As the mountains melt, glaciers are turning into dangerously large lakes that have been bursting with increasing frequency. Alton Byers, an American mountaineer and geographer who specialises in mitigating glacial hazards in the Andes and Himalaya warned that Nepal and other countries in the region faced accelerated dangers from these lakes bursting.
Byers showed repeat photography using Swiss mountaineer Fritz Müller’s hotographs of the Khumbu Glacier from 1956, and comparing it with recent ones he had taken to reveal the loss in ice mass. “The concern about these lakes is the amount of water they hold,” he said. “Imja Lake has about 80 million m3 of water, and the concern is that if this is released suddenly it can result in a glacier lake outburst flood, unleashing enormous devastation downstream.”
Reducing the risk posed by glacial lakes means lowering their water levels, but that is expensive business, Byers said. Many of these lakes also drain into rivers that flow into another country, for instance from China to India, or from China to Nepal so there has to be inter-state cooperation in mitigating the danger.
“We have an international order that is not fit for the purpose of confronting the climate emergency,” added Ruth Gamble, environmental and cultural historian of the Himalaya. “There’s no system, no imperative to look after rivers. We have states looking after their own interests, own territory, own securitisation and they don’t match with each other.”
The virtual conference on 29-30 October was organised by faculty and alumni from New York University Abu Dhabi in collaboration with the Rachel Carson Center, LMU Munich. The group is also running the interdisciplinary research initiative, Geopolitics and Ecology of Himalayan Water.
Panels also looked at the non-human Himalaya and the region’s rich, but threatened, biodiversity. Charles Siebert, an author who has written extensively about wild elephants, said that despite the deaths and disruptions, the Covid-19 pandemic had forced people to take nature seriously again.
“The virus is forcing a human retreat, maybe there is something positive about this forced pause,” he said.
While the Himalaya may be a shared home for people, wildlife conservationists stressed that the mountains do not actually belong to anyone.
As Alex Davis, professor at The University of Western Australia put it, “The earth is an actor in this conflict. The mountains are alive. The challenge is to protect biodiversity of the Himalaya while addressing human needs.”
Nepali mountaineer and activist Shailee Basnet agreed. After climbing Mt Everest and the seven highest peaks in all seven continents, she said evidence of the impact of global warming could be seen everywhere – from the Andes to the Caucuses, from the Rockies to the Himalaya.
She added: “When I was in the mountains, I really felt for the first time in my life, that there is no distinction between me and nature. I was an integral part of nature, and the mountains were speaking to me.”