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Tucked away in a faraway corner of the magnificent Limi Valley in Humla, a remote district in Nepal, is Halji – a community of pastoralists and subsistence farmers carrying on life at least as old as its 1,300-year old monastery. People here still barter goods and services. Cash remains a fairly new transaction system, and the village is adapting to a slow yet inevitable transition to money – ‘economy’ as most of the rest of the world understands it.
There are other major changes taking place as well. The warming climate is changing the seasons – new crops grow on old land and the animals that evolved to make the most of the cold weather are no longer well adapted. The youth are moving away from their ancestral lands in pursuit of the amenities and drastically different ways of life that modernity promises.
Three years of the COVID-19 pandemic have complicated matters further. The most accessible road links to Halji, which have traditionally been from China, have closed for the most part, and the asphalt roads of neighbouring districts in Nepal aren’t effectively connected to its dirt roads.
Mountain communities such as Halji are heavily dependent on snow and glacier melt. It is the primary source of water for both domestic and agricultural use. Ra Rang Chu, a stream that flows by the Halji monastery, is an important water source. It irrigates the vast barley fields that stretch below the village.
Ra Rang Chu is fed by a glacial lake behind Gangche, a peak that overlooks Halji. In recent years, the villagers have been reporting erratic changes in the behaviour of the stream. When there is enough flow, community members can irrigate their fields as they have for over a thousand years. Of late, though, the flow tends to dwindle during the dry months forcing farmers to work on channelling water into their field daily.
On the other hand, because Halji sits between Ra Rang Chu and the roaring Halji River, the village is vulnerable to the risk of flooding from both water bodies. Pema Buthri, who has lived in Halji all her life, sums up this precarious situation pointing to the peaks behind the two rivers that sustain the village. She says, ‘When it rains, water flows from the mountain behind Halji River, and when the sun is hot, water flows from the hills behind Ra Rang Chu. A few years ago, Ra Rang Chu got so big that it washed away barley fields and three houses.’
Fellow local, Choy Buthri, who owns fields further down, talks about the plot she lost to the flood Pema Buthri alluded to. ‘The flood washed away part of my barley field. I have not used the land since as it is filled with debris from the flood. We can never say when it will flood again, but hopefully, it won’t. We have invited several rinpoches (Buddhist high priests) to perform rituals to appease our guardian deities.’
Perhaps Choy Buthri’s wish for no more floods will come true after all. According to Paljor Lama, the ward chair and de-facto community leader, ‘Ra Rang Chu continued to flood every summer until around five years ago when it shifted its course and swept away several fields and few houses.’ Although the river swells during the summer, there has not been a flood in the neighbourhood for about five years.
Halji residents attribute the river’s constancy in recent years to the rituals they have performed to appease the mountain gods. However, what is also evident is the clear receding of a glacier that used to cover Gang Che, the main source of Ra Rang Chu.
We are all familiar with warnings scientists have been trying to get us to listen to: Mountain communities in the Hindu Kush Himalaya will be amongst the first to experience the effects of rising global temperatures. These changes, caused in large part by a fossil fuel-based economy and the ruthless exploitation of natural resources, are palpable in Halji. Being in the village, one gets a sense of what such impacts look like. At the same time, one is also fully cognizant of the fact that the kind of lifestyles responsible for these changes are distant from these green fields, brown hills, and blue skies.
A typical early September afternoon in the village is warm enough for one to walk around in a t-shirt. These warm temperatures mean that villagers have, in recent years, been able to grow vegetables such as radish and mustard greens, which offer an alternative to barley – a staple in the local diet. While this suggests that rising temperatures may not be an entirely bad thing for Halji residents, this also unfortunately means that native plants to this area no longer flourish here. Locals talk of an acute shortage of the grass that was once a favourite yak feed. ‘We keep moving our yaks to higher altitudes every year since we can no longer find such grass around Halji. Our yaks must be moved to a lower elevation in the winter, but they are not used to the warmer climate. We have lost so many yaks because of this,’ says Halji local, Rabten Tamang.
Being in one of the remotest corners of Nepal, the community has persisted so far with ancient bartering traditions. Nevertheless, contemporary practices are slowly making their way into the community; goods such as rice, salt, and oil are increasingly transported from outside and there is a greater need for cash to buy these essentials.
Before the pandemic, most residents would travel across the border to Pulan County in China to work as daily wage labourers, which helped them earn a decent amount of cash. However, this came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the pandemic. Simikot, Humla’s district headquarter, is Nepal’s only district headquarter not connected to the national road network. Goods must either be brought in by air (planes or helicopters), transported by animals (mules or horses), or ferried by humans from the nearest road-head. Hence, by the time any commodity – even an essential one – reaches Halji, it becomes incredibly expensive and often out of reach for local villagers. The price of a litre of cooking oil, which cost about NPR 250 before the pandemic, has now become over NPR 550.
Another significant problem the village is dealing with is youth outmigration. The same spiritual values that tie the older generation to their ancestral home do not bind the younger ones. Most Halji residents have children in Kathmandu – some are studying, while others are employed in the city. There is agreement among the elders that their children may never want to return to Halji. ‘Why would they come back? Life is tough here,’ says Rabten Tamang.
Paljor, the ward chair, sees this as something that needs immediate attention. ‘Halji is the only village in Limi Valley with a healthy population. Most people who used to live in Til and Zhang have left for Kathmandu and other cities, where life is much easier. Soon, we may no longer have a community willing to stay back and keep this life going.’ He believes that having Halji connected with road and communication infrastructure could entice at least a portion of the youth population to stay and make the best use of the uniqueness their way of life has to offer.
Maybe the change Paljor speaks of is on its way to Limi Valley. As our team from ICIMOD neared the final days of fieldwork, he told us about a Nepal Telecom tower being installed close to Halji. He also shared with us his determination to get bridges constructed over the deep rivers and gorges that separate the beautiful valley from the rest of Nepal.
Halji and other communities in Limi Valley are examples of how the people who have contributed the least to global climate change are often the ones who are most significantly affected by these changes. Our work in Limi Valley investigates these issues from multiple angles, drawing on insights from the physical and social sciences while giving communities space to make their voices heard. Our Cryosphere Initiative is piloting permafrost research to better understand the impacts of permafrost thaw in the valley, and its possible effects on steep slopes (leading to more frequent and bigger landslides). These efforts, combined with other investigations informed by the physical, social, and natural sciences, can collectively contribute to actions such as awareness raising, disaster preparedness, and capacity building, among others. Ultimately these will enhance the adaptive capacity and resilience of the Limi community to climate change.
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