism Impacts: For example, landfills for solid waste are now located outside of every village along the Everest basecamp trek, as well as within the Thame and Gokyo valley trekking routes. Referred to as “burnable garbage” by lodge owners, the plastic, glass, aluminum and steel cans are indeed burned at the end of the season and covered with a layer of soil, whereupon another landfill pit is dug for the next season’s use (Byers et al. 2011). Although beer bottles have been banned for years, trekkers are assured by lodge owners that the aluminum cans containing the beer they consume are recycled, when in fact I have found dumping sites just outside of the most iconic and sacred of villages and monasteries, i.e., Tengboche, where one can stand knee deep in beer cans. This now widespread practice of landfills is harmful to the environment as well as to human and animal health, as the landfills are often located in seasonal water courses that directly contaminate both surface and groundwater (Manfredi et al. 2010). Open defecation, leaking septic tanks, the siting of outhouses directly over flowing streams or seasonal water courses, and the dumping of raw sewage directly into streams and lakes exacerbate the water contamination problem (Lachappelle 1998). Gokyo lake, for example, was a deep blue color only 5 years ago that has now turned green with algae blooms. Gokyo villagers mentioned that while they are aware of the problems of burying solid waste, they have no idea how to manage it. One of the more lasting contributions of the often criticized 2000 Everest Environmental Expedition was the development of a human waste management system. Since 2000, all human excrement generated by the approximately 900 people who live for months each climbing season in the Everest basecamp has been collected in large, blue expedition barrels, line with a transparent plastic garbage bag and placed under the rock-‐walled and/or tented outhouses (Kodas 2008). What happens to the waste once it leaves the basecamp, however, is ever discussed in the now copious, mostly popular, literature surrounding the impacts of climbers and trekkers on the fragile Mt. Everest ecosystem. In fact, following interviews with porters at basecamp in May 2011, I found that when full the barrels are transported to large pits several miles from the basecamp. The dumping site in 2011 was about two hours walk south of basecamp towards Lobuche, due west of the trail and hidden behind a small lateral moraine. I found two open pits, roughly 5 m x 5 m in area and 2 m deep, filled to the top with large, leaking plastic bags filled with human excrement—and located directly within a seasonal water channel. The disposal of such a large volume of human waste in this manner adds significantly to the already serious problems of water quality, sanitation, and health issues that now plague the Pheriche to Gorak Shep trek, where diarrhea and gastrointestinal illnesses have become synonymous with the trek itself.
Stressors to Climate Change Impacts: The water contamination practices described above are of particular concern because they represent non-‐climate stressors to one of the most serious climate change impacts in the Everest region, i.e., a lack of freshwater. Changing and irregular precipitation patterns have resulted in reduced access to freshwater for household use, for tourist lodges (exacerbated by the added demands imposed by flush toilets and hot showers), reduced agricultural activity, and reduced hydropower generation (McDowell et al. 2012). For example, Namche Bazaar’s spring water has become contaminated by the leaking septic tanks of the dozens of lodges now present, the tanks being constructed of rocks instead of non-‐porous cement (potable water is now pumped up from a spring below the village to two distribution tanks). As part of a joint initiative funded by the Government of India, a new water source has been located at the Kyalo glacier to the northwest, about 8 km from Namche, over and across sometimes vertical landscapes. HDP pipe, presently stockpiled at the Syangboche airstrip, will be used to bring freshwater from the glacier to Namche, Kunde, and Khumjung, in some cases strung across rock cliffs using steel cable, but in most cases buried. The project illustrates the fact that people are already taking measures to adapt to climate change, but that the adaptation measures are comparatively extreme compared to traditional systems employed only a decade ago. The lack of freshwater was prominently mentioned in all other villages and consultations held as well. A second driver of climate change impacts in the Khumbu is rising temperatures. Hundreds of small glaciers at the lower altitudes (<5000 m) have disappeared since the 1970s. Many larger, debris-‐covered glaciers have receded, leaving behind glacial lakes that have recently been the center of considerable international attention because of the increased possibility of damaging glacial lake outburst floods (Byers 2007; Byers et al. 2013a). Imja glacial lake, perhaps the most studied and controversial glacial lake in the Himalayas if not the world, has recently been targeted by the UNDP as a pilot community based risk reduction project (UNDP 2013). Of growing concern to many Sherpa people is the fact that new, and at some point potentially dangerous, glacial lakes are forming before their very eyes in what only five years ago were debris covered glaciers. For example, clusters of three or more