Monday, November 9, 2009

Could you outrun a glacial lake outburst flood? Everest region uses the answer for climate change education

Could you outrun a glacial lake outburst flood? Everest region uses the answer for climate change education

Climate change awareness and response “Best Practices” demonstrated by Sherpa village

The massive task of understanding and responding effectively to climate change can be crucial for peoples’ physical, economic, and cultural survival. But how can people with few resources tackle a task that large?

During two days of events in June 2009, UIAA members and the innovative people of the Khumbu (Everest region) of Nepal showed the world how leveraging their special place and culture has helped them to start this task by making it educational, exciting, inclusive, and downright fun. Here are five of the key climate change response "best practices" being used in the Khumbu, which can serve as valuable tools for other mountain regions facing these issues.

Finding Compelling Focal Points
The Imja Tsho Action Run on June 18th and the Khumjung Festival on June 19th were designed to focus local and world attention on the special threats and loss of natural and cultural resources the people of the Khumbu (and other parts of the Himalaya) face from its glaciers melting rapidly as a result of climate change. The two unique climate change awareness events were held at the famous village of Khumjung, an ancient and traditional center of Sherpa culture.

Located along the popular trekking routes to Everest in a broad, flat high valley in Sagarmatha National Park (a World Heritage site), Khumjung also contains the region's first school and the only hospital, both built in the mid-1960s by Sir Edmund Hillary. It is an ideal and appropriate epicenter for spreading climate change awareness, ideas, education, and activism throughout the Khumbu and beyond. Because of the rapidly-melting glaciers nearby, it is also ideal for attracting national and international attention to the dramatic and potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change in the Himalaya.

Creating a Broad Coalition of Stakeholders that Actively Involves Youth

These climate change awareness events were planned and carried out with the help of UIAA members Dawa Steven Sherpa, Ang Tshering Sherpa, and an effective coalition of local and regional stakeholders who wisely included a wide range of ages and perspectives: officials from Sagarmatha National Park, the park’s Buffer Zone Management Committee, the Aama Samuha (Mothers' Group), youth clubs, and social service units such as schools and the famous Khunde Hospital.

Even the monks of the Khumjung Monastery lent their expertise. Accompanied by clashing cymbals and trumpet blasts, they led a sacred dragon and lion down from the hillside to lend their power to fight climate change, bring good luck, energize the crowd, and create a very special educational atmosphere for the events.

The vivacious young adults of Sherwi Yondhen Tshokpa (a local Sherpa students’ group) offered to serve as the leaders of these day-long and into the evening events, and did an outstanding job. Sponsors included Everest summiteer and eco-tourism leader Dawa Steven Sherpa and his Nepali non-profit group iDEAS, Ang Tshering Sherpa and his company Asian Trekking, the Worldwide Fund for Nature/WWF-Nepal, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), and The North Face.

I accompanied a group of national and international media representatives and leaders from WWF-Nepal from Kathmandu to the events courtesy of Network member Ang Tshering Sherpa and Asian Trekking.

Highlighting What Can Be Lost and How to Preserve It

The Imja Tsho Action Run, also called the “Beat-the-GLOF-Action-Run”, was enthusiastically attended by over 1,500 people. It sharply focused attention on the imminent threats of swift, widespread destruction of Himalayan landscapes, lives, livelihoods, arable soil, biodiversity, and cultural resources from spontaneous and catastrophic glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) caused by melting glaciers.

In this exciting new event, almost 140 young men and women, some wearing traditional Sherpa outfits, ran as fast as they could to Khumjung, starting in the early morning from one of the region’s most dangerous glacial lakes, Imja Tsho (Imja Lake) near Island Peak, a popular training climb for Mt. Everest. The 35km (21.75 miles) route took the contestants along the potential path of a GLOF that scientists say could break out at any moment from Imja Lake.

As the contestants dashed across the finish line in Khumjung, all at the event clearly understood that even the fastest runners (3 hours and 15 minutes from Imja Lake to Khumjung) that day could never have outrun a GLOF if they were in its path. The event also emphasized the fact that although mountain people of the world contribute very little to global warming, they must not only respond to huge dangers they face because of it, but also find ways to inspire the rest of the world to act quickly to reduce the output of greenhouse gases to prevent further destruction. The event also inspired a lot of thought and consideration about how feasible it might be to carefully drain dangerous glacial lakes. Our hope is that there might be hydrologists or engineers somewhere in the world who could lend their expertise to addressing this dangerous and destructive problem of glacial lake outbursts.

Communicating the Continual Need for Collaboration, Support and Solutions

The following day, the Khumjung Festival provided important informational updates and reports from regional leaders, officials from Sagarmatha National Park and the Buffer Zone Management Committee, and conservationists from WWF-Nepal, ICIMOD, IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), and the UIAA (International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation). Dawa Steven Sherpa spoke as a WWF “Climate for Life Ambassador” to raise global awareness of the impacts of climate change in the Himalayas and as the overall coordinator of the event representing his non-profit organization iDEAS (which co-sponsored the two days of events).

Speakers that day emphasized the need for all mountains stakeholder groups─local, national, and international─to work together to understand and address the impacts of climate change on the Himalaya and other mountains. Attendees enjoyed the large exhibits of posters, maps, books, and other informational literature about the impacts of climate change that were on display from WWF-Nepal and ICIMOD.

The meticulously planned event also honored the winners of a regional Interschool Art Competition called “Voices of Khumbu's Children”. Sponsored by ICIMOD, this project was designed to use children’s art and letters to help fight ignorance and inaction by expressing their concerns about inheriting a future impacted by global warming and climate change in the Himalaya and elsewhere.

Also woven into the educational format of the day was a festive native dance competition, sponsored by The Himalayan Trust, which showcased the rich and ancient heritage of the Sherpa people. The high spirits and great pride of the 114 dancers were evident not only in their impressive dancing, but in their decision to have the award money from their competition shared equally by the competitors. In their opinion every dancer was a winner, as the most important aspect of the competition was to participate together to help preserve the priceless cultural resource of their traditional dances. Skilled dance groups from the Khumbu villages of Pangboche, Phortse, Khumjung, Khunde, Namche, and Thame participated at the event, which lasted late into the night until monsoon rains drifted in.

Adopting a Long-term Perspective

Over 1,800 people attended the two days of highly-successful climate change awareness events which were publicized nationally and internationally. As a testament to their success and popularity, the people of Khumjung and the event organizers have agreed to continue the events next year, and encourage ideas on how the region could benefit by making them annual events. Ideas are already bubbling up from the community, including an obvious one for this high-altitude region: “Next year we must add a yak race!”

These events clearly showed that those who value their culture also value their place in the world, and will unite to protect them from the threats of climate change. The best practices demonstrated in these energizing and catalyzing events in the Khumbu can provide inspiration and ideas for other regions struggling to find effective ways to understand and respond to the climate changes impacting their part of the world.

--Linda McMillan

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