Imja glacial lake, at 5,010 metres above sea level, is some 1,700 metres long and 500 metres wide. This body of water was created in the last century by a rapidly retreating glacier, and is still growing. If the lake were to burst its banks, it would sweep away many downstream settlements, destroy infrastructure, and forever erase parts of an ancient culture.
There is plenty of information about the threat of this and other glacial lake outbursts in Khumbu, also known as the Everest region. But there is very little documentation of the human aspect. How do Khumbu people perceive this threat? What changes do they see, and what alarms them most? What are the solutions to these problems, and where should they come from?
Some are not sure about the signs of change; they are restless and angry, demanding scientific solutions. They see their future threatened – language, culture, livelihood, all melting away with the snow on the mountains. They live in constant paranoia that glacial lakes will burst and sweep away all of Khumbu.
Others place the blame locally, and therefore see the possibility of redemption through a change in behaviour. This group blames itself for veering away from traditional modes of living to one that generates a lot of waste. If the people of Khumbu stop angering the gods, they say, the apocalypse as described in Sherpa scriptures – during which nine suns will fill the sky and melt Earth – will be postponed until such a time when people forget their Dharma again.
This series of portraits and interviews is part of a larger body of work commissioned by the Alliance Française in Kathmandu that traces the Himalayan waters down to the Kosi and Eastern Tarai. It seeks to ask how real the changes in climate patterns are, and what threats these hold for the Sherpas of Khumbu, who are interconnected with and affected by these changes. These works will be exhibited during Planet Nepal: a Festival of Arts and Environment, scheduled for November in Kathmandu.
Bhesh Bahadur Ghimire, JTA at the Yak Breeding Farm in Syangboche
Bhesh Bahadur Ghimire is in charge of the well-being of the yak and nak at the Yak Breeding Farm at Syangboche. He follows the herd from pasture to pasture for a few weeks each season, supervising the calving and selecting animals to sell to the people of Khumbu.
"There is no commercial benefit in keeping yak and nak any more. Who wants to chase after cattle and live in remote pastures when they can join the tourism industry? When old men who keep yak die, their sons sell off the herd within two, three months. The yak was a part of the culture, but tourism is killing it off. They are mating and calving earlier than usual. Their time to head north has changed by almost two weeks. Everything is changing around them. If nothing is done soon enough, the yak will be found only on old postcards about Khumbu."
Lobsang Sherpa, 28, entrepreneur in Dingboche
Lobsang Sherpa blames industrial nations and the rise of human population for global warming that is melting the glaciers. He blames research groups for failing to respect local cultures and concerns, and for failing to propose solutions. Lobsang's lodge at Dingboche is called the Arizona Lodge because Arizona looks like Dingboche.
"This scaremongering around Imja is 7-8 years old. Some unscrupulous types scared people to get them running, so their land could be bought for cheap. Just last year, people were scared to build new homes, but they have forgotten everything now. So much research has been done, but the lake hasn't burst. The locals want someone to propose a safety solution, instead of spreading fear. What use is an internet-based monitoring system for us? People in Japan will know that the lake has burst, but how does that help us here?"
Pemba Digi Sherpa, 69, farmer in Shomare
Pemba Digi Sherpa has lost one husband and one son to the wrath of the mountains. She doesn't blame the mountains for their death: they died on the job, after all. She spent the insurance money on rituals and donations. She believes the Rinpoche of Tengboche holds back Imja with his powers.
"The small stream from Tobuche flooded suddenly. It dragged our fields to the river below. People returning from market thought water seeping from the ground was ruining the paths. They were repairing the paths when a huge flood came down the mountain and took them. A girl I knew – Dawa Lhamu. A Tamang named Chakra Bahadur. Four others. Of course I am scared of another flood. What will I do if it takes my house? We have no powerful Lamas here, the people have forgotten their Dharma, there is no Mani to walk around. My fate is to
Ang Kanchhi Sherpa, 56, health work pioneer in Debuche
Ang Kanchhi Sherpa saves lives. For 32 years, her home in Debuche has often been the place where many trekkers imagine they will breathe their last. She heals them; they remain grateful forever.
"Although people today have become more intelligent, have more knowledge, they have also become weaker. In the old days, all food came from the fields, you knew what you ate, everything was fresh. Now, everything is packaged in a factory – who knows what goes into those shiny packets? People these days look cleaner, wear nice clothes, but they have a lot of stress. Their minds are more disturbed. Now Sherpas have diabetes! All kinds of people come to Khumbu and mix with Sherpas, bring diseases."
Photos: Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati