ICIMOD Steps Up to Save Lives in Pakistan

Imagine waking up at 4 a.m. to the wails of a siren. For Sherqilla, a small village in Pakistan, that siren was the difference between life and death. The siren is part of an early warning system that woke up all the villagers in time for them to get to higher ground and avoid the floods that ensued in 2017. Just one year earlier a similar flood swept away six households, livestock, 250 acres of cropland, and roughly 600 acres of fruit and trees.

The early warning system in Sherqilla was developed by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development or ICIMOD. ICIMOD was recently recognized by the Gilgit-Baltistan government in Pakistan for helping to increase the resiliency of vulnerable mountain village communities through their Indus Basin Initiative.

Trekkers in the Hindu Kush Over North Barum glacier, from Terichmir base camp 3800 m, Chitral, Pakistan (Source: Facebook).

Gilgit-Baltistan is home to the Hindu Kush, Himalayas, and Karakoram mountain ranges. The population of the region is roughly 1.9 million people, around 80,000 of whom are vulnerable to “inland tsunamis.”

Normally one would think of a tsunami and imagine waves crashing down on an unsuspecting coastal community. In the case of Pakistan, the tsunamis come from within. These inland tsunamis are known as glacial lake outburst floods or GLOFs. GLOFs occur when the water of a glacial lake breaks through its natural dam and floods the nearby areas. Based on a 30-year average from 1981 to 2010, climate change has warmed the mountainous regions of Pakistan by an estimated 1.2 degrees Celsius, leading to an increase in GLOFs and natural disasters. The impacts on the local community is both swift and unforgiving.

The Chitral Valley is another prime example of a remote mountain village impacted by climate change. Three major floods have occurred in less than six years, claiming the lives of 50 people and leaving hundreds of thousands stranded, according to the Washington Post.

Mohiuddin who lost his home and 4-year-old daughter in a flash flood in Reshun Gol village, Chitral, Pakistan (Source: ICIMOD).

 

The Indus Basin Initiative

In light of the constant threat of GLOFs, ICIMOD made the Gilgit-Baltistan Disaster Management Authority more pro-active in the face of such natural disasters. Aside from improving the local irrigation systems and agricultural conditions of the communities, ICIMOD established hazard management systems in Gulmit, Passu, Hussaini, and Gulkin. These systems are known as community-based glacier monitoring and early warning systems or CBFEWS.

According to ICIMOD, CBFEWS consists of tools and plans used to detect and respond to flood emergencies. The monitoring priorities of the system depend on the community. In Gulmit, for example, locals monitor the debris flow. However, as previously mentioned, in Sherqilla, the system monitors flash floods. In Passu, the locals look out for GLOFs. This is all part of the ICIMOD’s Indus Basin Initiative.

Shandur Lake (Source: The News International).

Back in September, following floods in August, ICIMOD implemented a five-day training program to improve the ability of participants to install and use the community-based flood risk management system. The training consisted of learning both the technical and conceptual knowledge behind the early warning device designed by ICIMOD. The 17 participants in the training came from local governments, NGOs and other partners. They hailed from Nepal, India, and Pakistan. According to the ICIMOD, in order to be effective, the CBFEWS should involve a number of elements: “risk knowledge and scoping, community-based monitoring and early warning, dissemination, and communication and response capability and resilience.”

Dasuopu Glacier, Mt. Xixiabangma, Central Himalayas (Source: ICIMOD

Moving forward

In the hopes of further increasing resilience in the region, ICIMOD recently aided in facilitating an international conference. ICIMOD, the Government of Nepal, and the European Union worked together to make the conference “Resilient Hindu Kush: Developing Solutions Toward a Sustainable Future for Asia” a reality.

At the event, the director general of ICIMOD, David Molden, gave words of thanks and encouragement. In his speech, he recognized the importance of future collaboration saying, “Building resilience also calls us to improve participation of all groups, particularly communities, women and youth in creating a vision and action plan for a more prosperous future.”

See ICIMOD Director General David Molden’s Full Speech here.

Of course, GLOFs are not the only natural disasters that plague the Gilgit-Baltistan region. Avalanches, monsoon rains, and other natural disasters make the socio-economic conditions even tougher on the people of the remote mountain villages. ICIMOD further recognizes that Gilgit-Baltistan isn’t the only country under threat from impending GLOFs. As such, it has begun discussions on the possibility of replicating the early warning system in other areas. ICIMOD hopes that these expansion efforts will help to ensure the safety of villagers living throughout the region.

Roundup: Ancient Tunic, Climate Resiliency and Sustainable Glacier Tourism

Reconstructing the Tunic from Lendbreen in Norway

From the Archaelogical Textiles Review: “A woven wool tunic with damaged sleeves and repairs to the body dating from AD 230 to AD 390 was discovered on the Lendbreen glacier in Oppland County, Norway, in 2011. The Norwegian Mountain Centre in Lom (Norsk Fjellsenter) and the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo each commissioned a reconstruction of the tunic for exhibition and research into prehistoric textile production. The original was woven in 2/2 diamond twill with differently colored yarns producing a deliberate and even mottled effect.”

Learn more about glacier archaeology and its techniques here.

Ancient Tunic in Lendbreen glacier
Ancient Tunic in Lendbreen glacier (Source: Marianne Vedeler).

Collaboration Strengthens Climate Resiliency

From the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD): “As climate change impacts are increasing the likelihood of natural disasters, such as floods and landslides, having a thorough disaster risk management plan is become more important for communities throughout the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH). The government of Gilgit Baltistan in Pakistan has recognized the efforts of the Indus Basin Initiative of the ICIMOD and consortium partners to establish more resilient mountain villages through partnership with the Gilgit Baltistan Disaster Management Authority (GB-DMA). Their plan involves several projects in glacier-rich northern Pakistan, including rehabilitation of a glacier-fed irrigation system, and a community based glacier monitoring/GLOF early warning system.”

Find out more about the Gilgit Baltistan Disaster Risk Management Plan here.

Glaciers from the mountainous region of the Hindu Kush–Karakoram–Himalaya, HKH
Glaciers from the mountainous region of the Hindu Kush–Karakoram–Himalaya, HKH (Source: INSPIRE/Blogger).

 

Stakeholder Participation in Developing Sustainability Indicators

From the Journal of Rural and Community Development: “Glacier tourism is of importance worldwide. Many European northern periphery (NP) communities are likely to experience increased and complex environmental, social and economic impacts of tourism in the near future. Therefore, approaches that see tourism as included in complex socio-ecological systems are critical for identifying and assessing sustainability indicators in the NP specifically are crucial. This study from Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland argues for the value of incorporating the perceptions of local communities as it develops and assesses systemic sustainability indicators for glacial tourism.”

Further explore the concept of sustainable glacier tourism in Iceland here.

Vatnajökull National Park
Vatnajökull National Park (Source: Daniel Kordan/Instagram).

China and Nepal Collaborate on Glacier Research

SKLCS research sites in China, Nepal and Pakistan (source: SKLCS).

As China has expanded its capacity in glacier research in recent years, it has also developed its collaborations with other nations, particularly Nepal, in this area.

Chinese glaciological activities date back to the 1950s, and underwent an expansion with the establishment of the Lanzhou Institute of Glaciology and Geocryology, located in the central province of Gansu, in the 1980s. An Ice Core Laboratory was created in 1991, which expanded into the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute (CAREERI), a component of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The State Key Laboratory of Cryospheric Science (SKLCS) was established in 2007 by CAREERI and the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, which is also a unit within the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Prof. Shichang Kang, director of SKLCS (source: CAS).

The SKLCS also supports China’s research in Antarctica. As professor Ren Jiawen of SKLCS explained to GlacierHub, this polar work began with the establishment of stations on the Antarctic Peninsula in the 1980s, and in the 1990s at Prydz Bay and on the Antarctic Plateau. In addition, China’s Arctic Yellow River Station in Svalbard was opened in 2004. These high latitude efforts show the logic of using the term “Third Pole” to describe the glacier and permafrost regions of high mountain Asia.

This growth of cryosphere research reflects the general expansion of the geosciences in China, and also the recognition of the environmental and economic importance of the cryosphere for China. Glacier meltwater is a major source of water in a number of small watersheds in the western portion of the country, and in one of China’s largest rivers as well. Glaciers supplied over 10 percent of the flow of the Yangtze River in the last decades of the 20th century. Though this contribution increased early in the present century, due to accelerated melt, the river is likely to reach “peak water” around 2030, and then decline, creating serious difficulties in the country, which has hoped to rely on transfers from the Yangtze watershed to alleviate water scarcity in the country’s north. Studies of the glaciers allow for more precise projections of the nation’s water resources.

The SKLCS addresses other pressing cryosphere issues in China. The thawing of permafrost threatens important infrastructure projects, such as the Qinghai-Tibet Railway which links Lhasa with central China. And China is scheduled to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and has turned to the SKLCS to help plan this event within the constraints of declining snow cover, forming a committee to “support and guarantee the snow and ice conditions during the Games.”

Though climate change is a major cause of glacier retreat in China, the deposition of black carbon—soot and other particles—on glaciers also plays a role. The burning of biomass and the use of diesel fuel in South Asia, especially India, provide a major source of this black carbon, which has been a focus of Chinese collaboration with Nepal in cryospheric research since its inception.

Map from recent paper by Kang, Sharma and others, showing transport of pollutants across the Himalayas (source: ES&T).

As professor Shichang Kang, the director of SKLCS, told GlacierHub in a recent interview, “Since 2006, I started a collaboration with professor Subodh Sharma and Dr. Chhatra Sharma at Kathmandu University focusing on water, soil, and precipitation chemistry as well as toxic risk assessment in Nepal-Himalaya. This collaboration is still going on as we are training PhD students and young scientists.” He mentioned that this research examines a number of specific “pollutants in water, soil and air, including black carbon, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [organic molecules which derive from biomass burning and other sources] and heavy metals (mercury, arsenic, lead etc.)”

Kang mentioned that the SKLCS “also started another collaboration in 2013, with ICIMOD [the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, based in Kathmandu], working with Dr. Arnico Panday for air pollution observation in Nepal.” He stated that this research will continue to explore water quality and air quality, and look more extensively at “health risks associated with pollutants, the impacts of black carbon on cryospheric processes, and on the transport of atmospheric pollutants across the Himalayas into the Tibetan Plateau.” Black carbon in the Third Pole is a topic of concern for the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Chhatra Sharma, a Nepali limnologist, also described this collaboration. He told GlacierHub, “I completed my Ph.D. at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in 2008 and joined the faculty of Kathmandu University. A year later, I joined professor Kang’s group as a Young International Scientist Fellow in 2009. Kang is currently hosting two researchers within the President’s International Fellowship Initiative at present. And SKLCS and Kathmandu University  have signed a memorandum of understanding for collaboration.” He added that he and Kang have co-authored 17 papers in peer-reviewed journals.

Map showing GLOFs in Nepal, including those which originated in China (source: ICIMOD).

Among these papers is a study, published last year in Environmental Science & Technology, about the transport of heavy metal pollutants from South Asia into the Tibetan Plateau. The authors of this paper analyzed samples from ice cores and lake sediments in the Nepal Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau. As this study shows, research on this subject requires the collection of field data on both the northern and southern sides of the Himalaya.

These collaborations have allowed China to support its bilateral aid activities in Nepal. It partnered with ICIMOD to study glacier lake outburst floods, including ones which originate in Tibet and spread into Nepal. It put this information to use after the 7.8 earthquake in Nepal on April 25, 2015. It held an emergency meeting to assess the risk of landslides, debris flows and GLOFs, and sent information to agencies in Nepal.

Meeting at CAREERI to discuss April 2015 earthquake in Nepal (source: CAS)

These ties involve other countries as well. In addition to Nepali researchers, cryosphere scientists from Pakistan and Mongolia took part in the International Workshop on Cryospheric Change and Sustainable Development, held in August, at SKLCS in Lanzhou.

In 2015, China established the Belt Road Initiative, also known as the One Belt, One Road Initiative. Drawing on the history of the Silk Road, it seeks to promote infrastructure investments and trade with countries which neighbor China and beyond. In this context, scientific research, investment, trade and foreign policy can be integrated. In this way, Chinese cryosphere scientists and their collaborators in Nepal and elsewhere are responding to the pressures of climate change on glaciers.

Nepal signed a memorandum of understanding with China in May of this year, promoting its participation in the Belt and Road Initiative and facilitating Chinese investment to address Nepal’s infrastructure deficits. Historically, Nepal has shared close ties with India, a country with which it shares Hinduism as the majority religion. Nepali and Hindi are related languages, and Nepal’s transportation network has developed with roads across the lowland jungles that separate it from India, rather than across the high passes of the Himalayas.

But the potential of Chinese investment opens the possibility of a reconfiguratrion of transportation networks and of economic and political ties in the region. In this context, scientific research, investment, trade and foreign policy can be integrated. These efforts lead cryosphere scientists in China and Nepal to address the pressures of climate change on glaciers in their countries, and to explore ways to coordinate their activities.

 

Mapping and Monitoring Glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

Finu Shrestha, Research Associate GIS helping a training participant during the hands on exercise (Source: Chimi Seldon/ICIMOD).

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), through its Cryosphere Initiative, recently organized a five-day training on using remote sensing (RS) and geographic information system (GIS) to map and monitor glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH).

Nineteen participants consisting of students and professionals from ICIMOD’s partners in Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan attended the training organized at the ICIMOD headquarters in Kathmandu, Nepal, in March 2017.

The training aims to build the capacities of national partners on the use of RS and GIS for glacier mapping and monitoring, and it was the 11th of its kind. In addition to Nepal, ICIMOD has organized this training in Pakistan, Myanmar, Bhutan and Afghanistan.

Training participants with ICIMOD experts (Source: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD).

Such trainings help build and enhance the capacities of professionals working in water resources research and management in relation to using RS and GIS for mapping and monitoring glaciers and glacial lakes. Events such as these also open up avenues for research collaborations with and between relevant implementing partners in the region.

As a follow-up to the training programme, six professionals from Tribhuvan University in Nepal will be getting on-the-job training at ICIMOD for the duration of two months. The professional mentoring they will receive while at ICIMOD will help them further develop their RS and GIS skills, and contribute to glacier data generation in the HKH.

Yala peak in Langtang Valley, Nepal. Langtang valley is home to several of ICIMOD’s cryosphere research sites in Nepal (Source: Sudan Maharjan/ICIMOD).

By the end of the two months, the six professionals will be able to conduct mapping exercises, which provide information on the status of glaciers and decadal changes. Continual mapping and monitoring of glaciers will provide answers to how climate change is affecting the glaciers of the HKH and also enable experts to identify potential glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) risks. Further, such mapping and monitoring will also provide evidence for policy makers in the region to understand their fresh water reserves and to enhance their water-related hazard and risk reduction planning.

