(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Mountain communities fear melting glaciers, flooding

Pemba Sherpa looks fearfully at the huge Imjha glacier lake which lies at an altitude of nearly 6,000 metres above sea level in the Everest region of eastern Nepal.

"There were glaciers all around here. They have melted very fast over the past few decades and formed this lake which has grown dangerously fast, something I witnessed as I was growing up," Pemba told IRIN, adding that he was concerned about what would happen if the lake grew out of control.

His house in Chukung village is only a few kilometres from the rapidly growing lake.

In the past few decades, there have been several incidents of glacial lakes bursting, flooding villages, causing landslides, killing people and destroying farms and houses, said Pemba.

Only 27 years ago Imjha Tse Valley was filled with glaciers but due to a rise in temperature, they have melted at an average rate of 10 metres a year and formed a huge lake containing 28 million cubic metres of water. The lake is 100m deep, 500m wide and 2km long, according to World Wildlife Fund for Nature Conservation Nepal (WWF-Nepal), which has been advocating action to combat global warming at both the national and international level.

"The lake is absolute proof of the dangerous impact of global warming in this world, and the worst consequence is in the Himalayan region," WWF-Nepal's climate change officer, Sandeep Chamling Rai, told IRIN.

The issue of global warming is taken seriously in the Everest region, where there is a high incidence of melting of glaciers, frequent avalanches, floods and landslides, local Sherpa villagers said.

Fear of flooding

"I lost my grandchild and daughter to a huge landslide," 80-year old Dorje Sherpa said in the remote Dingboche village, lying at an altitude of nearly 5,000m. Nearly 14 years ago, they were crushed by a huge landslide caused by flooding from a glacial lake in nearby Amadablam mountain.

"I watched helplessly as the landslide destroyed the house they were sleeping in," he said. The landslide killed about six people that night.

''The lake is absolute proof of the dangerous impact of global warming in this world, and the worst consequence is in the Himalayan region.''

Dorje is not the only villager who suffered. In another village called Ghat, floods in 1985 also affected local residents. "My house is still under that debris," said 85-year old Monk Nawa Jigtar.

In that year, Dig Tsho Lake burst out of its moraine walls (stone and mud walls holding the water back) and the flood rushed 90km from Langmoche valley to Ghat.

The monk, who witnessed the disaster, told how the floods destroyed bridges and main trails, and left in its wake a gorge instead of a settlement.

The villagers managed to rebuild their houses with the help of WWF-Nepal and the government's Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), but they still fear there could be a worse disaster were Lake Imjha to burst its banks.

"We were lucky the flood was during the day. A lot of people could have died if it had happened at night," said 32-year-old Ang Maya Sherpa, who was just a teenager when she witnessed the flood in her Thamo village, which is a two-day trek from Ghat.

Ang Maya and other villagers did not sleep that night as the flood lasted several hours. They all watched as their livestock were swept away by the raging waters. The flood cut off main roads, trapping villagers for over 20 days before they could make their way to safe areas.

Memories of the floods are still fresh for many Sherpa villagers, and the hills still bear the scars. A few hours’ trek between Thamo and Thame there was evidence all around of how the floodwaters had forced their way through the hills.

"Even today, we are scared of crossing bridges built over the 'angry' waters. We don't know when there will be a sudden flood again," said 21-year old Tenzing Sherpa, a professional guide and son of one of the five famous 'Sherpa Tigers' who accompanied and helped Sir Edmund Hillary during the first ever conquest of Everest’s summit.

Twenty lakes at risk

Tenzing was 12 years old when he started work as a tourist guide, travelling frequently to the base camps of Everest, Amadablam, Nuptse and Lhotse. "My generation has gradually started to understand that the natural disasters are not the Nepali people's fault; rather, it is the West which is responsible for global warming," he said.

According to DPNWF and WWF-Nepal, over 20 glacial lakes are at risk of bursting out of moraine dams. Of Nepal’s 3,000 glacial lakes, over 2,000 have gradually melted and contain lakes, but up to now there has been little study of this phenomenon, say experts.

"We're living in a very dangerous era where the increase in global warming is affecting us all," an expert mountain climber, Nima Tasi Sherpa, told IRIN, adding that he had observed the decline of glaciers in the past 20 years on the mountain peaks he had climbed.

"When I first worked as a mountain guide in 1988, there was snow and ice all the way from Camp 2. Now you would see more rock in the Nuptse and Lhotse glacier areas. In Spring, you do not see much snow," said Nima Tasi, who has climbed Mount Everest eight times and has been working as a mountain climbing guide for over 25 years.

Climate change

''My generation has gradually started to understand that the natural disasters are not the Nepali people's fault; rather, it is the West which is responsible for global warming.''

Climate change experts are concerned that glaciers formed by over two million years of snowfall are now receding faster in the Himalayas than anywhere else in the world.

According to The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -established by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) to assess scientific and socio-economic information related to climate change - the years between 1995 and 2006 rank among the 12 warmest years since 1850. Scientists have warned that over the last 100 years the earth has warmed 0.74 degrees.

"We have to act now to reduce global warming, as nobody anywhere in the world will be spared from its impact," said Nima Tasi.

nn/at/ar/cb

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