UN Chief: Climate Crisis in Himalayas Threatens Indigenous Communities

2 November 2023
UN Chief: Climate Crisis in Himalayas Threatens Indigenous Communities


Thu, 11/02/2023 – 11:20

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By Dev Kumar Sunuwar (Koĩts-Sunuwar) CS staff

UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, concluded his four-day visit to Nepal on November 1, where he highlighted the urgent need for global attention to the climate crisis in the Himalayas. Despite the war in the Middle East, he chose to visit Nepal, perhaps to draw attention to another catastrophe—the climate crisis—a month before UNFCCC COP28 is set to take place in Dubai. 

“I saw for myself, from the base camp of Mt. Everest, the terrible impact of the climate crisis on the Himalayas,” Guterres tweeted from just below the top of the world. “As temperatures rise, glacier melt increases, threatening the lives and livelihoods of entire communities. Climate action can’t wait.”

During his visit, Guterres flew by helicopter from Kathmandu to the Khumbu region, home to Mt. Everest, the highest mountain on Earth, where he observed the melting glaciers due to global warming and their impact on the communities and livelihoods of the people below.

Guterres was interested in learning about the impacts of climate change on Indigenous and local communities, especially the Sherpa Indigenous Peoples, who have lived in the mountain region for centuries and depend on the natural environment of the Himalayas for their livelihoods and cultural practices. They are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and their experience should be a wake-up call to the rest of the world. Guterres spoke with them in the Khumbu region about the everyday challenges they face, including weather extremes, shrinking glaciers, the depletion of water sources, and other climate-related disasters like glacier lake bursts, floods, and avalanches.

Climate change is threatening the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayas, and Indigenous Peoples, whose lives are intricately linked with nature, are bearing the brunt. In the Khumbu region, where Sherpa Peoples traditionally engaged in an agro-pastoral economy, global demand for adventure tourism in the Himalayas has made them increasingly dependent on tourism. But now the mountains are losing their snow cover, and the mountain region looks more like a desert. Loss of snow means loss of beauty in the mountains, and loss of beauty means loss of tourism business.

Following a meeting with local leaders and community members at Khumbu Pasang Lhamu Rural Municipality-4 in Solukhumbu, Guterres sent a video message pledging to raise global awareness about the impacts of climate change on the Himalayas at the COP28 climate summit. He expressed his commitment to take up the cause for a loss and damage fund for countries that are among the most vulnerable to climate change impact, like Nepal. He also called on the international community to take urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change, emphasizing the urgency of the climate crisis and the importance of supporting mountain communities.

“I am in Nepal to send a message to the world: The rooftops of the world are caving in.  This tragedy is unfolding in two perilous chapters. Phase one is the story of melting glaciers and ice sheets. Record temperatures mean record glacier melt. Nepal has lost close to one-third of its ice in just over 30 years. Antarctica and Greenland are losing billions of tons of ice mass every year. Melting glaciers means swollen lakes and rivers, flooding, sweeping away entire communities, and seas rising at record rates, threatening coastal communities across the globe. The crisis is gaining speed. 

“Nepal’s glaciers melted 65 percent faster in the last decade than they had in the previous one. Glaciers are icy reservoirs. They supply fresh water to over a billion people. In the future, major Himalayan rivers like the Hindus, the Ganges, and the Brahmaputra could have massively reduced flows, combined with saltwater intrusion that would decimate deltas. That spells catastrophe. Low-lying countries and communities are erased forever. Millions of people are on the move, and there is fierce competition for water and land. Floods, droughts, and landslides are accelerating worldwide. I’m here to cry from the rooftop of the world: stop the madness,” Guterres said.

Guterres also flew to Annapurna base camp on the lap of the world’s third-highest mountain, and observed how glaciers are melting. He met with local leaders and community members there to discuss the impacts of climate change. “Nepal is an example of a country that does not contribute much to the climate crisis but is in the first line of the impacts of its consequences. I am here to show Nepal to the world and show how dramatic climate change is,” he said.

Gutteres is currently serving his second term as UN Secretary-General. His predecessor, Ban Ki-Moon, visited Nepal in 2008 and addressed the Constituent Assembly, which was tasked with drafting a constitution.

Gutteres held meetings with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Prime Minister, former Prime Ministers, and opposition leaders, discussing matters including the ongoing peace process, the graduation of Nepal’s status from a least developed country to a developing country,  advancement toward sustainable development goals, and mitigation of climate change impact.

In a joint press conference with Prime Minister Puspa Kamal Dahal, Gutteres urged developed nations to increase assistance for nations like Nepal that are particularly hard hit by the effects of climate change. “Nepal is caught in a blizzard of global crises, not of its own making—the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation, and the enormous threat posed by climate chaos,” Guterres said.

Guterres’ tour of Nepal included Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautam Buddha, where he gave the message of peace: “Humanity is at war with nature and at war itself. In the Middle East, Ukraine, the Sahel, Sudan, and many other places around the world, conflict is raging. Global rules and institutions are being undermined as human rights and international law are trampled. The impacts of the climate crisis are mounting, with floods, fires, and droughts taking lives and destroying livelihoods around the world, including here in Nepal, as I could witness in my visits [to] Everest and Annapurna base camp. 

“In these troubled times, my message to the world from the tranquil gardens of Lumbini is simple: humanity has a choice. The path to peace is ours to take. It is not always an easy one. Challenges may look insurmountable. Problems may feel overwhelming. But I believe it is a vision we can make real through action. Peace is more than a noble vision; it is a rallying cry. And it is an appeal I make today, from these sacred gardens. I call on the world to act now for peace,” he said. 

Addressing a joint session of Parliament, Guterres spoke about global conflicts, Nepal’s transitional justice processes, and the impacts of climate change on the Himalayas. “Nepal is a promoter of peace, a champion of multilateralism, and a staunch supporter of sustainable development and climate action. Nepal contributes a minimal fraction of a percent to global emissions. But monsoons, storms, and landslides are growing in force and ferocity, sweeping away crops, livestock, and entire villages, decimating economies, and ruining lives. 

“In August, landslides caused by heavy rains caused devastation and killed scores of people. And glaciers are melting at record levels. I was a witness. Nepal has lost close to one-third of its size in just over 30 years. The effect is devastating: swollen lakes bursting, rivers rising, and seas rising. Cultures were threatened and mountainsides were exposed, inflaming the risk of rockslides, landslides, and avalanche threats. Himalayan glaciers provide fresh water to over a billion people; as they shrink, so do river flows. 

“Nepal is now one of the countries that is suffering the most from climate change. But other South Asian countries might also become terrible victims of the receding glaciers in Nepal. What is happening in this country as a result of climate change is an appalling injustice and a searing indictment of the fossil fuel age,” Guterres said, concluding, “I am deeply concerned by those communities in Nepal facing the brutal impacts of the climate crisis. The United Nations stands with them. The world must do the same.”

Photo courtesy of @antonioguterres on Twitter/X.