Through its various capacity building activities, the goal of the Cryosphere Initiative is that the HKH will, in the long run, have an increased number of experts who can independently carry out long-term glacier monitoring.

Mats Eriksson, Regional Programme Manager (Cryosphere and Atmosphere) addresses the training participants during the inaugural session of the training (Source: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD).

ICIMOD works in the HKH with eight regional member countries- Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan. The Cryosphere initiative of ICIMOD is supported by the Government of Norway.

Additional Information:

The HKH has the largest glacier area besides the two polar regions and are the source of ten large Asian river systems, providing water to 1.3 billion people, about a fifth of World’s population.

 

 

Flood Early Warning Systems Leave Women Vulnerable

Glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) pose an immediate threat to locations in mountain regions where rising temperatures contribute to glacier melt. This risk makes it crucial that communities at risk to GLOFs develop early warning systems (EWS) to alert residents of impending danger. In order for EWS to be effective, gender needs to be prioritized. In a recent paper published by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Mandira Shrestha et al. evaluated flood early warning systems in Bhutan and found that many EWS exclude women, who are especially susceptible to natural disasters like GLOFs.

thorthormi_ali_2009301
An aerial view of some of Bhutan’s glacier lakes (Source: Robert Simmon/NASA).

GLOFs, which are difficult to predict and devastating to local populations, occur when meltwater is suddenly released from a lake just below a glacier. When this occurs, large amounts of water rush down valleys, picking up debris. They can lead to many deaths and to extensive destruction of fields and property.  

In total, Bhutan has 24 lakes which are capable of causing GLOFs.  As temperatures rise, glacier melt increases, leading to exposed moraines and larger volumes of water. However, an EWS can help save lives during a GLOF, especially if it is combined with preparatory actions before a flood occurs.

In Bhutan, the EWS was first introduced in 1988 as part of the Hindu Kush Himalayan – Hydrological Cycle Observing System (HKH-HYCOS), a project developed by ICIMOD, national governments in the region, and the World Meteorological Organization. However, Shrestha et al. found that none of the current policies in Bhutan’s EWS address specific needs and experiences of women during natural disasters. In planning documents, women are described as victims, rather than presented as playing an important role in disaster risk management.

Hubbard_Glacier_May_20.2000
An image of a GLOF (Source: MONGO/Creative Commons).

The Bhutan EWS contains four major elements, also found in other warning systems: risk assessment, monitoring and warning, dissemination and communication, and response capability. The Bhutanese government first prioritized flood early warning systems in 1994, following a detrimental GLOF, which killed 12 people, destroyed 21 homes, and washed away nearly 2,000 acres of land. Shrestha et al. point out that even a good warning system would not be fully effective in preventing such a tragedy if it fails to reach vulnerable populations like women, as well as other such populations including children, disabled people, and the elderly.

As Shrestha et al. explain, while women in Bhutan make up 49% of the population and legally have equal rights and access to education, public services, and health care, most women engage in household labor, while men dominate political work. The authors indicate that only 25 percent of women in Bhutan are involved in non-agricultural work. Extensive male out-migration in Bhutan, as elsewhere in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, leaves women to carry out the work in domestic agriculture. As a result, Bhutanese women are excluded from decision-making processes at community or larger scales.

This pattern is reflected in other nearby countries as well.  One study done on disaster-affected people seeking mental health care in Bangladesh, which has the highest natural disaster mortality rate in the world, found that women have higher mortality rates in natural disasters, and are also extremely vulnerable in the aftermath of a natural disaster. For example, they are more likely to face food shortage, sexual harassment, and disease, among other issues.

bhutan_AST_2001324_lrg
An aerial map of Bhutan, showing different glacier lakes (Source: ASTER/NASA).

Shrestha et al. describe how the social structure in Bhutan leaves women dependent on men for receiving disaster information, because these details are shared in public places, where women typically do not go. Many of the alerts are done through sirens, but some women cannot hear them as they are located in towns rather than rural areas. Even if women do receive the information, it is often too late. Due to cultural norms that restrict their freedom of movement when in public, women are frequently left waiting to ask for permission from men to take actions that can save their lives.

Gender-inclusive EWS emphasizes assuring that women receive early warnings, but also, more importantly, that they participate in decision-making processes. Without these features, early warning systems may prove inadequate to save the lives of women in natural disasters like GLOFs.

Circumambulation of Mount Kailash

Mount Kailash, or Gang Rinpoche (Gangs rin po che), is associated with Mt. Meru, the axis mundi or center of the world, and is thus considered one of the world’s most sacred mountains.  Four major rivers – the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, and Karnali – originate in the four cardinal directions nearby.

 

Mt. Kailash The north face of Mount Kailash (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
The north face of Mount Kailash (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

As such, it is a destination for pilgrimage and circumambulation for Tibetan Buddhists, Bonpos, Hindus, and Jains.

 

The town of Tarchen is the starting point for circumambulations of Mount Kailash. In the market one can find prayer flags, incense, thangkas, and other religious items, as well as jewelry and clothing. Here a shop displays prints with Khenpo Jigphun's injunction for Tibetans to speak Tibetan, as well as prints of Gendun Choepel. Though Khenpo Jigphun's influence is greatest in Kham and Gendun Choepel was from Amdo, theiir presence is also here in the far western part of Tibet. Many of the shop-keepers are from Markham and other parts of Kham ((Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
The town of Tarchen is the starting point for circumambulations of Mount Kailash. In the market one can find prayer flags, incense, thangkas, and other religious items, as well as jewelry and clothing. Here a shop displays prints with Khenpo Jigphun’s injunction for Tibetans to speak Tibetan, as well as prints of Gendun Choepel (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

A thangka depicting the Karmapa's 3rd eye (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
A thangka depicting the Karmapa’s 3rd eye. Thangkas depicting the 17th Karmapa are very popular in Tarchen (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

Tibetan Buddhists consider it a dwelling place of Demchog (Chakrasamvara) and for Hindus it is the abode of Lord Shiva. For Jains, it is the place where the first Tirthankara attained enlightenment, and for Bonpos, Mt Kailash is a nine-story swastika mountain that is the seat of spiritual power.

 

Indian yatris at the Purang Customs and Immigration Building (Source: Photo courtesy of Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Indian yatris at the Purang Customs and Immigration Building (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

Moreover, the region of the mountain and nearby Lake Manasarovar is where Thonpa Sherab founded and disseminated Bon.

 

A street in Tarchen. Gurla Mandhata (Memo Nanyi) in the distance (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
A street in Tarchen. Gurla Mandhata (Memo Nanyi) in the distance (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

Our complicated tour group consisting of people of three different citizenships (US, Nepal, India) had a police escort wherever we went (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Our complicated tour group consisting of people of three different citizenships (US, Nepal, India) had a police escort wherever we went (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

n the grand ticket collection and information center by the shore of Lake Manasarovar were a number of items for sale, including tea and instant noodles, plastic jugs in which pilgrims could take the sacred lake's water home, and a number of books, including several of Larung Gar's Khenpo So Dargye, who is particularly popular with Han Chinese disciples. The entire area is managed by Tibet International Shangdi Travel, which has quite a few CSR signs about their environmental protection and development work in the visitors' center (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
In the grand ticket collection and information center by the shore of Lake Manasarovar were a number of items for sale, including tea and instant noodles, plastic jugs in which pilgrims could take the sacred lake’s water home, and a number of books, including several of Larung Gar’s Khenpo So Dargye, who is particularly popular with Han Chinese disciples. The entire area is managed by Tibet International Shangdi Travel, which has quite a few CSR signs about their environmental protection and development work in the visitors’ center (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

Located in western Tibet, near the contemporary borders of the PRC, Nepal, and India, the symmetrical cone-shaped Mount Kailash, at 6638 meters (21,778 feet), rises alone above the rugged landscape.

