Climate change hits Upper Mustang

The ever increasing scarcity of water for irrigation and for people to drink has forced a historically and culturally rich community of Upper Mustang to migrate to a new place, residents of the region have claimed.
While there has not been any official study into what is being seen as a ‘climate refugee’ issue, people leaving the area and individual foreign researchers point out to the rising temperatures in the mountains, causing snow to disappear, as the main reason for the area to dry up.
A total of 18 households representing the entire Samzong village in Tsosher VDC, located at an altitude of around 4000 meters above sea level, were finding it hard to live in their ancestral home as the Samzong stream, fed by the snow during winters started drying up three years ago. As the water eventually stopped flowing in the stream, the community is being relocated in Namshung, a small village on the banks of the Kali Gandaki river and a glacier catchment area in Mustang district.
Recent findings of ancient caves in the area suggest that the place had been hosting human civilisation dating back to 3,000 years. Samzong, a very remote village is the only place in Mustang, the district also known as ‘Himal pariko Jilla,’ where local inhabitants speak the Tibetan language only.
“For decades now, locals in Samzong and nearby villages in Upper Mustang have been facing a water crisis due to less rainfall and inadequate snowline,” said Lama Ngawang Kung Bista, a local from Mustang and the founder director of Lo Mustang Foundation, an organisation facilitating the relocation plan for the affected villagers.
“However, it was only in recent years that the high retreat of the glaciers left the villagers staring at a severe water crisis, threatening the existence of the entire village,” Bista added.  According to him, the proposed land for resettlement belongs to the royal family of Mustang, the district that has also earned the sobriquet of ‘the forbidden kingdom.’
The royal family has agreed to part with the land for the villagers’ relocation.
Two other villages, Yara and Dheye, in the same region are also facing various environmental and economic challenges, leading them to abandon their settlements for a better life elsewhere. “The main challenge for the villagers who depend on subsistence farming and livestocks for livelihoods is water for irrigation, which is inadequate or almost nil,” Bista said.
Generally, Mustang is considered a desert with little rainfall activity (few millimeters annually) observed over the decades due to its terrain. It is located in the rain shadow of mountains along the Tibetan plateau. The glaciers in the mountain ranges are the main source of water for people in the entire region.
In recent years, glaciers melted at an alarming rate and the region experienced extreme weather events such as heavy rain and snowfall during winters, which are linked to the changing weather and rainfall patterns.
Two years ago in July, Lo-manthang in Upper Mustang located at an altitude of 3,705 metres above sea level witnessed incessant rainfall for almost 48 hours, triggering flashfloods and landslides and killing one person. Weather experts had then termed the activity an ‘extreme event’ as the average annual rainfall has decreased from around 250 mm in the late 70s to 115 mm in recent years in Mustang.
According to Giovanni Kappenberger, a glaciologist, meteorologist and climatologist from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) and a mountaineer, precipitation is likely to increase with more occurrences of extreme events in the region.
“There is a marked rise in the temperatures during all seasons in the mountain regions, with Tibet and Mustang areas expecting to heat more than India,” he said in his research work published in 2011.
He said a general shrinking has been observed in glaciers in the Mustang region. He added that smaller glaciers in the region will disappear ‘within decades’ and big glaciers in centuries and very high altitude glaciers (above 6,500 meters) will survive.
Ghana Shyam Gurung, conservation director at WWF Nepal, one of the I/NGOs working in the Mustang area said communities which are already living under hardships in lack of basic necessities, need to be provided with better adaptation measures to deal with the various environmental challenges.
Posted on: 2013-09-28 08:25