Nepali Villagers Trapped Under Threat of Glacier Floods

One month after the first of two major earthquakes in Nepal, 38 villages, 834 households and 4600 people continue to wait for substantial relief efforts and remain uncertain about the future.

The first earthquake, which hit on April 25, severely damaged villages in Pharak, in the southern part of the Everest region in Nepal. When the second earthquake hit on May 12, what remained of villages after the first quake was destroyed.

Woman stands in front of a makeshift shelter, salvaging her belongings. She is worried about how she would be able to provide for her family now that she cannot return to her home. (Photo by Pasang and Un Sherpa)
Woman in front of a makeshift shelter, salvaging her belongings. She is worried about how she will provide for her family now that she cannot return to her home. (Photo by Pasang and Un Sherpa)

Pharak lies within Chaurikharka Village Development Committee (VDC) – the local level administrative zone – in the Solukhumbu district. So far, the government of Nepal has not listed Solukhumbu as a priority district, and major relief operations have been largely absent.

In addition to experiencing continuous tremors, villagers in Pharak are also shaken by rumors of that Imja Tsho, a glacial lake upvalley from the village, could burst and flood villages below, as it had thirty years ago.

The thought of a potentially catastrophic flood wiping out villages continues to keep villagers away from their homes and gardens where they live in tents. On May 25, a sudden concern about a glacial lake outburst flood drove hundreds of villagers to higher ground, fearing for their lives. Though Imja Tsho did not burst, there are reports that another glacial lake may have released its waters, creating high river levels downstream. According to local sources, water levels on Imja Tsho appear safe as of May 26.

Immediately after the first earthquake, I traveled to Nepal, where I joined my husband Un Sherpa, a medical volunteer, and Krishna Bhetwaal, an engineer volunteer, on a visit to Pharak to assess the community’s needs.

I am an anthropologist. I was born and raised in Kathmandu, but I often visited my mother’s home village of Jorsalle in Solukhumbu, where we would stay with her mother, who lived there. I now live in the United States, where I teach anthropology at the Pennsylvania State University.

 Dr. Krishna Bhetwaal, engineer volunteer, and I assess damage caused by a falling rock inside a home in the village of Jorsalle. After the first earthquake a giant rock rolled into this house leaving a huge hole. After the second earthquake, this house is completely damaged and uninhabitable. (Photo by Un Sherpa)
Dr. Krishna Bhetwaal, engineer volunteer, and I assess damage caused by a falling rock inside a home in the village of Jorsalle. After the first earthquake a giant rock rolled into this house leaving a huge hole. After the second earthquake, this house is completely damaged and uninhabitable. (Photo by Un Sherpa)

When I returned to Nepal after the earthquake, I visited over 200 houses in 30 villages and found that help is urgently needed.

The villages of Jorsalle, Bengkar, Gumela, Thado Koshi and Chaurikharka, to name a few, have been severely damaged with nowhere for residents to live. Families are living in crowded, cold and wet temporary tarpaulin shelters, schools are struggling to stay open, and health posts are waiting for medical supplies and staff.

To date, villagers have received tarpaulins, tents, rice, oil, salt and some cash from multiple sources. All of this, however, remains insufficient. In the region, the supplies – which have come in groups of tens or hundreds – are not enough to help the thousands in need.

Based on our assessment, there are two most vulnerable groups. The first group is the families of migrants who came to Pharak from other regions looking for better economic opportunities, and the second is the economically disadvantaged families, who did not have much to begin with even before the earthquake. Both of these groups are unseen, voiceless and without strong social networks to rely on.

House in the village of Rangding. (Photo by Pasang and Un Sherpa)

In the absence of major relief efforts and attention to the region, community members have stepped up to volunteer and exhausted their limited financial and social capital. Neighbors are lending blankets and food, while they themselves sleep outside in cold makeshift shelters. Community members are donating their own money and putting together impromptu relief efforts to help one another.

It is clear that in order to recover from this disaster and rebuild in a sustainable way, the efforts of many will be needed.

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Flooded with memories in Nepal

Trail in Pharak. (Pasang Sherpa)
Trail in Pharak. (Pasang Sherpa)

I was born and raised in Kathmandu but Monzo has always been the place I call home. Monzo is where my paternal grandmother spent all of her life tending our fields and looking after our ancestral home. Monzo is also the place where my father was born and raised until he left for Kathmandu to attend school. I visited Monzo with my brothers every year during our school breaks.