new meltwater ponds have appeared within the entire length of the Ngozompa glacier near Gokyo village, following the same pattern of Imja lake in the 1960s, where the ponds merged into a small lake by the 1980s that grew in size with each passing year (Benn et al. 2012). Although the Ngozompa glacier has been largely buffered against contemporary warming trends by its thick layer of debris, areas with comparatively thinner debris cover (and thus greater vulnerability to heat absorption) appear to be melting first and forming the new meltwater ponds, which in turn creates a domino effect of accelerated calving that impacts all adjacent ice, even if covered with a thick layer of debris. These processes appear to be happening so rapidly that, as an example, the trail that I used two years ago to cross the glacier to Tagnag, gateway to the Cho La pass, has now disappeared, and the new trail has been re-‐routed to the north. Villagers were quick to point out that control mechanisms are needed now before the lake reaches a dangerous size; that the mechanisms could be as
simple as digging a ditch for drainage; and that the water could possibly be used for hydropower generation. Climate change is also having a serious impact on the now cash-‐based, tourist-‐driven economy that is largely dependent on the flights from Kathmandu to Lukla that can bring hundreds of tourists in per day during the peak fall and spring seasons. Especially during the past 5-‐10 years, an increase in the number of cloudy days has cancelled hundreds of flights each season, meaning that lodges are empty, profits are lost, and porters and other service providers are out of jobs. In this case, the Sherpa’s transformation to a society so heavily dependent on tourism has made them particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts, in a region that is already vulnerable because of its extreme topography, remoteness, and lack of transportation facilities. Building a road from Jiri to the Lukla airstrip is being increasingly discussed, another adaptation strategy that could, if properly designed and constructed, help to mitigate the almost exclusive dependency on flights as tourist transportation. Finally, one particularly serious non-‐climate vulnerability of the Khumbu is the political instability of Nepal. The Maoist insurgency of 1996-‐2006 crippled Nepal’s tourist industry while severely reducing the number of tourists visiting the Khumbu for years, and similar situations could again emerge. Some travel consultants in the US, in fact, have recommended that people visit Nepal sooner than later, as the possibility of a complete country shut down cannot be entirely discounted. Conclusion: Challenging as the scenarios above may be, it is clear that the Sherpa have a long history of adaptation to change, resourcefulness, and good luck that suggests a promising future in the face of climate and other forms of change. More attention, however, will need to be paid to the reduction or elimination of non-‐climate stressors on climate change impacts, such as water contamination from improper sewage system practices, particularly during a time when freshwater is becoming increasingly scarce. Other climate and non-‐climate vulnerabilities will remain high so long as the economy is so heavily dependent on tourism, such as the increasing number of cloudy days at the Lukla airstrip, and the instability of the Government of Nepal. In some cases, the Sherpa have already and proactively taken steps to adapt to climate change impacts, such as the building of the new Namche-‐Kunde-‐Khumjung water system in the face of decreasing freshwater supplies. The completion of the Khumbu LAPA should provide additional insights into how an historically adaptive, yet now highly vulnerable, population of mountain people can successfully confront the new challenges of climate change. References Benn, D., Bolch, T., Hands, K., Gulley, J., Luckman, A., Nicholson, L., Quincey, D., Thompson, R. and Wiseman, S. 2012. Response of debris-‐covered glaciers in the Mount Everest region to recent warming, and implications for outburst flood hazards. Earth Science Reviews 114 (2012), 156-‐174. Bernbaum, E. 1980. The Way to Shambala: A Search for the Mythical Kingdom beyond the Himalayas. New York: Anchor Books.
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McDowell, G., Ford, J., Lehner, B., Berrang-‐Ford, L., and Sherpa, A. 2012. Climate-‐related hydrological change and human vulnerability in remote mountain regions: a case study from Khumbu, Nepal. Springer-‐Verlag: Reg Environ Change. Spoon, J. 2013. From yaks to tourists: Sherpa livelihood adaptations in Sagarmatha (Mount Everest) National Park and Buffer Zone, Nepal. In: Lonzy, L.R. (ed.) 2013. Continuity and Change in Cultural Adaptation in Mountain Environments, Studies in Human Ecology and Adaptation 7. New York: Springer Science-‐Business Media. UK Guardian 2013. Everest: Tourism and Climate Change Provide New Challenges. 24 May, 2013. United Nations Development Programme 2013. Project Document: Community Based Flood and Glacial Lake Outburst Risk Reduction Project. Kathmandu: UNDP. U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) 2013. Climate Resilient Development: A Guide to Understanding and Addressing Climate Change. Washington, DC: USAID.
Published on Sep 25, 2013
The Sagarmatha National Park has a permanent population of approximately 3,500 people and is made up of the Chaurikharka, Namche, and Kunde-...