Nepal Considers Uranium Mining Proposal in the Himalayas

In March 2019, lawmakers in Nepal proposed 17 amendments to the Safe and Peaceful Use of Nuclear and Radioactive Materials bill. Originally drafted almost a decade ago, the bill was presumably dead on arrival, but is now being resurrected in the wake of recently discovered uranium deposits in the Upper Mustang region of Nepal. The bill was officially re-introduced in December 2018, and in subsequent months a contentious debate has emerged on whether or not Nepal’s future should include nuclear power.

Sketch of the Mustang region in Nepal––Lomangthang is the area of Upper Mustang where a large uranium recently was found (Source: Goran tek-en/Wikipedia).

The nuclear bill would make uranium mining, enrichment, import, and export permissible and establish Nepal as a place where nuclear and radioactive substances could be stored. It would allow uranium enrichment facilities as well as nuclear research reactors (NRRs), which produce neutrons from enriched uranium to be used in medicine, industry, and other research, but do not generate power. To regulate the nuclear and radioactive power sector, the bill would allot non-transferable licenses and establish sanctions for technology misuse resulting in injury or death.

When proposed amendments came out in March, most excluded the word “nuclear” from the bill. Almost all lawmakers thought that nuclear power, if at all, should be addressed in a separate bill, rather than one regarding the use of radioactive materials. Many also opposed storage of nuclear weapons and nuclear power generation as a whole. For now, it is up to parliament to decide how the bill should be amended to address these concerns.

Back in 2014, a ground radiometric survey revealed a huge deposit of uranium ore in Nepal’s Upper Mustang region. Upper Mustang, formerly the elusive Kingdom of Lo, is tucked into the Himalayas right at Nepal’s northern border with Tibet. One of the most remote and isolated areas of the world, the entire Mustang region is home to around 13,000 people.

The Kali Gandaki river bed, part of the Gandaki river watershed in the Upper Mustang region of Nepal (Source: Carsten.nebel).

The Mustang region also accounts for more than 15 percent of Nepal’s glaciers, which feed the Kali Gandaki River. Despite the small population in its immediate surroundings, the largerGandaki River watershed provides water to some 40 million people.

Preliminary research, confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), suggests that the 10-kilometer-long, 3-kilometer-wide uranium deposit in Upper Mustang could be “of the highest grade.” Currently, however, there is no law governing uranium extraction or nuclear technology use in Nepal. In the absence of such legislation, the government has no means to carry out these activities, which can be exorbitantly expensive to undertake.

Proponents cite this gap as their motivation for endorsing the bill. For example, Nepal does not have the ability to import any nuclear-related technology necessary for treating cancer patients or to buy technology for nuclear power.

Giriraj Mani Pokharel, Nepal’s Minister of Education, Science, and Technology, is leading the charge for uranium extraction, production, and trade in Nepal. Under Pokharel’s direction, the ministry was responsible for introducing the nuclear bill in the first place. At an IAEA conference in December 2018, he said, “The goal of the country’s prosperity cannot be achieved without its development. So, opening a nuclear research center in Nepal is an urgent need.”

Landscape of Upper Mustang, with snow-covered mountains in the background (Source: 112tje/Flickr).

Though support for the bill is strong, several members of parliament, as well as Nepali people have pushed back equally as much, and for a number of reasons. In an opinion piece published on myRepública, Mahesh K. Maskey, the former ambassador of Nepal to China declared, “Uranium is a dirty and dangerous source of energy and radioisotopes. Dirty because it is detrimental not only to human and other life forms, but also to soil, water and air since its radioactive waste can remain for millions of years, bringing untold damage to the fragile environment of earth.”

His statement has relevance for the Upper Mustang region, its glaciers are perched on the roof of the world, forming a watershed that nourishes life and land all across Nepal, even reaching millions in China and India. To approve a uranium mining operation next door could put the entire Gandaki watershed at risk of contamination through radioactive pollution. In addition, Mustang’s uranium site is a mere 10 km from the Tibetan border, meaning Nepal could become responsible for imposing a radioactive hazard on people outside its borders.

Extractive industries are extremely expensive to undertake, especially if environmental protection is to be considered. The nuclear weapons potential of uranium is an additional complication. To offset the costs of mining uranium, Nepal would have to sell excess to other countries. At this prospect, Maskey surmised, “If we take a moment to think which country Nepal will approach to sell its uranium, we will realize how unthinkable such thought is.” Competition between the nuclear powers encircling Nepal could destabilize political relations, exacerbating the vulnerability of Nepal’s resources.

Read more on GlacierHub:

A Collaboration on Mustang, Nepal: Capturing Its Culture and History in Black and White

Ice Loss, Gravity, and Asian Glacier Slowdown

Mountain Spirits and the Shaking Earth

Presence and Absence: Mourning a Himalayan King

A shortened version of this article was published in the Nepali Times on December 23, 2016.