 

Here one can see both Rakshas Tal (lag ngar mtsho) to the right (west) and Manasarovar (ma pham gyu mtsho) to the left (east) (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Here one can see both Rakshas Tal (lag ngar mtsho) to the right (west) and Manasarovar (ma pham gyu mtsho) to the left (east) (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

 Heading for a dip in Manasarovar Rakshal Tal, which means "lake of the demon" in Sanskrit, is a closed drainage basin, and thus its water is saline. We saw dark, brackish water lapping up on its shores. Manasarovar is a freshwater lake which is connected to Rakshal Tal by a small channel. For Hindus, taking a ritual bath drinking the water of Manasarovar is said to cleanse all sins, and the lake is a more important destination than Mount Kailash. Here, most of our group is heading for a dip in Manasarovar (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Heading for a dip in Manasarovar Rakshal Tal, which means “lake of the demon” in Sanskrit, is a closed drainage basin, and thus its water is saline. We saw dark, brackish water lapping up on its shores. Manasarovar is a freshwater lake which is connected to Rakshal Tal by a small channel. For Hindus, taking a ritual bath drinking the water of Manasarovar is said to cleanse all sins, and the lake is a more important destination than Mount Kailash. Here, most of our group is heading for a dip in Manasarovar (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

Tibetan pilgrims typically complete the 52-kilometer circumambulation route over the 5600-meter (18,500 feet) Dolma La pass in 15 hours, rising at 3am and finishing at 6pm.

 

Tibetan pilgrims packing up at a simple guest house at Thrugo, the main bathing gate at the south side of Manasarovar (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Tibetan pilgrims packing up at a simple guest house at Thrugo, the main bathing gate at the south side of Manasarovar (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

Most do more than one circuit; we met quite a few groups of pilgrims who had done or were planning to complete 13 circumambulations.

 

First prostration point (lcags tshal sgang) around the Kailash kora. This pilgrim, who came with his family from the Ngari prefectural seat for circumambulation over the weekend, decided to crash my photograph (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
First prostration point (lcags tshal sgang) around the Kailash kora. This pilgrim, who came with his family from the Ngari prefectural seat for circumambulation over the weekend, decided to crash my photograph (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

Second prostration point (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Second prostration point (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

One Bonpo pilgrim in his 50s, a former businessman who had renounced everything, had walked the circuit 800 times over five years and was planning to complete 1000 circumambulations altogether.  Still others complete the circuit doing full-body prostrations. Whereas Buddhists and Hindus circumambulate clockwise, Bonpo pilgrims circumambulate counter-clockwise.

 

Pilgrim performing circumambulation by full-body (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado). prostration
Pilgrim performing circumambulation by full-body prostration. Rather than simply walking around the 52 kilometer path, some pilgrims perform full-body prostrations along the entire circuit (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

At the time of our visit, most Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims we met were from Ngari prefecture, especially from Gerze, Gegye, and Tsochen counties.

 

Just beyond the second prostration point, Gyatso (Sagar), Abhimanyu, Pasang and I stopped to take a break with three women from Gerze who were doing full-body prostrations around Kailash. They are pastoralists who herd sheep, goats, and yaks. They come every year, though this is their first time doing full-body prostrations. They said they do so to rid themselves of demerits (dikpa) and to repay the kindness of their parents (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Just beyond the second prostration point, Gyatso (Sagar), Abhimanyu, Pasang and I stopped to take a break with three women from Gerze who were doing full-body prostrations around Kailash. They are pastoralists who herd sheep, goats, and yaks. They come every year, though this is their first time doing full-body prostrations. They said they do so to rid themselves of demerits (dikpa) and to repay the kindness of their parents (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

We also met pilgrims from Nyingtri, Dechen (Yunnan) and Kyirong.  The Tibetan Bonpos we met were mainly from Bachen County in Nagchu and Dengchen County in Chamdo. Passing each other as they walked in opposite directions, they greeted each other with “blessings” (byin rlabs byed) or “Tsering!” (“long life,” a common greeting in Nagchu).

 

Line of stupas in front of the newly reconstructed Drira Phug ('bri rwa phug) monastery. In back of the monastery is painted the Tibetan alphabet. Four monasteries were built around Mounta Kailash in the four cardinal directions. Drira Phug is one that also serves as a nail to hold it down and prevent the mountain from changing (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Line of stupas in front of the newly reconstructed Drira Phug (‘bri rwa phug) monastery. In back of the monastery is painted the Tibetan alphabet. Four monasteries were built around Mounta Kailash in the four cardinal directions. Drira Phug is one that also serves as a nail to hold it down and prevent the mountain from changing (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

Drira Phug ('bri rwa phug) means 'cave of the female yak ('bri) horn.' Gyalwa Gotsangpa, who 'opened' the circumambulation route around Kailash in the thirteenth century, was led by Sengdongma, the manifestion of a goddess of Dzogchen, in the form of a female yak to a cave at the place where the monastery now stands, where it put its horns onto and then disappeared into a rock. He meditated in the cave here for 3 years, eating only the food of gods and dakinis, rather than human food. The cave around which the monastery is built is said to have a history of 2500 years. Yeshe Tsogyal, Guru Rinpoche's consort, meditated here in the 8th century, in the 11th century, Marpa ordered Milarepa to meditate in this cave, and Shabkar also meditated here. The monastery was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. In 1996, the main lama, Tenzin Namgyal, began to rebuild a small part of the monastery. In 2013, the monastery received permission to rebuild more of it, and when we were there, there was quite a lot of activity, with a number of interior rooms being painted (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Drira Phug (‘bri rwa phug) means ‘cave of the female yak (‘bri) horn.’ Gyalwa Gotsangpa, who ‘opened’ the circumambulation route around Kailash in the thirteenth century, was led by Sengdongma, the manifestion of a goddess of Dzogchen, in the form of a female yak to a cave at the place where the monastery now stands, where it put its horns onto and then disappeared into a rock. He meditated in the cave here for 3 years, eating only the food of gods and dakinis, rather than human food. The cave around which the monastery is built is said to have a history of 2500 years. The monastery was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. In 1996, the main lama, Tenzin Namgyal, began to rebuild a small part of the monastery. In 2013, the monastery received permission to rebuild more of it, and when we were there, there was quite a lot of activity, with a number of interior rooms being painted (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

There is now a government agreement in place that allows Indian pilgrims to visit Kailash and Manasarovar. However, the quota to come directly from India, which requires a long trek, is very limited and so most Indian pilgrims instead fly through Kathmandu and visit through private tour operators. Upon arrival in Simikot, they take a 15-minute helicopter ride to the border (in contrast to our many-day walk) and then head directly for a ritual bath in the waters of Manasarovar.  Because of their sudden arrival at very high altitudes, twelve pilgrims had already died in 2016 when we visited.

