Exploring Himalaya’s climate frontlines

Through our Fund for Good, we’re passionate about helping organisations committed to protecting our environment and its wildlife, and having a lasting positive impact on people’s lives through the outdoors. We’re stoked to share the story of the Climate Diaspora expedition team – three women explorers who, in 2019, received a storytelling grant from the National Geographic Society to report on climate change, migration patterns, and labour exploitation in Nepal. They reached out to us for the gear to make their trip happen. 

**

By Bindu Bhandari (with edits from Mattea Mrkusic and Erica Bower)

I’ve always said that I am a mountain girl, loud and proud. Though I grew up in the lowland plains of southern Nepal, surrounded by green paddy fields and sturdy milking buffaloes, I was fiercely proud of being born in the land of the Himalayas. 

But here’s the funny thing: despite being from Nepal, prior to starting my journey as a National Geographic early career explorer, I’d never actually hiked in the Himalayas. Turns out, knowing the mountains and actually feeling them can be two totally different experiences. I found this out the hard way, while negotiating narrow hiking paths with sheer drops on my way up to Papung village, nestled in the foothills of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain.  

bindu bhandari tika nepal

Back in 2019, I teamed up with New Zealander multimedia journalist Mattea Mrkusic and American climate migration expert Erica Bower to embark on a storytelling project in Nepal supported by a National Geographic Society Early Career Grant. Our goal? To collect stories about climate change and the migration choices people make to adapt to a warming planet. 

When you think of Nepal, you don’t normally think of a climate change frontline. You might imagine eight of the world’s fourteen mountain peaks above 8000 meters, including Mount Everest, which are part of the wider Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region. 

The mountainous Hindu Kush Himalaya region, which extends from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east, is actually the source of ten large Asian river systems that provide water to one-fourth of the world’s population. That’s why people call the Hindu Kush Himalaya region the ‘pulse of the planet.’ It has a tremendous ecological, cultural and economic significance.

Yet as temperatures warm across the world, the region’s pristine, fragile mountain ecosystems are changing. A recent assessment report by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) states that one-third of the Himalayan glaciers will melt away by the end of the century in the most optimistic scenario – if we are able to limit the rise in global average temperature to 1.5 degree Celsius. The world’s ‘third pole’ is in a climate crisis. 

Climate change isn’t simply changing Nepal’s landscapes. It’s also changing where people live and their migration patterns. Across our planet, tens of millions of people have been displaced as a result of a warming planet. Within Nepal, the forces of climate change and globalization are already impacting people’s migration choices. 

An Interview in Gopha Pohkari

As we travelled across northeastern Nepal, our all-women team documented the stories of labour migrants, farmers, and yak herders, each with a unique experience of adapting to the uncertainties of a changing climate.

Every person had their own story of changing migration patterns. The one that carved the deepest impression in my memory is Nima Fumjung Bhote, a 41-year-old nomadic yak herder from Gupha Pokhari, Nepal.

When we met Nima on a windswept hilltop, she had spent almost her whole life rearing yaks and chauris, a local hybrid of yak and cow. Nima had joined her grandmother in a yak shed at the tender age of seven,  because formal education wasn’t considered as important for girls. Since then, Nima has been tracing the traditional yak routes up to high altitude pastures in the summer, and wintering in the hills of Gopha Pokhari.

“The most exciting part of yak herding is mobility,” she said, reflecting on the freedom that a nomadic yak herder enjoys. 

But herding circumstances have changed a lot compared to a few decades ago. Back in her childhood days, a family’s social prestige used to be gauged by the number of yaks it owned.  Today, warming temperatures, shorter winters, heat stress and increasing infestation with parasites and diseases make the occupation less profitable than it used to be. Snowfall has receded, seasons are shifting, access to grazing pastures are changing, and pulls of opportunities elsewhere are making life as a yak herder harder than before. 

Facing the forces of globalization and advancement in communication technologies, Nima is considering different prospects of subsistence for her children. “Yak herding has its own perk of blending in with nature, but I suggest my children not to follow my footsteps as the world is changing beyond what I can imagine,” she says. “I don’t want this for my children”. 

Nima believes that migrating to pursue education and labor opportunities in urban centers, like Kathmandu or foreign countries, is a promising option for mountain dwellers. She has sent her daughter and sons to Kathmandu for school and “a better life”. Nima has even considered “selling all of my Yaks and migrating to Kathmandu. That way, I can have time for my children and be there in their happiness and sorrows”. For now, Nima stays in the mountains, but her children join thousands of others migrating to the cities. 

Bindu looking to the mountains

The climate crisis is fundamentally reshaping the traditional livelihood of nomadic yak herding. Yet as I journeyed through the Himalayas with the Climate Diaspora team, I began to understand the profound resilience of mountain communities adapting to climate change, urbanization, and globalization. 

You can follow Climate Diaspora on Instagram to view photographs from their 2019 National Geographic Early Career expedition. Stay tuned for additional policy and narrative outputs.