 

King Jigme Palbar Bista, Mustang's king until 2008 (Source: Macduff Everton/Courtesy of Nepali Times).
King Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista (Source: Macduff Everton/Courtesy of Nepali Times).

One Thursday last month, not much before noon, I was walking through a forest steeped in snow, in rural Vermont. Sun came and went between the clouds. It was quiet, spare. Crystalline light reflected off the frozen surface of a nearby pond. The world felt peaceful, filled with grace and presence, even as it was marked by absence: the bareness of birch trees, the pale winter light.

I did not know it at the time, but as I was walking, at what was the first hour of Friday December 16, in Kathmandu, Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista, the King of Lo, or Upper Mustang, was leaving the shell of his body, his consciousness released. He was 86 years old, and had ruled his kingdom for more than half a century with equanimity. I had the good fortune to have known him, in some small way, for the last twenty years. We shared an affinity for horses and a love of the landscape he called home. It is fair to say that meeting him altered the course of my life.

View of the walled city of Lo Manthang, Nepal (Source: Tom Kelly/Courtesy of Nepali Times).
View of the walled city of Lo Manthang, Nepal (Source: Thomas Kelly/Courtesy of Nepali Times).

Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista was known by many names. In Nepali, people referred to him as the Mustang Raja, one of four “petty kings” – including local rulers in Bajhang, Salyan, and Jajarkot – who retained regional power even as their territories were incorporated into the emerging nation-state of Nepal in the mid-18th century. These “petty kings” were recognized by Nepali law from 1961 until 2008, when Nepal transitioned from a Hindu monarchy to a secular republic.

Khen Rimpoche from Tsarang, Mustang conducts religious ceremony at cremation of former King of Mustang, Jiigme Palbar Bista. 1930/ 2016. Jigme Palbar Bista, former king of Mustang, passed away on Friday. he was 86. Bista, a popular figure in his home district, died at Chabahil based Om Hospital where he was admitted on December 13 with acute exacerbation of pneumonia.
A funeral ceremony at the cremation of the former King of Mustang (Source: Thomas Kelly/Courtesy of photographer).

In Tibetan, Bista was called Lo Gyalpo, or the King of Lo, evoking a sense of respect and deference akin to the titles given to kings of neighboring Bhutan and Sikkim. The fact that Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista had been officially stripped of his raja title by the Nepali state did little to affect his importance in the lives of Loba, people from upper Mustang. To them, he was far from “petty” in his influence.

Stupa and mani wall in Mustang (Source: Shravasti Dhammika).
A stupa and mani wall in Mustang (Source: Shravasti Dhammika).

To Loba, he was often called Kundun. This Tibetan word means “presence.” It is the same term of address that is often used by Tibetans to refer to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This gives one a sense of just how important this person was to the people of Mustang. He helped to define and defend a people, a place, a way of life, and a sense of belonging to the high pastures and valleys, the canyons and plains, the monasteries and villages of this Himalayan enclave.

Bista was 25th in a lineage of rulers that dates back to the late 14th century, and the founding of the kingdom by a western Tibetan leader named Amepal. In 1964, when he was in his mid-thirties, Bista assumed the title of Lo Gyalpo after the death of his father. He was his father’s youngest son.

Queen Sidol Palbar Bista in Lo Manthang (Source: Tom Kelly/Courtesy of Nepali Times).
Queen Sidol Palbar Bista in Kathmandu (Source: Thomas Kelly/Courtesy of Nepali Times).

Bista married Sidol Palwar, a refined, elegant woman who traveled from Shigatse, Tibet, to Lo as a bride in 1950, before the political upheavals of 1959. They had no living biological children, but the couple adopted their nephew, Jigme Singe Palbar Bista, as son and heir.

Over the past half-century, Bista ushered his community through massive political-economic and sociocultural transitions: the stationing in Mustang of Chushi Gangdruk, the Tibetan Resistance Army, from 1961 until 1974; opening Lo to foreign tourists in 1992, after Nepal’s first jan andolan, or People’s Movement, in 1990; the decade-long People’s War (1996-2006) and its attendant impacts on all aspects of life in rural Nepal, even in a district that saw minimal direct conflict; the end of the Nepali monarchy in 2008; the recent completion of a motorable road that now links Mustang with the Chinese border to the north and Pokhara to the south; and the earthquakes of Spring 2015.

People from Mustang converge at Teku cremation ground to pay last homage to their beloved king (Source: Tom Kelly/Courtesy of Nepali Times).
People of Mustang at Teku cremation ground (Source: Thomas Kelly/Courtesy of Nepali Times).