 

Second sky burial site A pilgrim stopping to meditate at the second of two sky burial sites, Srid Pa Tshal (or srid pa chags p'i dur khrod). Pilgrims leave pieces of clothes, or cut their nails or a bit of hair and leave them at this sky burial site to represent their bodies, as dying at Mount Kailash is considered very auspicious (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
A pilgrim stopping to meditate at the second of two sky burial sites, Srid Pa Tshal (or srid pa chags p’i dur khrod). Pilgrims leave pieces of clothes, or cut their nails or a bit of hair and leave them at this sky burial site to represent their bodies, as dying at Mount Kailash is considered very auspicious (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

The place to see if one has repaid one's parents' kindness Here there is another well-worn rock with many kathaks draped around it, in front of which are two prominent round indentations and one less prominent. One's task is to close one's eyes, and then aim one's finger toward the indentations. One should pray and then try three times. If one is able to hit an indentation exactly, then one has repaid one's parents kindness; otherwise not. To do it is nearly impossible, and that's the point. As one tour guide remarked, "It's impossible! How can one ever repay parents' kindness? Children don't give birth to parents." (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
The place to see if one has repaid one’s parents’ kindness. Here there is another well-worn rock with many kathaks draped around it, in front of which are two prominent round indentations and one less prominent. One’s task is to close one’s eyes, and then aim one’s finger toward the indentations. One should pray and then try three times. If one is able to hit an indentation exactly, then one has repaid one’s parents kindness; otherwise not. To do it is nearly impossible, and that’s the point. As one tour guide remarked, “It’s impossible! How can one ever repay parents’ kindness? Children don’t give birth to parents” (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

Along the route, Tibetan pilgrims visit monasteries and other important sites. Among these are a number of footprints, including those of Milarepa, the Buddha, and Gyalwa Gotsangba (who ‘opened’ the circumambulation path in the thirteenth century), as well as numerous self-arisen forms, including a saddle of King Gesar, the Karmapa’s black hat, and prayer beads.

Pilgrims touch the various manifestations with their own prayer beads or bow to touch their foreheads upon them.  In still other places pilgrims test their level of merit, sin, and fortune through physical encounters with the landscape.

 

Pilgrims at the "unmovable spike" Pilgrims at a tent on the east side of the route. It is called "the unmovable spike" ('gul med sa gzer), referring to one of four nails that the Buddha is said to have put in each of the four cardinal directions around the mountain to make sure it would never change. Nearby is Buddha's footprint on a boulder (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Pilgrims at a tent on the east side of the route. It is called “the unmovable spike” (‘gul med sa gzer), referring to one of four nails that the Buddha is said to have put in each of the four cardinal directions around the mountain to make sure it would never change. Nearby is Buddha’s footprint on a boulder (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

Further along the path toward Drolma La is this auspicious boulder on which pilgrims have used butter to affix photographs of themselves as well as money. Someone affixed a photograph of an entire junior high class from Shigatse. Some say this was the original "place to see white or black karma," where one's karma will be white if one manages to affix one's photograph or other item on the boulder (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Further along the path toward Drolma La is this auspicious boulder on which pilgrims have used butter to affix photographs of themselves as well as money. Someone affixed a photograph of an entire junior high class from Shigatse. Some say this was the original “place to see white or black karma,” where one’s karma will be white if one manages to affix one’s photograph or other item on the boulder (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

Lake Manasarovar (ma pham g.yu mtsho, the Unconquerable Turquoise Lake) lies at 4590 meters and is located to the south of Mount Kailash. Pilgrims also circumambulate the lake, which is eighty-eight kilometers in circumference.  This is now possible by car as well as foot. For Hindus, bathing and drinking from the lake cleanses all sins and guarantees going to the abode of Shiva after death.  Though Kailash is now the more important focus for Tibetans, there is considerable historical evidence that the earliest sacrality was of the lake rather than the mountain.

 

Restoration at Guru Gyam currently taking place with artists hired from Kham, meticulously painting wall murals under the direction of a master painter.(Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Restoration at Guru Gyam currently taking place with artists hired from Kham, meticulously painting wall murals under the direction of a master painter (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

Stairs up to the cave temple above Guru Gyam (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Stairs up to the cave temple above Guru Gyam (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

Indeed, Alex McKay has found that as late as the early 1900s, Kailash was more an ideal heavenly place than one associated with any particular place on the earth’s surface. He finds little evidence that the earthly mountain was considered sacred until the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, or that Kailash was considered the premier pilgrimage site of Tibet until the twentieth century.

 

Guru Gyam Valley below (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Guru Gyam Valley below (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

An occupied cave room (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
An occupied cave room (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

Its emergence as sacred in the 12th/13th centuries was related to a power struggle between Buddhism and Bön, now told as a contest between the magical powers of Milarepa and Naro Bönchung.

Our visit to Kailash, Manasarovar, and the associated sacred site of Tirthapuri was motivated by a proposal by ICIMOD to have Nepal, India, and China nominate the larger Kailash Sacred Landscape as a transboundary World Heritage Site.

 

The place to take white or black stones (Source: Photo courtesy of Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
The place to take white or black stones (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

Limi woman weaving in Taklakot (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).
Limi woman weaving in Taklakot. This 72 year old woman from Til village in the Limi Valley, is weaving a carpet.  She is paid piece-rate in Purang (Taklakot) for weaving carpets and chubas.  A widow with no children, she first started to come to Purang three decades ago to weave for income.  (Source: Emily Yeh/University of Colorado).

 

Our goal was to understand historical pilgrimage routes, document the cultural landscape, assess current tourism, and seek to understand what effects such a designation, were it to come to pass, might be.

 

A version of this photo essay, with additional images, was published by the Tibet Himalaya Initiative at the University of Colorado Boulder on January 6, 2017.

Photo Friday: Mount Kailash

Sometimes called “the third pole,” the Tibetan Plateau is a remote and mysterious place with numerous mountains and glaciers. Among the region’s many mountains, the most sacred is Mount Kailash, a holy place for four religions: Bön, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. The Tibetan people believe that Gang Rinpoche (Kailash’s Tibetan name) is their spiritual home. Worshiping the mountain and its surrounding lakes is an integral part of their culture. Every year, people travel from around the world on challenging pilgrimage treks to the mountain and its holy sites. Many of them carry out circumambulations, walking around the entire mountain.

Mount Kailash and surrounding peaks are home to many glaciers, including cirques and hanging glaciers, that feed the rivers and lakes of this sacred area. Four rivers, the Indus, Sutlej, Karnali, and Brahmaputra, source within 50 miles of Mount Kailash. A recent book, “The Way to the Sacred Land,” was jointly published by the Kunming Institute of Botany (KIB) in Yunnan, China and the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal. It discusses the traditional cultures and local species of the Kailash sacred landscape. The book emphasizes the importance of the region for providing herbs and other plants that are important elements in traditional medicine.

See images from the book below, along with a bonus image from another source. And you can read more about the traditional culture and its relation to landscape and local species.

 

Kailash Mansarovar (Source: Praveena Sridhar/Creative Commons).
Mount Kailash near Mansarovar (Source: Praveena Sridhar/Creative Commons).

 

The major scenic sites in the Kailash sacred landscape are Mount Kailash, Lake Manasarovar, Mount Gurla Mandhata and Lake Rakshastal. (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land)
The major scenic sites in the Kailash sacred landscape are Mount Kailash, Lake Manasarovar, Mount Gurla Mandhata and Lake Rakshastal. (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land)

 

Prayer flags at Mount Kailash (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).
Prayer flags at Mount Kailash (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).

 

Pilgrims at Mount Kailash (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).
Pilgrims at Mount Kailash (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).

 

Lake Manasarovar in front of Mount Kailash, Tibet (Source: Torsten Dietrich/Creative Commons).
Lake Manasarovar in front of Mount Kailash, Tibet (Source: Torsten Dietrich/Creative Commons).

 

The Mt. Gurla Mandhata (source: The Way to the Sacred Land).
Mount Gurla Mandhata (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).

