The Role of Sherpas in Nature Conservation as Guardians of the Himalayas

On the way from Phakding (2,610 m) to Namche Bazar (3,440m). Walking duration is 5 to 6 hours to cross the 830 meters elevation through deep blue sky, snow-covered peaks, mystical landscape, breathing in fresh air, pine forests and ancient Buddhist sites. Credit: Valentina Gasbarri

By Valentina Gasbarri
KATHMANDU, Nepal, Jan 31 2020 – Since I was a kid, I grew up with adventures and stories of famous characters of the books of Jack London: White Fang, Make a Fire… and the incredible ode to perseverance of Martin Eden.

I was absolutely fascinated by the fact that human beings could establish a deep link with the environment, even in the remote, high-altitude, coldest and hardest places of our Planet. This was the first contact I had with the theoretical concept of sustainability.

But when theory meets curiosity, the result is clear: always looking for stories to be told to document successful models of living where Human-Nature result in creating a perfect balance.

Majestic landscape of mountains, deep valleys and glaciers are dominated by Mt. Everest (Sagarmatha in Nepalese, which means “forehead in the sky” and Chomolungma in Tibetan, meaning “goddess mother of mountains”) at 8,848m above the sea level.

This mountain of many names has always attracted pilgrims, whether Tibetans honoring a peak they believe is abode of a deity, or climbers or trekkers fascinated by the highest point on Earth.

Since the first successful ascent on 29 May 1953 by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir. Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand mountaineer, explorer and philantropist, a pivotal change is taking place but local mountain Sherpas show resilience and are committed to protect high mountain ecosystem, plants and wildlife from the valley to the icy summits, where they have lived for more than 400 years.

“It is our hope that the people who are coming to the Sagarmatha Park and the Khumbu valley will agree that the Sherpa people and landscapes in our land have exhibited an overall stability and resiliency which can provide important insights and lessons-learned for mountain people around the globe” said Sherpa Paisang during our journey to the Everest Base Camp (8.364m).

The term Sherpa or sherwa derives from the Sherpa language words Shyar (“East”) and Pa (“People”), which refer to their geographical origin of Eastern Nepal.

“It’s hard to become a Sherpa guide, there’s a 1 year course to attend and an exam to pass on subject related to mountain and case-studies to be solved. Majority of Sherpas are porters. They can usually carry on their shoulders max 130kg from Lukla airport to Namche Bazar or up to the other villages. They get around $8 per kg. They got a little salary for a huge effort” said Paisang, a young guide with a long experience in trekking in the Himalays.

The 2011 Nepal census recorded 312,946 Sherpas within its borders.

Changes in the Sherpa livelihoods from tradition across the Himalaya to Global Tourism

As a population, the Sherpas have historically responded and adapted to changes brought by the outside world. In the mid-1800s, the King of Nepal granted the Sherpas a trade monopoly by prohibiting anyone but a Khumbu Sherpa from crossing the Nangpa La, the high-altitude pass to Tibet.

Many Sherpa families benefited to some degree from the bartering that took place in either Tibet or border towns of India.

Namche Bazar, 3,450m above the sea level, is the starting point for expeditions to Mt. Everest and other Himalayan peaks in the area. It has been the main trading centre since 1905. Prior to that, it was simply a place where traders from Khumjung stored their trading goods between the seasons when they could travel to the lowlands. The trade to Tibet was drastically reduced after it was taken over by the People’s Republic of China in the late 1950s.

At present only a few Tibetan and Sherpa traders crossed the pass in both directions. They could be seen at the weekly market with lowland in Nepal traders. The weekly market is not a Sherpa tradition, it was started in the mid-1960s by an army officer stationed in Namche to meet the needs of the growing population of Nepali civil servants.

Since the Nepali government first allowed Westerners to visit the Kingdom in 1950s, tourism has grown to be now the main source of livelihood for the Sherpas. Until the beginning of the 21st Century, the number of explorers coming to the SNP annually grown from 1,400 ( ‘70s) to over 25,000. According to the last figures more than 40,000 people per year make the trek from Lukla airport to the Everest Base Camp.

The growing prosperity brought also opportunities for new lifestyles. The Sherpas have constantly balanced outside influences with their own culture, which has valuable spiritual and cultural aspects to share with the world.

Before Western explorers, adventurers and climbers, Sherpas’ economy was based primarly on agriculture (potato and buckwheat farms) yak herding, and trade of salt, wool, rice, yaks and cows from Nepal to Tibet and viceversa. But in the valleys of Khumbu, the summer monsoon lasts from June to September. During the quiet but productive season people carry out their chores of hearding and farming. But… farming is not easy.

Most fields for cultivating food crops are at relatively lower elevtions of about 3,300 meters near the main Sherpa villages. During the cold winter, herds of yak or nak ( female) are grazed on nearby hillsides; when the summer comes, the yaks or nak are taken up to high valleys wher the rains changed the dry mountinsides to rich, green pastures.

