Alpine Conservation and Climate Change Adaptation: A community approach in the Khumbu Alpine Region

By Ang Rita Sherpa[1] & Ang Chiri Sherpa[2]

The Mountain Institute, Asian Regional Office, Kathmandu, Nepal

1. Alpine Region in Khumbu

1. Alpine region in Khumbu

The alpine ecosystem in the upper Khumbu region of Sagarmatha National Park and Buffer Zone provides excellent habitat for some of the world’s most important plants and animals [3], including the rare medicinal Blue Poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia), known to locals as the Snow Lotus; and the elusive snow leopard (Uncia uncial). The foothills of the world’s highest peak are hugely popular trekking and mountaineering destinations. They are vital to  the livelihoods of both mountain and downstream communities.

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2. Pasture land in Thame valley

The mountains of the alpine zone have significant ecological, aesthetic, and socio-economic importance for thousands of indigenous people with varied cultures, languages, and indigenous knowledge systems [4]. In addition, the high altitude pastures around Everest (or “Chomolungma” as the world’s highest peak is locally known), are important for yak grazing.

In recent times, these alpine ecosystems have been faced with various challenges, many of which result from human-created factors such as over-grazing and over-harvesting of medicinal plants, in addition to climate change.

The fragile alpine ecosystems are highly vulnerable to changes in temperature, rainfall, and competition from migrating plants. Damaging these ecosystems affects the lives and livelihoods of many communities in both the mountains and lowlands.

Trekking in the alpine region

Trekking in the alpine region

Thirty years ago, “conservation management” was a new idea in the Khumbu. On our 1953 Everest expedition, we threw our empty tins and other trash into a heap on the rubble-covered ice at Everest Base Camp. We cut huge quantities of the beautiful juniper shrubs for fires, and at the South Col at 26,000 feet, we left scattered piles of empty oxygen bottles, torn tents, and the remnants of food containers. The expeditions of today are sometimes not much better. Mt. Everest is littered with junk, from the bottom to the top [5].

The degradation of alpine ecosystems is a serious threat. It is linked to the growth of unregulated adventure tourism, especially from high altitude trekkers, mountaineering expeditions, and their support teams.

In a conspicuous example, tea shops and overnight lodges have used the slow-growing juniper shrubs (J. indica) for fuel since well before the first expeditions arrived in the early 1950s. Additionally, due to the lack of adequate shelter and cooking alternatives, porters have typically been forced to burn these slow-growing alpine shrubs. The continuing use of firewood by inns has contributed to the thinning of forests in some parts of the national park and to the depletion of shrub juniper in the most heavily visited alpine regions.

The long-term impact on the alpine ecology is a serious concern, given the extremely slow growth rates of these shrubs (Steven, 2003). Tourism in the region has grown from 3,600 in 1976 to 36,340 in 2012 [6].

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5. Shrubs collected by porters

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6. Shrubs cut for fuel wood use by porters

The most visible sign of these impacts is the lack of trees within a one- to three-kilometer radius of each village. But many traditional pasture lands are deteriorating as well, including increasing erosion and de-stabilized slopes. [7]

International conservation groups have largely neglected the alpine ecosystems of the Khumbu, as well as the local effects of climate change. As a result, especially during the last 20 years, the removal of soil-binding plants from thin alpine soils has resulted in dramatic increases in erosion and general landscape denudation.

Alpine vegetation and landscapes are particularly sensitive to changes in climate. The most visible effects include changing weather patterns, glacier recession, up-slope plant migration, and reduced biodiversity.

CLIMATE CHANGE AND ITS IMPACT ON THE MOUNTAIN ECOSYSTEM

In the past, alpine zones were being degraded by overgrazing and unmanaged tourism. Today, the problem is different: climate change is becoming one of the major environmental issues in the Khumbu and Nepal in general. Climate change and retreating glaciers constitute a major hazard in the Himalayas. The Nepal Himalayas are geologically young and fragile; they are vulnerable to even small changes in the climatic system.

High mountain regions face a wide variety of environmental challenges. Glaciers and snowfields are retreating in many areas, increasing the risk of catastrophic glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) from growing glacial lakes. The shrinking glaciers affect fresh water supplies for hundreds of millions of people downstream. Nepal has approximately 3,252 glaciers and 2,323 glacial lakes, which provide fresh water for more than a billion people across South Asia. 

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7. Imja Lake

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8. SPCC coordinated meeting at Sagarmatha National Park HQ

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9. Community consultation program in Namche Bazaar, Sept 2011.

Pressures from increased population and tourism activities in the mountains have caused people to settle in areas that are highly exposed to natural hazards. 

People of the Khumbu are highly dependent on their local natural resources and often lack the resources to properly adapt. In response, The Mountain Institute and USAID have established the High Mountains Adaptation Partnership (HiMAP), which includes government agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), international NGOs, donor agencies, and the trekking and climbing communities.