 

The Tibetan landscape near Mount Kailash (Source:
The landscape at Surong County in Ngari Preferecture near Mount Kailash (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).

 

Delphinium brunooionum (musk larkspur) as seen by pilgrims performing kora (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).
Delphinium brunonianum growing near a path taken by pilgrims (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).

 

Plants at the Kailash Landscape (source: The Way to the Sacred Land).
Wildflowers and berries of the Kailash region (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).

 

A pilgrim at Mount Kailash (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).
A pilgrim at Mount Kailash (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).

Himalayan Region Considers Climatic Threat to Hydropower Future

Glacial melt is threatening the Hindu Kush Himalayan region’s development of potential hydropower. A recent forum convened by the Kathmandu-based organization International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) highlighted the climatic and social challenges that accompany the establishment and sustainability of the region’s hydropower sector.

The Sept. 1 event event, “Managing climate and social risks key to hydropower development,” held in Stockholm, Sweden, was co-organized with the Stockholm International Water Institute, in addition to the research and consulting organization FutureWater and Statkraft, a Norwegian state-owned hydropower company.

The Hindu Kush Himalayan region has nearly 500 GW hydropower potential, but only a fraction of it has been developed, despite the “increased climatic and social risks” this problem creates, according to ICIMOD. 

“There is a need to manage risks so that the mountains and the plains derive sustainable benefits from the region’s rich hydropower potential,” said David Molden, the Director General of ICIMOD, according to the organization’s media release.

David Molden, the Director General of ICIMOD, speaks at the September conference. (Photo courtesy Udayan Mishra/ICIMOD).
David Molden, the Director General of ICIMOD, speaks at the September conference. (Photo courtesy Udayan Mishra/ICIMOD).

The Asian mountain range extends across eight countries, from Afghanistan into Myanmar. Collectively, the biodiverse region, with 10 major river basins, directly supports the livelihoods of more than 210 million mountain inhabitants. The Hindu Kush Himalayan region, sometimes called HKH, also has the highest concentration of snow and glaciers outside the polar region, with 54,252 glaciers identified last year — meaning 1.4 percent of the region is glaciated.

Glacial retreat, onset by the impacts of climate change and warming atmospheres, varies, but has been observed across all HKH glaciers in the last few decades. Overall, the decrease in glacial mass in this region over the last several decades has been among the most pronounced worldwide.

“This surely is one of the most vulnerable regions,” said Molden during a video interview at the event.

“It is highly vulnerable to climate change and the people in the mountains are not the ones emitting the greenhouse gases, but really the ones paying the price for climate change. Some of the issues we are seeing are melting ice, permafrost… changes in rainfall patterns that will make a big difference in this region… we really have to pay attention to the area.”

Over 80 percent of the glaciers in the Himalayas have not been researched, as GlacierHub previously reported.

A view of the Nepalese Himalayas along the HKH. (Photo courtesy Flickr).
A view of the Nepalese Himalayas along the HKH. (Photo courtesy Flickr).

Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) in the area, along with landslides, have also increased in recent years, placing “existing and planned hydropower plants at risk,” according to the organization.

While the Indian Himalayas has the potential to produce 150,000 MW of hydropower each year, only 27 percent of that power has actually been developed. In Nepal, only 2 percent of the region’s hydropower sources are utilized.

Companies at the September meeting expressed concern about a number of risks in generating hydrpower in the region, Molden said in the video interview. The first step, he explained, is understanding the challenges. These include tracking changes in hydrology water resources that come from glacial melt. While melting glaciers increase water flows in rivers  for short periods of time, their contribution to river systems will gradually lessen.

There are also challenges related to GLOFs, and the damage the outburst floods could inflict on hydropower plants.

Aditi Mukherji, ICIMOD’s theme leader in water and air, spoke at at the meeting, presenting on how while hydropower is produced in the mountains of India, for example, mountain people there do not always receive direct commensurate benefits from the production of the energy sources. The consultation of communities in the construction of hydropower plants was also highlighted as another ongoing issue.

Presenters at the session on "Mountains, glaciers and hydropower in a changing climate" in Stockholm. (Photo courtesy Udayan Mishra/ICIMOD).
Presenters at the session on “Mountains, glaciers and hydropower in a changing climate” in Stockholm. (Photo courtesy Udayan Mishra/ICIMOD).

Martin Hornsberg, of Statkraft, also presented at the conference, discussing how many run-off-river hydropower plants in the Himalayas depend largely on the current available surface runoff. Some ongoing challenges include deciding which emission scenarios should be assumed, as well as which climate models should be considered.

His presentation explained how hydropower plants will likely be impacted by a future decrease of water discharge and run off during the dry seasons, possibly also the wet seasons, in a worst case scenario that Hornsberg laid out for conference participants. He suggested that reservoirs would be helpful to balance inflow, but would “require more investment, have a larger impact on the environment and on local communities.”

The September event came at the end of World Water Week, created to serve as a focal point for global water issues.

Roundup: Antarctica and Greenland in peril, black carbon

Ninety percent of the western Antarctic Peninsula’s glaciers are retreating

The Antarctic Peninsula (Source: Wild Frontiers)
The Antarctic Peninsula (Source: Wild Frontiers)

From Carbon Brief: “These rivers of ice ooze their way down through the Peninsula’s rocky mountain range and into the ocean, powered by gravity and their own weight. But of the 674 glaciers on the Peninsula’s western side, almost 90% are retreating. This happens when their ice melts faster than new snowfall can replenish it.

“The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest warming regions on Earth. Temperatures have risen by more than 3C over the past 50 years. The warming atmosphere has caused some remarkable changes to the eastern side of the Peninsula. The Larsen ice shelf, a floating sheet of ice formed from glaciers spilling out onto the cold ocean, has lost two of its four sections in recent decades.”

Learn more about the Antarctic Peninsula’s glaciers and effects on the ocean here.

 

Greenland lost a mind-blowing 1 trillion tons of ice in under four years

Greenland's cumulative melt days in 2016
Greenland’s cumulative melt days in 2016

From Washington Post: “It’s the latest story in a long series of increasingly worrisome studies on ice loss in Greenland. Research already suggests that the ice sheet has lost at least 9 trillion tons of ice in the past century and that the rate of loss has increased over time. Climate scientists are keeping a close eye on the region because of its potentially huge contributions to future sea-level rise (around 20 feet if the whole thing were to melt) — not to mention the damage it’s already done. Ice loss from Greenland may have contributed as much as a full inch of sea-level rise in the last 100 years and up to 10 percent of all the sea-level rise that’s been documented since the 1990s.

“Overall, the ice loss was particularly prevalent in the southwest, but the scientists noted that there were also losses observed in the cooler, northern parts of the ice sheet. Notably, the researchers also found that a solid 12 percent of all the ice loss came from just a handful of glaciers composing less than 1 percent of the ice sheet’s total area.”

Read more here.

 

Understanding black carbon impact on glaciers

The ice surrounding this climate station is covered by dust, black carbon, ice algae
The ice surrounding this climate station is covered by dust, black carbon, ice algae (Source: PBS)

From International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD): “In April 2016 and team of glaciologists and experts from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development’s (ICIMOD) and partner organisations — Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, Utrecht University, Kathmandu University (KU),Tribhuvan University (TU), Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVI) went to Langtang for a field visit.

