Bearing the brunt of climate change
Bearing the Brunt of Climate Change
This reportage was funded by InsideOver as the winning project of the Newsroom Academy photojournalism course held by Marco Gualazzini
The wind blows forcefully along the rocky bed of the river Khali Gandaki, a desolate channel nestled in the mountains of the Upper Mustang along the border with Tibet. An arid region characterized by dust and debris which obscure the beautiful Himalayan horizon on hot spring days. Jomsom, the gateway to the ancient kingdom of Lo Manthang, is bustling with people from dawn. The cloudless sky allows small airplanes to land, sliding fast between the Nigiri and the Dhaulagiri, crowded with trekkers and pilgrims headed to the ancient temple of Muktinath.
We feel the crisp high mountain air immediately revive us and once we have completed the paperwork with the local police, always meticulous in conducting their inspections under the dragon’s watchful eye, we leave the small port of entry to embark along the high-altitude paths towards the Chinese border. A Hollywood-style inscription on a mountain wall welcomes the explorers, as the wind’s intensity and force increase. Life in these areas flows very slowly and the distances between one village and another require hours of walking. The new dirt road is still under construction, and only 4x4s and buses speed down it ruthlessly, disappearing in clouds of dust.
Walking north, past the villages of Kagbeni and Chucksang, following the Kali Gandaki riverbed, recued to a mere trickle of water, we enter another dimension, where man’s presence is constantly put to the test by the climatic changes that have been affecting this region for some years now.
As we climb, the silence becomes more and more deafening, interrupted only by the breath of the wind sweeping away the snow from the high altitudes and blowing strongly through the narrow alleys of the small Tibetan villages. Life in this corner of the world has become difficult and the climate crisis is accelerating man’s exodus towards less hostile territories. However, for some years now, we have been witnessing an actual exodus involving the mountain communities who belong to this extreme region of Nepal. Here, the evolution of climate change is already a fact, to the point of seriously compromising life in the fragile Tibetan huts which make up these small villages at high altitude. Many people are being forced to migrate to new territories in search of waterways and land to cultivate. The mountain’s water supply has decreased drastically over the last thirty years with strong repercussions on the fertility of the soil and arable land.
The climate crisis in Samdzong
From Jomsom to Lo Manthang, the local population is well-aware of the climate crisis which is affecting their territory, to the extent that drastic decisions have been made for the survival of the mountain communities. One such example is the small village of Samdzong, northeast of Lo Manthang, close to the Chinese border. We get there after four hours of trekking along the ancient Tibetan paths through mountain passes which are over 4000 metres. Short of breath, we climb up and down the steep slopes, while all around us the rocky highlands burned by the sun and the arid and deserted terrain are an ochre yellow. In the distance we see a woman’s silhouette. Bent over, she is digging into the soil surrounding a village close to the mountains. Alongside her, a herd of solitary scruffy-looking yaks, graze in search of some form of vegetation
The ghost village of Samdzong has been hard hit by the climate crisis and the lack of water resources due to the severe drought which has transformed the region in recent decades. Many of the villagers who lived here have moved to the new settlement of Namashung on the other side of the valley, closer to the river and above all with easier access to the village of Lo Mathang.
5 people live in Sandzong, including adults and children who, despite everything, have decided to stay. Among them is a 38-year-old proud looking man, his face weather-beaten by the sun. He lives here with his wife Sangmo and their young son, Tsering. He invites us to his house for some tea as we are the first foreigners visiting the small village since the start of the pandemic: “Despite the drought and the lack of water we have decided to stay. Even though we know it will not be for long,” says Wangdi and goes on to explain: “On this side of the valley close to the border with Tibet, the climate is less rigid, and the gusts of wind are less intense than t the new settlement of Namashung where, thanks to the concession of about 11 hectares of land by the royal family of Lo Manthang, it is now possible to receive a new home. We could move there, but as long as there is one last drop of water in this land, we prefer to stay here: this is our home.”
