Living with fear in the Everest region

Daki Sherpa remembers very well the flood that swept away everything from her. A glacier flood on September 3, 1977 in the Dudhkoshi River washed her home, took her pets and land. And most importantly, she couldn’t save her beloved father.

Imja is one of the 21 glacial lakes in Nepal that are potentially dangerous. 
Imja lies at an altitude of 5000m in the Everest region. 
Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal
A glacial lake outburst  in Imja could damage many infrastructures along the Everest trekking route, scientists warn. Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal
Many people like Dil Kumari Tamang live near the Imja River. They say they are afraid of the river. Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal A landslide caused by glacial lake outburst at Mt. Amadablam. Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal Daki Sherpa, 55, showing the area affected by the flood due to the glacial lake outburst  on September 3, 1977 in Dudhkoshi River. The flood washed away her father, home, took her pets, and land. Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal Daki is now married and lives with her husband in Manju. “I am still afraid of this river,” she said. Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal Melting of glacier has turned out to be a regular phenomenon in the Everest region, the big thaw it leads to is even fearful to the locals. Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal
World’s tallest mountain Mt. Everest (center). Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal A normal day in Jorsalle’s restaurants. The place was washed away by the flood due to the glacial lake outburst  in 1977. Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal Chukung is the closest settlement from Imja Lake and it is four hours walk. Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal Residents say they throw “purified rice” chanted with mantras by Buddhist Lamas on the bank of the river believing that the water level will not rise again. Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal
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Daki Sherpa, 55, showing the area affected by the flood due to the glacial lake outburst on September 3, 1977 in Dudhkoshi River. The flood washed away her father, home, took her pets, and land. Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari/ Asia Climate Journal

“It came all of a sudden at around seven thirty in the evening, there were many porters staying in my home (hotel),” Daki Sherpa, 55, said with tears in her eyes.

“Me and my mother were able to run away to the top of the hills, but father was at home. He couldn’t survive.”

Daki comes from a middle-class well-to-do family in Jarsalle, a popular trekking route for the Everest climbers. They had a busy hotel with land and pets. She was left with nothing.

All she had were the clothes she and her mother were wearing and an open sky to live.“I just got 20,000 rupees as relief after the incident happened. I haven’t got anything more and nobody has ever come to support and help, neither from the government nor the media. You are the first journalist who came to inquire about the incident with me,” Daki said.

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Many years later Daki learned that flood was caused by an outburst in Nare Lake, located below the peak of Mt Ama Dablam.  Today, scientists  warn that the glacier could burst creating devastating floods and damage to major constructions and infrastructure in the Everest region.

This is a serious problem in Nepal since many of those who live close to the Dudhkoshi river in the Everest region are at risk of possible glacial lake outburst flooding as global warming causes glaciers to melt more rapidly. So, too, the whole trekking route to the Everest region could be affected.

Imja at risk

Nepal has 3,252 glaciers and more than 2,323 glacial lakes.

A report titled “Glacial Lakes and Glacial Lake Outbrust Floods in Nepal” published by ICIMOD in 2011 puts 21 lakes in Nepal as potentially dangerous. One of them is Imja in the Everest region. This lake is the headwater of the Imja River, which later joins many other rivers and is called Dudhkoshi.

Imja lies at an altitude of 5000m in Solukhumbu district of Sagarmatha Zone.

Records show that Imja lake started forming only in the 60s and 70s as small pond. The lake was 1.3 km and 0.5 km in the length and width respectively in 1992 and occupied an area of 0.60 km2. The lake, however expanded by 28 percent in 2002. Scientists have said that the expansion of the glacial lake provides some of the clearest evidence of climate change.

Imja River touches most of the trekking route in the Everest region.

Dingboche, Pangboche, Phunki, Jorsalle, Manjau, Phakding villages and the hotels and lodges along trekking routes to Chhukhung are the most vulnerable to possible glacial lake outburst flood from Imja.

Life by the riverside

After nearly three decades, hotels and restaurants have reopened at the same place in Jorsalle, just below the hanging bridge. Every day hundreds of trekkers in the Everest region pass through the area and use the services of the restaurants and hotels.

Sushila Shrestha, who runs a restaurant/lodge, isn’t afraid of the river. Sushila, who has been residing in the area for the last 16 years, started her own business some time ago. She said that the hotels and lodge near the river gives good views and therefore attracts more tourists. There are other hotels near the banks of the river.

She, however, is unaware of the potential danger of a glacial lake outburst.

“I am never afraid of anything in life, not even of river,” 25 year-old Sushila said.

Though scientists have warned that the burst of Imja lake will cause extensive damage along Imja Khola/Dudh Koshi river, there has been no any precautionary measures taken  by  the government.

“The government hasn’t said anything to us regarding the glacial lake outburst,” Sushila said. “We don’t have a warning system and we rely on the information provided by the trekking guides.”

Experts say there is also a lack of a governing policy regarding setting up residences or operating businesses near the river.

Efforts to reduce water level

Community Based Flood and Glacial Lake Outburst Risk Reduction Project (CFGORRP), a joint undertaking of the Government of Nepal, Global Environment Facility (GEF) and United Nations Development Programme is currently being implemented in Nepal to reduce the risk of GLOFs by promoting community-based risk reduction approaches. The project aims to undertake the lake lowering at Imja by reducing the lake level by at least 3 meters.

Pravin Raj Maskey, Senior Technical Advisor at the CFGORRP said that by the end of 2014 the project plans to prioritize on finalizing the preliminary design of Imja lake lowering and channel structures. In 2015 the project will be prioritizing on the full-fledge construction and installation of controlled drainage for Imja lake lowering.

Life full of fear

Nimayangi Sherpa, 30, operates a restaurant just at the bank of the river in Fungitanga. Originally from Khumjung she is here because it’s the major trekking route during the Everest climbing season.

“As the water level rises during summer,” she said. “I am afraid that it might flood and landslide.”

“I know there is glacier lake at the top,” she said. “But I don’t know about it’s potential danger.”

The river took away many of the Buddhist prayer wheels that were here four or five years ago.  When asked about any precaution measures, she said she has thrown “purified rice” by Buddhist Lamas on the bank of the river believing that the water level will not rise again.

Climbers and Sherpa trek through the banks of Dudhkoshi to the Mount Everest. They cross the river many times through the hanging bridge.

Daki was 13 year old and supporting her family’s hotel business when the flood touched her and her family. She had to leave her village Jorsalle, a major trekking route for climbers in the Everest and other peaks in the region. She and her mother started living in a nearby village.

Daki said her mother died because of the pain of losing her husband and family assets. She now lives with her husband in Monju, a village that is 15 minutes walk from Jorsalle. She said her land has been taken by others as she lost all the government documents during the flood.

“Every time I hear the sound of Dudkkoshi I am scared of it,” Daki said.   “I hope I get my land back someday.”
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