Bista also lived to see the impacts of climate change on Mustang’s environment, a complex social ecology that balances irrigated agriculture, pastoralism, and trade.  As an example of this, two of Lo’s villages have been relocated in recent years as a result of water shortages as some of Mustang’s glaciers shrink and headwaters run dry. This, in addition to the recent discovery of uranium deposits in upper Mustang, bring to light some of the environmental and geopolitical crucibles facing this region. On top of all of these shifts, Bista bore witness to profound internal transitions within Mustang’s communities, brought on through education- and economically-driven outmigration. Today, the population of Loba in cities in urban Nepal and India as well as those making homes in Queens, New York, rival Lo rivals those who live in Lo.

Cremation ceremony of former King of Mustang. Teku, Nepal. Jigme Palbar Bista, former king of Mustang, passed away on Friday. he was 86. Bista, a popular figure in his home district, died at Chabahil based Om Hospital where he was admitted on December 13 with acute exacerbation of pneumonia. "We are immensely sad to announce the sudden demise of Jigme Palbar Bista (King of Mustang from 1965-2008) at 12:50am in our hospital," the hopsital said in its notice. Hospital's MD Babu Kaji Karki told that the body of the former King would be kept at a Bouddha monastery for well wishers to pay homage and cremate the body as per the advice per the advise of Jyotish Lamas. Bista, who was born in 1930 in Lo Manthang, had ascended to the throne after his father king Angun Tnezing Trandul's demise in 1964.
Cremation pyre of former King of Mustang in Teku, Nepal (Source: Thomas Kelly/Courtesy of Nepali Times).

When I picture the Lo Gyalpo, I see his stately dignity. He had expressive lips which formed words of advice or considered action for his people and, especially in recent years, shaped the syllables of Buddhist prayer with humility and devotion. He was a beautiful, intense presence. During our meetings, be they formal audiences at Khar, the palace and his residence in the walled city of Lo Monthang, or over quiet cups of tea with his family in recent years in Kathmandu, I remained in awe of him. He could be serious, even stern, but then his expression would open up into a broad, friendly smile, his gold-plated tooth glinting brightly.

One of my most cherished memories of the king was traveling with him and his entourage up to the summer pastures north of Lo Monthang for days of sheep shearing, yak wrangling, picnicking, and ritually bathing his horses in a glacial stream.  It was here that I saw him as a man at work, a man filled with purpose. I will hold on to that memory, and the one of him and his male companions walking kora early each morning, circumambulating the wall that runs around Lo Monthang, which means “plain of aspiration.” There was also deep purpose in such moments: of conversation, of communion.

Jigme Palbar Bista, former king of Mustang, passed away on Friday. he was 86. Bista, a popular figure in his home district, died at Chabahil based Om Hospital where he was admitted on December 13 with acute exacerbation of pneumonia. "We are immensely sad to announce the sudden demise of Jigme Palbar Bista (King of Mustang from 1965-2008) at 12:50am in our hospital," the hopsital said in its notice. Hospital's MD Babu Kaji Karki told that the body of the former King would be kept at a Bouddha monastery for well wishers to pay homage and cremate the body as per the advice per the advise of Jyotish Lamas. Bista, who was born in 1930 in Lo Manthang, had ascended to the throne after his father king Angun Tnezing Trandul's demise in 1964.
The family at the funeral ceremony (Source: Thomas Kelly/Courtesy of photographer).

The king’s heir, Jigme Singe Palbar Bista, along with others who belong to this generation of Mustang nobility, are invested in the future of upper Mustang. The family remains very important to the social life of Lo, even without continued recognition by the Nepali state of the local monarchy. And yet the death of the king marks the end of an era.

One of the Nepali news reports that came out in the wake of his death reported that his last words to his family members were, “Never migrate from the village and the district.”

Mustang raja pensive (Source: Sienna Craig).
King Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista observing Tempa Chirim (“Tiji”) festivities at his home in Lo Monthang, 1998 (Source: Sienna Craig).

While I have no way of confirming the veracity of this statement, I believe in its essence. Bista loved his home fiercely, with his whole being. I am also certain that, despite the challenges and changes facing Mustang, those who bear his lineage will do all they can to honor his wishes as they work to protect and thoughtfully transform their culture.

Om Mani Padme Hum.

 

Melting ice threatens to also disappear a small Nepal village

Upper Mustang village of Ghami (Tsechu Dolma/GlacierHub)
Upper Mustang village of Ghami (Tsechu Dolma/GlacierHub)

I was growing impatient waiting for the village of Samzong to appear.

After spending hours on horseback climbing over several mountain passes at 12,000 feet, my friend then pointed it out to me. I still could not find it. When I looked forward more carefully, I realized that Samzong had been in front of my eyes for an hour now. My eyes missed because it was camouflaged with the stark background of towering Himalayan ranges.