The inhabitants have divided themselves between the old the new village which was built starting from 2013. However, to this day there is still no convenient road reaching it, making it even more difficult to travel to the different areas of the valley. The few remaining villagers struggle every day to safeguard the small streams and divert them to the fields used for cultivating. The land surrounding Samdzong is arid, requiring considerable amounts of water. This puts harvests at risk and consequently the community’s livelihood. Carefully defining the arable areas and not wasting a single drop of water has now become essential for the small community. As Wangdi continues his story, his wife Sangmo proudly shows us the work done using wool from the few yaks grazing in the fields outside the village. Over the years they have been decimated over the years due to climate change and the shortage of water.
Wangdi recalls how in the past there was an abundance of food, and the excess harvest was sometimes sold to nearby villages. Today, due to climate change the force of the wind has significantly increased and the dust and sand it carries have greatly accelerated the melting process of snow and ice at high altitudes, thereby limiting the presence of water in the villages. It is estimated that within the next fifty years the glaciers in the Upper Mustang region will disappear, making it impossible to survive in this territory. Despite this, Wangdi and the other inhabitants of Samdzong have decided to stay for now, while adapting their habits to the new climate flow. To survive in the short term some of them, including Sangmo, have turned to cattle breeding, selling them or harvesting wool. However, it is a vicious circle, and the lack of water makes these activities difficult as well.
Dhye, a ghost village
Unfortunately, Samdzong is not the only village facing the climate crisis. In the eastern area of the Upper Mustang, beyond the Dhi La pass, between breathtaking paths along steep ridges we arrive at Naya Dhey, a new settlement founded on the banks of the river Kali Gandaki. There is almost no water despite it being late spring. We enter the new village under the quiet and curious gaze of the silent inhabitants who in these areas rarely meet foreigners. The inhabitants of Dhey live in a new complex of houses in this village located in the mountains in eastern Upper Mustang and which over the years has suffered the same fate as Samdzong. Tashi Gyatso Gurung moved to the new village where he coordinates the development project of the new settlement. “Living in the new village is easier. New houses have been built and thanks to the support of international associations such as the French Du Bassin au Nepal, we can guarantee a sustainable development in the new areas and the inhabitants will not be forced to emigrate again.”
Many inhabitants of the old Dhey village have started a new life and appear happy in the new settlement, as stated by Tashi Gurung: “In the old village water started to become scarce at the start of the new millennium. The heavy snowfalls of thirty years ago were slowly replaced by strong torrential rains which actually destroyed the crops, flooded the village and did not allow the collection of water to be used the fields which became less and less fertile. Over time these phenomena have become much more frequent which is why we have been forced to make the decision to abandon our old homes.”
But just like in Samdzong, not all the inhabitants of the old village decided to move. About a two-hour drive from the new village, on a dirt road overlooking the rocky mountains, old Dhey is a village suspended in time. The grey sky frames an almost apocalyptic atmosphere with the last inhabitants committed to saving all that is possible from a land that no longer has much to offer. There are now only 12 people in Dhye who, despite everything, still haven’t decided to move to the new settlement. Women, men and children work every day to fertilize the land surrounding the village and drain the little water available to irrigate crops.
“The problems started around 2008 when, due to the drought, the land became arid and infertile. Rains were very rare and even the snow sticking to the mountains, was not enough to allow a supply of water in spring,” Topri Gurung tells. At 67 years of age he is the historic memory of the village. His gaze appears lost in the memories of years gone by as he sips a cup of tea in his new home in Thangchung. “The climate had become so unpredictable that long periods of drought were alternating with heavy sudden rains making survival in the village extremely hostile. In 2007, Dhey counted some 300 inhabitants, and it was then that all together they decided to migrate to a new area by the river, where it was possible to gather water for agriculture and guarantee the livelihood of the entire community through new rural initiatives.