Project activities, run through the Khumbu Alpine Conservation Council, include the protection of fragile shrub juniper, establishment of kerosene and stove gas depots for tourists and lodges, restoration of the porters’ rest house at Lobuche, improvements to wooden bridges, development of alpine educational materials for schools, establishment of juniper and medicinal plant nurseries, building of yak-proof enclosures and exclosures, holding workshops on porter working conditions, and enterprise development for herders that allows them to earn extra income making and selling juice and jam from the seabuckthorn shrub (locally called akriloo).

COMMUNITY BASED CLIMATE CHANGE ADAPTATION IN THE KHUMBU REGION

In 2012, The Mountain Institute and USAID established the High Mountains Adaptation Partnership (HiMAP) to work with park officials and local stakeholders to raise awareness on climate change amongst local communities.

 With financial support from USAID, HiMAP conducted a series of community consultations in three settlements in Sagarmatha National Park and Buffer Zone: Phakding, Namche Bazaar, and Dingboche. The community consultations have develop information on local climate change, local vulnerabilities, and local adaptation.

Since its formation, HiMAP has:

  1. Trained conservation partners on assessing vulnerability and adaptation (V&A)
  2. Conducted community consultation sessions on climate change and adaptation in three village development councils in Khumbu
  3. Assessed the condition of numerous glacial lakes
  4. Shared findings from community consultations with stakeholders in Khumbu
  5. Consulted and shared climate change and adaptation information on district and national levels
  6. Continually collected baseline information on climate change from Khumbu, including the 2012 report 

The communities of the Khumbu alpine and sub alpine areas are more or less aware of the man-made and climate change problems and effects in the region. The Mountain Institute, through its experience working with local environmental NGOs, has realized that alpine zones and mountain ecosystems are vital for supporting livelihoods of people both in the mountains and the plains downstream. Many local people feel that the Khumbu region has been largely neglected by international conservation communities.

TMI staff and local NGOs, including the Khumbu Alpine Conservation Council, have identified critical needs for restoring heavily impacted alpine areas.

These include, 1) detailed ecological and socio economic assessments of the effect of climate change, tourism, collection of medicinal plants, and grazing pressure, 2) clear mechanisms to ensure that recommendations by the Local Adaptation Plan of Action (LAPA) are integrated into Village Development Plans, 3) ensuring that local people have a voice through which they can impart their traditional cultural, ecological, and economic knowledge.

REFERENCES:

  1. Byers, Alton (2005). Contemporary Human Impacts of Alpine Ecosystems in the Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) National Park, Khumbu, Nepal
  2. Hillary, Edmund (1984). Ecology 2000. Micheal Joseph Ltd. London
  3. Steven, Stand (2003). Tourism and deforestation in the Mt. Everest region of Nepal (National Geographical Journal)
  4. Steven, Stanley F.  (1996). Claiming the High Ground
  5. Coburn, B.A. (1984). Sagarmatha: Managing a Himalayan World Heritage Site. Parks Magazine Volume 9, number 2
  6. Sherpa A.R. (2010). No More Research but Action in the Imja valley of upper Khumbu region of Sagarmatha National Park and Buffer Zone, internal article.
  7. Sherpa. A.R., A. Byers, D. Thapa, T. Bhutia and S.Thing (2004) Khumbu Alpine Conservation and Restoration Project. A report submitted to The Mountain Institute, Asian Regional Office, Kathmandu, Nepal.
  8. Sherpa, A.R. and S. Thing (2007): Gokyo Valley Alpine Conservation and Restoration Field Assessment, Sagarmatha National Park and Buffer Zone, Kathmandu, Nepal. A report submitted to The Mountain Institute, Asian Regional Office, Kathmandu, Nepal.
  9. Sherpa, A.R. and S. Subba (2006). How Tourism Can Help Isolated Communities: National Parks and Protected Areas. International Bulletin
  10. Sherpa, A,R, (2012): Community-based participatory research in Imja Valley in Nepal’s Sagarmatha National Park and Buffer Zone, Solu Khumbu, Nepal. Published in Andean-Asian Mountain Global Knowledge Exchange Workshop Proceedings

[1] Ang Rita Sherpa is a Senior Program Manager at The Mountain Institute

[2] Ang Chiri Sherpa is the Vice Chairman of Khumbu Alpine Conservation Council

[3] Alpine ecosystems are characterized by low growing shrubs, cushion plants, and grasslands

[4] Nepal Himalayas above 13,000 feet (4000 m+), between the upper tree line and permanent snowline, are consider as Alpine Zone

[5]  Hillary, Edmund, 1984. Ecology 2000. Micheal Joseph Ltd. London

[6] SNP visitor entrance at Jorsalle 2012

[7] Coburn, B.A. 1984 (Sagarmatha: Managing a Himalayan World Heritage Site). Parks Magazine Volume 9, number 2.