I was shocked to see how different it looked from the nearby Nepalese villages. Everything was brown.

Samzong has been living a paradoxical existence for the past decade. The village had just welcomed the harvest season with a three-day festival, though there was no harvest to celebrate. This was the growing season and nothing was coming in. No green fields were visible.

The ancient village of Samzong, located inside Mustang district in the Himalayas of northwestern Nepal, is facing disappearance as acute water shortage for irrigation and livestock in the area is forcing the villagers to consider a future elsewhere.

Upper Mustang village of Samong (Tsechu Dolma/GlacierHub)
Upper Mustang village of Samong (Tsechu Dolma/GlacierHub)

Nhubine Himal Glacier’s melt is the main source of water for Samzong. Most if not all Nepalese glaciers studied by scientists are shrinking. With rising temperatures, lower snowfall and unpredictable weather patterns, the stream of glacial melt to Samzong has disappeared. The walk to the nearest water source and back takes more than 10 hours.

On my journey to Samzong, I spotted several villages because their large green fields stood out sharply against the harsh landscape. I could see the people laboring in the fields while the children were shepherding livestock. For these villages, it was the busiest season of the year. However, almost nobody in Samzong ventured out of their houses.  little to no one outside in Samzong.

The village had once been the main port connecting the northern Tibetan civilization and the southern Indic neighbors. Cultural records of Samzong date back to 3,000 years. Today, Samzong villagers are the Himalaya’s first climate refugees as the entire village is (quite literally) taking the foundations from their ancestral home to a new location. Samzong villagers have decided that their home is no longer habitable and they plan to move by summer 2014. KAM for SUD, a Swiss NGO that works for sustainable development in Nepal, and Lo-Mustang Foundation, a local NGO, are assisting in the relocation.

There was not much to do during my last visit to Samzong in May 2013, but sit around with rest of the villagers. They joked about how much free time they had now that they do not have to farm for a living. The villagers sing local work songs about farming and harvest; one young woman pointed out that she could not relate to these songs, which she had once liked very much, because she felt they were not about Samzong any more. As a funny rebuttal, a local 50-year-old man started making up lyrics to folk tunes about dry brown fields, wat

In a small area of Nepal, it’s China that steps in to give aid

https://www.flickr.com/photos/tigermuse/5115870612/in/photostream/
Villages in Nepal’s Upper Mustang are receiving support from an unlikely source: China. (Manfred Lentz/Flickr)

Encroaching on its neighbor, China has been building roads and providing grain to Nepal.

As most, if not all, Nepalese glaciers studied by scientists are shrinking, traditional ways of subsistence living has become increasingly difficult. With warming, lower snowfall and unpredictable weather patterns, the streams of glacial meltwater that supplies several Himalayan villages have disappeared.

For the past decade or so , harvest yields have been dwindling in some Upper Mustang villages due to an acute water shortage. Upper Mustang in northwestern Nepal is surrounded by Tibet to the west, east and north. The region’s main source of water, the Nhumina Himal glacier, is becoming unreliable as some meltwater streams have already dried up.

Today, instead of farming, the villagers wait for aid from China.

China provides rice, other grains, sugar and salt in aid. In recent years, most Upper Mustang villages have declined the help; they say that the aid products are very low quality. Only a few villages, out of desperation to survive, have to accept aid. Locals claim that their houses are inspected by Chinese officials to make sure that items they do not approve of, such as photos of the Dalai Lama, are taken down before they receive the aid.

The Samzong villagers, for example, mentioned that they disdain accepting aid from China. They think that China is using the aid to slowly gain control of the Nepal Himalayas, especially regions like Upper Mustang which were historically part of Tibetan Buddhist culture.

“What China is doing to us is exactly what China did to Tibet pre-1959,” said one 40-year-old woman. “They first come in, pretending to be nice by giving us grains. They pretend that they are building us roads for our welfare. These are all lies. Slowly but surely they are going to gain control of our land and subjugate us to oppression as they did to the Tibetans. The Nepali government is not going to defend us because they are accepting bribes from China too.”

The Chinese infrastructural influence is already present in Upper Mustang. Because there is no road from the low-lying Nepali districts to the district, most of the goods and services are brought from China, including motorcycles, soft drinks and chocolate. The Chinese are currently funding a road to connect Upper Mustang, expected to be complete by 2015.

The Nepali government’s development efforts have long been absent in this region. Last December, China announced that it will be increasing aid to Nepal with the condition that anti-China activities are removed and fleeing Tibetan refugees are returned to China. As nearby glaciers were used in 1960s-70s by the Tibetan Resistance Army as refuges from which they carried  out covert guerrilla actions against   Chinese army units, Upper Mustang is of special interest to China.

For those in Upper Mustang, fear comes from not just the melting glacial ice, but their neighbor to the north.