“To ensure the economic development of the new village, we founded a community farm for the production of apples. The Mustang area is famous for this fruit and today, compared to the past, it is possible to find several plantations at high altitudes due to milder temperatures than Marpha in the lower Mustang, and also of higher quality thanks to the reduced pollution levels.” All the villagers take part in the planting of trees comprising some 10 different qualities, from India, Japan and Europe. “This is a community project, and all the trees are part of the community. Every family in Dhey has the right to a tree and they can dispose of its fruits for family use or even to sell them in neighboring villages.
The harvesting of apples seems to be one of the few economic resources in a region strongly affected by climate change. Observing the new settlement from above, in fact, we immediately notice how the whole new complex revolves around the cultivation of this fruit. The temperature increase has in fact caused the production of apples to spread to the milder areas of the Upper Mustang and many villages employ the entire community in the development of the local farm.
The situation is very different in the valley: “The quality of apples in the Lower Mustang has changed profoundly in recent years,” says Kamal Mirachin in his apple plantation in Marpha, as he strokes a leaf with the love of a father. Here, in fact, the presence of the imposing peaks of the Nigiri and the Dhaulagiri used to guarantee a dry and temperate climate, ensuring optimal conditions for the apple trees. Unfortunately, however, the weather conditions have worsened somewhat. Global warming is upsetting the climate balance in the region, affecting the time needed for an adequate ripening of the apples. At the same time, the heat does not help to preserve the quality of the fruit, hindered by pests and diseases that alter its quality and force farmers to reluctantly resort to the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers to limit the damage.
The melting of the Langtang glaciers
Global warming is only a spark triggering a series of complications putting the very survival of humanity’s future at risk. Climate change in Nepal can really be seen first-hand, and its tragic consequences can also be witnessed in other regions. In Langtang for example, the national park north of Kathmandu, rich in biodiversity and forests, where the glaciers are slowly disappearing, altering the entire ecosystem.
The village of Kyanjin Gompa is the last frontier in the trek through the picturesque Nepalese villages before climbing up a steep path leading to an altitude of 5200 m above sea level, just next to the Yala glacier. The landscape is populated only by yaks, guarding the route and sometimes blocking the road as if unappreciative of man’s presence in this extremely wild nature.
Our breath becomes increasingly short, and we feel the fatigue of the previous days as we climb all the way up to the top. However, we are rewarded by an overwhelming almost unreal beauty, leaving us speechless: Before us are the Himalayas, with Shishapangma towering over the Chinese border at 8027 metres under a blue sky. Here we meet the group of international researchers and scientists with whom we have been in contact with throughout our expedition. The research team travels to the Yala glacier twice a year to measure its mass and monitor the volume of ice over time.
“The heavy snowfalls of the past have turned into heavy rains which does not allow an increase in the volume of ice over time. Unfortunately, the Yala glacier is now clinically dead ,” states Sharad Joshi, a glaciologist at the international Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).Miriam Jackson, head of ICIMOD’s research program in Langtang, shares the same opinion. “In recent years, the loss of mass has accelerated considerably, especially in the summer season, with temperatures increasing greatly compared to 20-30 years ago, while in winter the mass growth is almost zero,” she says. Therefore, the glacier is literally retreating, and it could well disappear altogether within the next fifty years.“
Outside his tent at base camp Jacob Steiner, a glaciologist and researcher carrying out fieldwork on the glacier explains the consequences of a natural disaster of this kind. “The melting of glaciers in the Himalayan Hindu Kush region due to rising temperatures is causing profound changes to the entire ecosystem. It is altering the balance in the valley, exposing the local population to the risk of increasingly frequent avalanches due to the fresh snow not freezing. What’s more, the glaciers melting could cause the return of parasites and bacteria of the past, causing serious damage to agriculture and new forms of epidemics.” What is happening in Nepal is therefore a photograph in real time of the tangible consequences of climate change on Earth. It is very likely that the repercussions of these effects will occur in other regions of the globe with extreme events that are difficult to predict. According to UN forecasts, by 2051 billion people will be forced to leave their land due to unpredictable climatic events such as floods, storms, fires and extreme temperatures. And the Yala glacier , which has stood for thousands of years, will disappear within a few decades to be replaced by a large glacial lake.