“‘The elevation of Yala Glacier is higher compared to those in Pakistan. Gulkin Glacier, in Pakistan, starts from 2700 to 4000 m, so there was almost no snow on the glacier in this season. Only towards the top of the glacier at around 4000m AMSL snow was present. The rest of the glacier was mostly debris’, Chaman said. Sachin Glacier, at 3200- 4000m AMSL, is different to Yala and Gulkin, and samples collected from this glacier represent semi-aged or aged-snow. ‘There was fresh snow on the night of collection so the samples were very fresh’  Chaman said of Langtang. He expects to see large variability in black carbon concentrations in the samples, contributing to effect of elevation, geographical location, glacier type, age and fresh samples.”

Learn more here.

 

Military intervention at Nepal’s fastest growing glacial lake

Ten kilometres south of Mount Everest lies Nepal’s “fastest-growing glacier lake”— Imja Tsho. In March 2016, acting to mitigate potential threats the lake might pose to over 96,000 people downriver, the Nepalese Army began installing syphons to lower the water level by 10 feet (3 m).

The army’s engineering department, commissioned by Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM), is now conducting “the highest altitude disaster risk mitigation work ever performed by any army in the world,” according Lt Col Bharat Lal ShresthaLocally, the remediation will bolster the confidence of flood-prone communities, and is likely to assuage fears of downstream developers, which have been concerns elsewhere in the region.

The soldiers can only work two to three hours a day, due to the thin air, and strain of working at 16,400 feet (5,000 m). The project aims to safeguard lives, livelihoods, and infrastructure throughout Solukhumbu District — home to Mount Everest and the major religious site of Tengboche Monastery — as well as further downstream.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Global Environment Facility (GEF) — the world’s largest fund addressing environmental issues — are financing the US$7.2 million remedial works at Imja Tsho,  often cited as an especially dangerous lake. This has been reinforced by local perceptions and its proximity to Everest’s trekking routes.

Imja Tsho and the surrounding Everest region (Source: NASA Earth Observatory, annotated)
Imja Tsho and the surrounding Everest region (Source: NASA Earth Observatory, annotated by Sam Inglis, GlacierHub)

A report by the  BBC in June 2016 claimed that the 2015 Gorkha earthquakes “may further have destabilised” the lake. However, the results of ’Rapid Reconnaissance Surveys’ made public in December 2015 revealed “[Imja] showed no indication of earthquake damage when viewed either by satellite or by a helicopter.

The UNDP and GEF’s selection of Imja pivots on a single study by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) from 2011, which defies much of the preceding and independent research on the lake. ICIMOD is an intergovernmental agency headquartered in Kathmandu, researching Nepal’s glaciers and mountains hazards and also involved  in the current engineering works.

Studies by Japanese, British and American teams concluded that the surrounding topography shelters Imja from mass movements. ICIMOD deprioritized Imja’s status. Their 2011 national report stated, “[despite] the apparently alarming rate of [Imja Tsho’s] expansion…the danger of outburst came to be regarded as far less than originally expected.” Concurring with the international researchers, they also ruled out the possibility of a GLOF-triggering ice avalanche as ”[not] very likely.”

The lead authors of the 2011 study subsequently gave compelling evidence in 2015 for remediation at another glacial lake — Thulagi Tsho. Narendra Raj Khanal and six colleagues from ICIMOD revealed Thulagi posed a “high risk.” Over 164,000 people would be directly impacted by a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF), with a further 2 million indirectly exposed — four times the number at Imja. Threats to hydropower facilities were a key concern highlighted by UNDP and GEF. However, there are six hydropower projects below Thulagi, and one below Imja.

Imja is being drained 10 feet (3 m) over 4 years — costing nearly US$7 per gallon. However, research led by the University of Texas has shown that this minor reduction would have a negligible impact on a GLOF. Daene McKinney and Alton Byers also stated that it offered an insignificant “3 percent risk reduction.”

Imja Tsho presently covers 135 ha (1.35 km2), holding nearly 20 billion gallons (75.2 million m3) of meltwater — enough water to meet all New York State’s water needs for nearly two and a half days. It is fed by Imja Glacier, which has wasted 1.4 miles (2.2 km) over less than 40 years. Imja Glacier has “exhibited the largest loss rate in the Khumbu region,” according to research by the University of Texas and The Mountain Institute.

The evolution of Imja Tsho from 1976-2016 (Source: USGS Landsat Archive)
The evolution of Imja Tsho from 1976-2016 (Source: USGS Landsat Archive)

Nepal began inventorying its glaciers and glacial lakes in earnest in 1999 — “after global warming had become a sexy topic,” claimed independent observer Seth Sicroff. ICIMOD publishing the findings in 2001. They detected 2,323 glacial lakes, classifying twenty — less than one percent —as “potentially dangerous.”

GLOFs, which typically occur when a dam barring a glacial lake fails, gained greater attention as a point of investigations in the 1980s, following a catastrophic outburst at Dig Tsho. At the “request” of Khumbu residents, German geoscientists Wolfgang Grabs and Joerg Hanisch travelled to the Everest region in 1993 to study local glacial hazards, and establish an hazard assessment criteria. They speculated that syphoning water, and lowering the level by 16.4 feet (5 m) could “stabilize” lake against overtopping surge waves pouring over the dam.

The syphon was first adopted at Tsho Rolpa — Nepal’s largest glacial lake — in May 1995. By 1998, following 4 years of investigations, Professor John Reynolds — then-chief technical adviser on glacial lakes to the Nepalese government — designated it the “most dangerous glacial lake in Nepal.”

A repeat of the 1985 GLOF has long been feared in Rolwaling Valley — a mere 6 miles (10 km) east of Dig Tsho. The DHM projected Tsho Rolpa could release of over 8 billion gallons (30 million m3) of meltwater — threefold the volume of 1985 GLOF, and equivalent to the volumes of 12,000 olympic swimming pools. Over 10,000 local inhabitants, and US$22 million-worth of infrastructure and property as far as 62 miles (100 km) down-valley, were thought to be threatened.

In 2013, a Japanese research team revealed that the “potential flood volume” at Tsho Rolpa has tripled, and is now closer to 23.6 billion gallons (89.6 million m3).

By July 2000, a 13 foot (4 m) US$3.1 million spillway had been constructed, reducing the water level by 9-13 feet (3-4 m). Reynolds recommended that engineering works be continued until the lake level was 49-65 feet (15-20 m) below its 1998 level. Five DHM experts and Reynolds co-authored a paper emphasising, “While the lowering of the lake level by [9.8 feet] 3 m [was] expected to reduce the risk of GLOF, it is not a permanent solution.” Their explicit intention was to continue lowering in the “near future,” as soon as funds were allocated for disaster mitigation in Nepal.

Sluice gate at Tsho Rolpa (Source: Brian Collins/USGS)
Sluice gate at Tsho Rolpa (Source: Brian Collins/USGS)

Funds were never found and, in the early 2000s, Maoist insurgents infiltrated the area. They dismantled Tsho Rolpa’s ‘Community-Based Early Warning System’ (CBEWS) in 2002. It was not until 2012 — a decade after the insurgence had been quelled — that replacements were pledged. The CBEWS was expected to be back online in early 2016.

A misplaced “trust in western technology” resulted in locals complacently believing there was “no further danger,” according to anthropologist Dr Janice Sacherer of the University of Maryland. This sentiment persists, and no further work has been budgeted for Tsho Rolpa in the near future. This is largely attributable to the limited funds available to the DHM, who receive a bulk of their funding from international NGOs, aid agencies and foreign governments.