Periche, Lobouche and Dingboche were established as their summer huts and hay fields. The shaggy bovines provide dairy products ( yak milk, butter and meat), wool and transportation.

But, nowadays we are witnessing a crucial shift for Sherpa culture, and in particular for the sub-culture of Sherpa guide, climbing and porters community. When the interest for adventurous explorations grew gradually over the decades, Sherpas were firstly hired away from their farms to carry loads, as porters, to become guides and climbers.

In some ways, Sherpas have benefited from this commercialization fo the Mt. Everest more that any ethnic group, earning money from trekkers or climbers. The job of “sherpa” has been progressively formalized and now they own hotels, trekking companies, airlines.

Paradoxically, Khumbu Sherpas are nowadays among the wealthies of Nepal’s dozens of ethnic groups.

***This story is a first of a series based on my experience on the Mt. Everest Base Camp Trekking Route with the aim to discover and understand more the spirit of the mountaneers and communities in a close relationship with the surrounding Nature

Our Message at Davos: Water & Sanitation Are a Critical Line of Defence Against Climate Change

Credit: WaterAid/ DRIK/ Habibul Haque

By Tim Wainwright
LONDON, Jan 31 2020 – There was only one topic on everyone’s lips at Davos this year – climate change. The headlines focused on the cold war between Greta Thunberg and Donald Trump, but there was much greater consensus among those gathered for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF).

The Forum itself updated its manifesto for responsible business – with climate right at its core.

Among those calling for urgent action was WaterAid’s own president, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. It’s more than 30 years since he last attended Davos and, as he reminded the audience, 50 years since he made his first speech on the environment.

His message was stark, and his call to action challenging: the climate emergency requires nothing less than an overhaul of the current economy, with a new deal for people and planet.

The mood is slowly shifting towards the scale of action needed, given that climate change will affect every part of the economy. This cannot be truer than for water – the WEF has ranked water crises in its top five global risks in terms of likelihood or impact every year since 2012.

Infographic showing the top 10 risks over the next 10 years, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 report. Credit: World Economic Forum

The climate crisis is a water crisis, and a threat multiplier

Throughout the forum I had one consistent message: for the world’s poorest, the climate crisis is a water crisis. Yes, it has long-term implications for your businesses and economies. But, first and foremost, it is a question of survival, dignity and justice, with climate change already having devastating impacts on the lives of the people who did least to cause it.

Flooding, storms and droughts, which all impact on how and if people can get clean water, are becoming more frequent and extreme, and these trends are predicted to rise as the climate continues to change. This will undermine the already precarious access to water for billions around the world.

Climate change acts as a huge threat multiplier, worsening existing barriers to these services and rolling back progress already made.

As people living in climate-vulnerable areas experience changing weather patterns, less predictable rainfall, salt water intrusion and increased exposure to disease, water and sanitation become a critical line of defence.

If your water supply comes from a shallow aquifer that fills with sea water, then you can no longer drink it. But if the person designing your water supply has thought of this threat and factored it in, perhaps by drawing on deeper aquifers, then you can carry on living in your neighbourhood.

If your toilets and sanitation systems are constructed to withstand flooding, then your community does not suffer the same level of contamination after flooding as if human waste had been spread by the high waters.

The water and sanitation sector could become a leader in climate adaptation

But we currently lack the level of public and private sector investment and innovation required to deliver the sustainable water services that would benefit poverty reduction, industry and economic development.

This is a huge blind spot for business leaders and politicians, and a missed opportunity for creating a more sustainable future.

Rather than lagging behind, the water and sanitation sector could become a leader in delivering the kind of green infrastructure, services and jobs urgently required to enable adaptation to the worst impacts of climate change.

Tim Wainwright, Chief Executive of WaterAid UK, speaking with Hassan Nasir Jamy, Secretary Ministry of Climate Change, at Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change in Islamabad, Pakistan. Credit: WaterAid/ Sibtain Haider

Water, sanitation and hygiene are core to a sustainable future

Leaving Davos last year, I was frustrated. I felt that too few understood or discussed the impact climate change would have on the already grave state of the world’s water and sanitation, and the devastating consequences for education, health, productivity and development.

This year, I sensed a greater understanding of the interlinked challenges we face, and with that an air of urgency and proactivity. Businesses are looking for solutions – not just raising concerns.

That is why WaterAid will be one of the organisations working closely with HRH the Prince of Wales as part of his 2020 year of action.

In March, in London, we will bring together the public, private and philanthropic sectors for a high-level summit that will position water, sanitation and hygiene at the forefront of the fight against climate, and work on the solutions that will ensure a sustainable future for all.

And we will continue that work across the WaterAid federation throughout the year, including at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kigali in June, and at the UN Climate Change Conference, COP 26, in Glasgow in November, to help build momentum for decisive action.

In this way we hope WaterAid can play its part in shifting the global trajectory in the coming decade, resulting in a fairer world for the poorest and most marginalised people.

Read our guide Water and resilient business: the critical role of water, sanitation and hygiene in a changing climate to learn more about how businesses can take action.