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Altitude and attitude in a warming Himalaya

- Kunda Dixit

Keynote at the 12th ISMM Congress on Mountain Medicine, Kathmandu

21-24 November 2018

Today I feel like I have come a full circle because it was 38 years ago that I accompanied Dr Buddha Basnyat to the Himalayan Rescue Association clinic in Pheriche. He was a young physician, and I was a rookie reporter. It was my first high altitude hike, and I almost ended up being one of his first patients in Pheriche after headache and nausea forced me to descend from Gorak Shep.

I now edit the Nepali Times newspaper here in Kathmandu , and we regularly cover the dramatic changes on the Everest Trail. On recent trips, we have seen forest cover in the Sagarmatha National Park increase significantly.

The denuded slopes above Namche and the Tengboche ridge are now covered in pine and rhododendron. Wildlife is back.

Lukla airfield has a paved runway, and there are more than 40 flights a day from Kathmandu. The Dudh Kosi Valley has become a helicopter highway.

What used to be known as the Toilet Paper Trail has now been cleaned up, thanks to the effort of the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee.

Lodges along the way have switched from firewood to propane. Smokey clay stoves have been replaced by ovens with chimneys that burn yak dung. The most common sight along the trail this trekking season are mule trains carrying LPG cylinders up from Phaplu to Namche.

With Thamserku towering over it, Namche itself has grown into a cosmopolitan town. It looks like Zermatt. And is almost as expensive.

But what for many may look like stunning scenery, for scientists is an apocalyptic sight. All across the Himalaya in Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, there are worrying signs of accelerated climate breakdown. Glaciers are retreating and shrinking, leaving behind hundreds of new glacial lakes, the snowline has receded up the mountains.

Below the formidable south face of Lhotse is Imja Tso, a lake 2km long and a kilometre wide, and it has only appeared in the last 30 years. The lake does not exist on trekking maps from the 1980s.

The Khumbu Glacier is the world’s highest, but its surface ice is all but gone due to natural and anthropogenic warming. The glacier is receding at 30m/y, but has also shrunk vertically. Everest Base Camp today is at 5,270m – 50m lower than when Hillary and Tenzing climbed the world’s highest mountain in 1953.

Scientists now say that even if global warming is capped at 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050 (and this seems very unlikely) the Himalaya is set to lose another 30% of its ice – with serious consequences for those living downstream in India, China and Southeast Asia.

What makes Nepal scenic is also what makes it seismic. These mountains were formed by a vast collision between the Indian and Eurasian plates starting 70 million years ago. India is still ploughing into and under Nepal, and the region suffers catastrophic earthquakes every 100 years or so. The last one was at 11:56 AM on April 25th, 2015. Where we are sitting today, this hotel and the whole of Kathmandu Valley, moved southwards and upwards by 1.2 metres that morning – and that was just a moderate quake.

All this tectonic activity also makes Nepal a very vertical country. The lowest point in Nepal is only 70m above sea level at its southeastern tip. But barely 90km away rises Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain. That is why in Nepal we say that we have six directions: North, South, East, West, Up and Down.

Officially Nepal’s land area is 150,000 sq km. But that is like measuring the size of your house by calculating just its plinth area. If you flattened all our mountains and the valleys, Nepal’s total surface area would stretch from Kabul to Calcutta, and from Colombo to Lhasa.

And here is another startling fact: Nepal’s main rivers are older than the mountains. They all start in Tibet, and cut through the mountains as they rose over millions of years. It is not just the rivers. Migratory bird species like cranes and bar-headed geese glide at 6,000m riding the jetstream over the Himalayan mountains every spring to nest in lakes in Tibet. Their lungs evolved as they had to fly higher and higher, as the mountains rose.

Nepal’s great altitudinal variation, and its location between major eco-biological domains also gives the country its great biodiversity. Within a very short horizontal distance in Nepal you can go from tropical to Arctic zones – a transition for which you would have to travel thousands of kilometres from the Mediterranean to Spitzbergen in Europe. Aside from the great variety of plants, Nepal has 873 bird species – nearly as many as the whole of North America.

There are many myths about Nepal. One of them is that Nepal is only made up of mountains. Actually, our Tarai plains in the south which make up  20% of the country’s area have more than half population. We also think that the Himalayan mountains form our northern border with China. Actually, all the mountain massifs west of Kathmandu (Ganesh, Himalchuli, Annapurna Dhaulagiri) cut a diagonal across the country. In fact, one third of Nepal’s area is on the Tibetan plateau. This also what gives Nepal its tremendous human diversity: there are 100 ethnic groups here and they speak 123 languages and dialects.

Another myth is that Nepal is a small and poor country. Even our leaders keep repeating that in their speeches “we are a small and poor country”. Actually with its 30 million population, Nepal is the 41st largest country in the world. It is only small country compared to neighbouring China and India. And Nepal is not poor, it is just poorly governed.

Yet, despite corruption, lack of accountability and a brutal ten-year conflict, Nepal has made significant progress in the Human Development Index, and most dramatically in our health indicators. The maternal mortality rate has fallen from 900 per 100,000 live births 25 years ago to 230 today. Thirty years ago, out 1,000 babies born 170 did not survive till their fifth birthday, today that figure is down to 33. The proportion of Nepalis living below the poverty line has dropped from 60% in 2006 to 28% today. Few other countries in the would have achieved such progress in such a short time.

I am sorry for bombarding you with these statistics. But these figures also force us to think how much further ahead we would be if we had better political leadership. For one thing, our economy would be on a much sounder footing, and jobless Nepalis would not have to seek employment overseas. Up to 15% of Nepal’s population at any given time is working abroad, and the country’s economy depends on the remittances they send home. Poor governance is severely testing the legendary resilience and patience of the Nepali people

Finally, I would like to thank the organisers for inviting me to speak. Let me also welcome you all to Kathmandu. I wish you a successful conference, and please use this visit to see what Nepal has to offer.

Thank you.

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