It has been long been hoped that funds would be diverted to counter the immediate threat posed by Tsho Rolpa. The UNDP’s 2013 technical report stated 141,911 people within 62 miles (100 km) of Tsho Rolpa are exposed to the direct impacts of a GLOF, compared to the 96,767 living 75 miles (120 km) below Imja Tsho. However, the UNDP report justifies its decision to focus on Imja by revealing that the economic toll through lost revenue at Imja would be US$8.98 billion — nearly four times that downstream of Tsho Rolpa.

In 2007, under-development of the Rolwaling Valley was attributed, at least in part, to the omnipresent threat of a massive GLOF.

With a US$7.2 million price-tag, a military cohort that can only work a few hours a day, other sites requiring more immediate attention, and the syphoning method being deemed a “Band-Aid solution,” only time will tell if the money and effort expended on Imja Tsho were warranted.

Transnational Solutions to Preserve Yak Populations in Himalayas

In the extreme altitudes and harsh conditions of the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region, yak herding is more than a way of life–it is a way to survive. Environmental change currently threatens yak populations in the region, and undermines the livelihoods of the communities they support. However, a recent report raises hopes of protecting yaks through international cooperation within the region.

The International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) released a special publication in May on yaks in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, also known as HKH. The report, “Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing Hindu Kush Himalayan Region,” includes a compilation of studies and presentations from the 5th International Conference on Yak held in Lanzhou that suggest international, rather than local, policy decisions may be the key to preserving yak populations.

Yak on the Move Report Cover (ICIMOD)
Yak on the Move Report Cover (source: ICIMOD)

Despite the species’ importance within the region, there is a significant lack of scientific research necessary to address the growing challenges posed by climate change. This report is an important first step in filling the gap of knowledge about yak herding and management. As David Molden, Director General of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, writes in the report, ‘The articles clearly indicate the need to develop a comprehensive understanding of the ecological, socioeconomic, and cultural role of yak, and its implications for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development at a local, regional, and even global scale.” The importance of yaks is highlighted by the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, which states that yaks have played an important role in HKH life from Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies and economic activity, to preserving ecological diversity of high altitude rangelands through grazing patterns.  

This report is the second publication on yaks compiled by ICIMOD following a 1996 report co-edited by United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization. It aims to bring multiple stakeholders together to discuss the growing challenges faced by pastoral communities in the high-altitude and glacier-covered ecosystems in the HKH region.

Yak on the Move is representative of ICIMOD’s transnational approach to conservation and policy, including research on a range of Hindu Kush Himalayan member countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, India, and China.

Yak grazing in the mountains of Tibet. (Photo: Wiki)
Yak grazing in the mountains of Tibet. (Photo: Wiki)

The report explores yak herding and challenges, policy and institutional arrangements, and yak cross-breeding practices. The analysis as a whole offers the case for developing international solutions to the many challenges faced by yak-herders—environmental change among the most pressing.

The Hindu Kush Himalayan region, often referred to as the “Third Pole,” holds 30 percent of the world’s glaciers and is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change and glacial melting. Temperature increases are more pronounced at higher elevations, accelerating glacier retreat in the region and impacting yaks and pastoral communities. Yaks’ woolly undercoat makes them well-adapted for the intense cold of Himalayan winters, but also puts them at acute risk if temperatures increase. While struggling to protect their livelihoods, herders are displaced and forced to move to increasingly harsh landscapes and remote altitudes.

Some of climate change’s negative impacts on yak, including habitat reduction, are outlined in “Coping with Borders: Yak Raising in Transboundary Landscapes of the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region,” the first article in the report. When yaks are only able to graze in small areas, the rangeland cannot recover. The piece notes that pastoral communities have been forced to move to increasingly higher elevations, causing a cycle of further land use change and degradation.

Yaks in a wetland at Haluphu below Jomolhari source: Ben Orlove
Yaks in a wetland below Jomolhari in Bhutan (source: Ben Orlove)

However, rising temperatures are not the only threat to high-altitude ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.

Forest degradation, human-wildlife conflict and illegal trade of rare wildlife and plants are also isolated by ICIMOD as harmful to the area’s wildlife and human population.

The report’s authors find that the combined effect of mismanaged human activity and yak husbandry in the region cause land use changes that can lead to flooding and landslides, putting communities’ safety and livelihoods at further risk–risks that cross national borders. Therefore, while each country, and even community, have unique barriers to yak raising, climate change is a challenge that is universal throughout the region and cannot be solved without the combined efforts of the Hindu Kush Himalayan nations.

ICIMOD Conference Focuses on Climate Change in Himalayas

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) held a conference, “Climate and Environmental Change Impacts in Indus Basin Waters,”in Kathmandu in February. At this conference, scientists shared the common idea that a lack of data on the Himalayas is impeding their knowledge of the region and how climate change might affect it— and how that, in turn, could affect the region’s many millions of people.

Participants in Indus Basin Conference, Kathmandu 2016 (source: ICIMOD)
Participants in Indus basin conference, Kathmandu 2016 (source: ICIMOD)

Over 80 people attended the conference, which was also supported by  the World Bank, and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).  It was focused on improving understanding of research on climate change’s effects in the Indus basin. The importance of this basin was underscored by Dr Eklabya Sharma, Director, Programme Operations at ICIMOD, who told the conference, “The Indus River supports a population of about 215 million inhabitants of Afghanistan, China, India and Pakistan whose livelihoods are directly or indirectly dependent on it.” He indicated that cooperation among these nation was a necessary step for the development of research to understand climate change impacts in this basin.

The conference’s opening speech was delivered by Hafeez-ur-Rehman, the chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan,  a large autonomous region in northern Pakistan . “The seasonal shift in snowfall to late spring and the subsequent heat waves lasting two to three days have caused rapid melting of snow — preventing glacier formation — flash floods, early avalanches, and loss of life and property,” Rehman said, according to a statement. James Clarke, the director of Communications and Marketing of IWMI, followed with a speech to welcome journalists from all four Indus basin countries, signaling the importance of the media and of outreach to civil society. 

According to Tobias Bolch, a glaciologist from the University of Zurich, over 80 percent of glaciers in the Himalayas haven’t been researched. “The bulk of the glaciers in Himalayas are yet to be studied in detail,” Bolch said, according to a report on SciDev.net. There are still many problems with scientific assessments and appropriate policy action because of significant uncertainties on Himalayan glacier changes. Scientific studies and data are currently inadequate for analysis of the status and trends of glaciers in the Himalayas. This in turn impedes the development of future predictions about the region, and obstructs effective action to adapt to anticipated changes there.

Journalists and researchers at a joint panel, Indus basin conference (source: Farah Ahmed/Tiwtter)
Journalists and researchers at a joint panel, Indus basin conference (source: Farah Ahmed/Twitter)

The conference took some concrete steps to address this need for regional coordination of research.  It suggested the importance of strengthening the Upper Indus Basin Network, a group which promotes coordination among organizations in the region and the involvement of policy holders and other stakeholders in defining research programs. This Upper Indus Basin Network includes ICIMOD as well as other organizations, including Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), the Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), the branch of the World Wildlife Fund in Gilgit Baltistan, and FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance, which is part of the Aga Khan Development Network. These organizations have already collaborated on other issues, including water resources and biodiversity protection. They have issued policy briefs which discuss concrete forms of management and governance for more effective water use under conditions of climate change.

The conference lent provided strong support to this network at a critical moment, when collaboration is an urgent  need. As Shakil Romshoo, of Kashmir University, told SciDev.Net, a lack of data and modeling impede studying glaciers and climate change. “Such constraints do not allow us to make scientific estimates as to how the future climate change will affect the water resources of Indus basin,” he said. The conference may well help the different parties in the region work together to overcome these constraints.