From my village in Monzo in the Sherpa region in northeastern Nepal, we need to walk at least a day, depending on how fast we go, to get close to the glaciers higher up in the mountains. Because we can’t see the glaciers until we get closer to them, we don’t talk much about them. But we sometimes talk about glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs).

In 1985, the year I was born, a high mountain lake, Dig Tsho, flooded. Although the flood came long time ago, I know about it from the stories I have heard throughout the years. My father always talked about it as we passed through the scars from landslides and the places where there were once villages, including my maternal grandmother’s natal village.

Rock painting in Khumbu. (Pasang Sherpa)
Rock painting in Khumbu. (Pasang Sherpa)

Often times, growing up, I would hear my grandparents say that some things are nomdok (inviting misfortune). Talking about bad experiences like the Dig Tsho GLOF was definitely one of them. It destroyed houses and fields, took lives and caused great distress. So, talking about GLOFs is not the most appropriate cultural thing to do from my grandparents’ perspective. But it is my hope that having conversations about them will let us prepare for an uncertain hazard-prone world of changing climate and bring us good karma in the long run.

After finishing high school in Nepal, I left the country to continue my education. Several years later, I returned to the Sherpa region to conduct research for my dissertation at an American university. During that time, I asked my aunt—actually a friend of my parents from Monzo who I called “aunt” –whether I could interview her about her experience with the Dig Tsho flood. She agreed to talk with me, but at first did not remember the event. She had not spoken about the big flood with anyone for many years, because it had happened far in the past, and there was no need to recall those stressful moments of her life. But when I persisted in asking about the big flood that came many years ago when she was young, she opened up. She was with her mother in their potato field weeding the bean plants when she heard loud noises that sounded like the thunder that lightning produces.

Rock painting in Pharek. (Pasang Sherpa)
Rock painting in Pharek. (Pasang Sherpa)

She said, “I remember the villagers calling us to come up and see what was going on on the other side of the Dudh Koshi [the major river in the region]…It was like a movie. People were running up the hill as the water below engulfed trees and rocks…so fast.”

Unlike other villages in Pharak in the central part of the Sherpa territory, Monzo is not close to the Dudh Koshi, which is fed by the mountain glaciers up north including Dig Tsho to the left and Imja Tsho to the right. So, my aunt and her family were safe but they were terrified by the experience. After the flood, her family and neighbors took shelter under a giant rock and stayed for several hours. Under the rock, they cooked potatoes, shared tales of what they saw and heard. They returned home only when the night came.

Planting potatoes. (Pasang Sherpa)
Planting potatoes. (Pasang Sherpa)

Nowadays, many people in the Sherpa region talk about the potential Imja GLOF. We have heard about the expanding Imja Tsho and the destruction it could cause to our villages. Most of this information comes to our villages from the media, the scientists and NGO sponsored projects that organize workshops there. When there is heavy monsoon rain, my maternal grandmother and her children, my uncles and aunts, worry about the rising water levels in the river. They live in Thumbuk, a village below Monzo, which is close to the river. The discussions about Imja Tsho flooding that have now spread throughout the villages leave the villagers more with a sense of dread than with a feeling of preparation.

Several years ago, my uncle and his wife found themselves running for their lives along with other villagers after they received a phone call from their friends in a different village that told them the Imja Tsho was flooding. This was later found to be a rumor spread by some people from Khumbu, a much higher Sherpa area close to the Imja Tsho. They were alarmed by a recent information-sharing workshop that discussed the potential Imja GLOF and showed its likely path of destruction, including several middle-elevation Pharak villages that would be directly affected. Among the people who fled was a young mother with her newborn child. They found refuge in their wet potato field on that cold, rainy night. The great discomfort that they experienced brought to mind my grandparents’ concern that talking about misfortune was nomdok. Even well-intentioned discussions can create misunderstanding, confusion and fear, and lead to harm that might otherwise be avoided.

This guest post was written by anthropologist Pasang Yangjee Sherpa of Penn State.  If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at or @glacierhub on Twitter.