06 October, 2005

The Melting Glaciers of Manang

SIU's publication is here: www.siu.no/vev.nsf/o/ SIUs+publications-Global+Knowledge-The+Melting+Glaciers

Original unedited article: Sushma Joshi

The glaciers of the Himalayas are receding faster than any other glaciers in the world, including those in the Alps, Andes or Rockies. After the two polar caps, the Himalayan glaciers are third in line as fastest melting bodies of ice. So say researchers from a host of respected international organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Integrated Center for Mountain Development (ICIMOD), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the International Commission for Snow and Ice.
ICIMOD has predicted that glacial dams will burst, triggering wide-scale floods that will affect large populations. The Commission for Snow and Ice also that this will lead to severe water shortage in Northern part of the Indian subcontinent as early as in thirty years time. The melt is thought to be triggered by rising temperatures and other climatic changes caused by greenhouse gases and ozone depletion.
Dr. Ram P Chowdhary, professor of Botany at Tribhuwan University, Kathmandu, teamed up with a research team from the University of Bergen, Norway, to look at the local effects of large scale global changes on a community in Mustang, Nepal. Dr. Chowdhary, who believes scientists have to work with society, met up with journalist Sushma Joshi for this interview in Kathmandu.

What's special about Manang?
Manang is a high altitude, geographically isolated community with a very low population. A large number of Himalayan glaciers - more than 50 - are based in the Manang district. These include both small and large glaciers.

What do Manang's people do?
There are two kinds of Manangis: those who became involved in international trade after King Mahendra gave them special rights to this trade in 1960s and who subsequently left to settle in urban areas like Kathmandu. Some people from this group have returned to invest in hotels in Manang, but they stay predominantly in urban areas. And then there are those who still live in Manang and farm for a living. These folks also do cross-border trading of salt for grain, and keep horses during November to March. They descend down to lower altitudes during the other months. About 9000 people still maintain this lifestyle.

What kind of crops do people in Manang grow?
We don't know the history of what crops were cultivated. But we do know what is grown in Manang in the present: primarily wheat, barley, potato and buckwheat. Wheat, a new introduction, is increasingly replacing barley, which requires more labor to grow and to clean. I thought wheat was grown for tourist consumption, but apparently the tourists don't like wheat ground in water mills, but prefer the white flour brought in from Pokhara. The people use the stone ground wheat to feed their horses!
One interesting thing about wheat in Manang is that the rate of productivity is higher than the national average - about 4 tons of wheat grows per hectare in this area. Cowdung is mixed with pine-pitch to fertilize the land. There is also a very low boron content in the soil. We could probably replicate the conditions for higher wheat yield in other parts of the world.

Has the agricultural pattern changed since the glaciers started to melt?
The southern glaciers are melting faster than the northern glaciers, according to some colleagues of ours who came and looked at the way the sun was hitting the surface of the glaciers. We are now keeping track of climate change through a "Climate Logger", a little yellow box with red and green lights, which is installed on both the north and south slopes of the Manang glaciers. The majority of the fields are in the south. Because the glaciers are melting, this will clear more land for agriculture. But land is not a problem in Manang, there is already a lot of land available for agriculture. Irrigation is more of a problem. The source of water is getting further away from the fields. Consequently, more labor is required to repair and maintain canals every year. Because there is a big labor shortage in Manang, repairing canals become difficult.

What other changes are predicted after the glaciers melt?
The fauna and flora will change as climates rise. Now people raise sheeps in the high pasturelands. This will probably change to goats as the temperatures go up. Also, people use forest resources - pine pitch mixed with cowdung, and birch - for fuel. These trees may also give way to other trees, depending upon how many degrees the temperature goes up.

Which are the communities most affected by glacial melt?
Ghyaru and Khangsar villages, for examples, are most severely affected by glacier melt. Even the glaciers in the north are rapidly melting - older people remember that the glaciers used to be almost at the foothills, now they have receded. Small glaciers would provide water during spring. Spring is the most crucial time for agriculture -- for planting and the first weeding. But nowadays there is less water during April, when planting has to start. Ghyaru and Khangsar villages depend upon rainwater but this is a very unpredictable source.

Are there a lot of fields abandoned in this area? Would you say these villages could be abandoned in ten years time?
There is a lot of fallow land, a lot of outmigration. I wouldn't doubt it could get abandoned in a few years time.

Is the government doing anything about the situation in Manang?
It has given local communities some water pipes, which has eased the stress on repairing irrigation canals.

Has there been a lot of out-migration of Manangi people?
Outmigration has increased. There are multiple factors for this - there is a lack of tourists and other opportunities in Manang, as well as the water shortages caused by glaciers melting. Because the young people leave, a lot of the traditional knowledge around herbs and healings are not being transmitted by the amchis (healers.)

Managis who have left have done very well outside. Some of them have hotels in Austria, Hongkong and Bangkok.

Is there a lot of tourism in Manang? How has that affected the local population and lifestyle?
Until 2001, there was a dramatic increase in tourists. Around 40,000 people would visit Manang every year. The local people were happy with the foreign earnings. But since 2002 (When Emergency was declared in Nepal), there has hardly been any tourists.

Tourism led to economic empowerment, health care, and social equity. But it also had negative impacts. The tourists came from April-May to September-October - which was also the planting and harvesting time. So the industry took labor away from agriculture, and it was difficult to get enough people to repair irrigation canals. This led to seasonal laborers from Gorkha and Lamjung and other parts of Nepal working in Manang to fulfill labor needs. These laborers are primarily Brahmin, Chettri and Biswokarmas. But even if the outsiders have money, they are not allowed to buy land in Manang.

Do locals who have migrated come back and invest in Manang's local economy?
Besides the hotels, there has been a lot of new building of goombas. For the past three years, people have been investing in their culture. For instance, they airlifted a statue for the Milarepa (an ancient Tibetan sage) caves. The status is installed outside the caves. It apparently cost 11 lakhs for the statue, and 8 lakhs to charter the plane.

So the links between the expatriate Manangis and the ones living in Manang are still very strong.
There is a big festival in Manang, and recently the community decided that every Manangi family living outside must send at least one member to attend, otherwise they have to pay a fine. People can pay fines but their social status goes down if they don't show up.

Is the community decision-making process still very strong in Manang?
In Hongay, there was an incident when an outside came in and killed a deer. This was a very grave offence, and the community fined the outsider as well as his local guide. The outsider could pay the fine, but the local couldn't, so he had to leave everything and move to Kathmandu. That's how strong their decisions still are. They are also very good on conservation issues. They recently decided to ban yarchagumba, a rare herb, from being harvested because the plants were getting depleted. Their word is law in this district.


Manang remains a community that has been hard-hit by both the impacts of global climatic changes as well as the flow of globalization. But the impacts, as the interview shows, has been mixed. While many people have left their traditional lifestyles for bigger pastures, others have remained back to maintain the traditional lifestyle. The links between those who left and those who stayed have remained strong, and will no doubt help to create more links and bridges between the two worlds. The remittances from the outside world has helped maintain tradition and culture. On the other hand, the strong traditional decision-making process, which has decreed that local land should not be sold to outsiders, ensures that natural resources are not overconsumed and depleted, leading to some measures of protection for the environment and for an age-old lifestyle.

( Both Norwegian and Nepali students benefited from the field research they conducted for this project. Nepali students rarely get the chance to do research in their own country, especially in remote areas, due to the high costs of airfare and living. Generous funding for nine masters and two Ph.D students has allowed for this possibility, and built the capacity for Nepalis to understand the issues of their own country.)


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