Mules carry goods up along the treacherous paths of the Everest region. (Saugat Bolakhe for The Xylom)

Daunting Work at the Third Pole

The Growing Burden of Climate Change on Himalayan Laborers


“Haaa…. Haaa… Haaaa… Gorey!... Ganga!…. Bhalu!!”


Limping on his right leg, with a long and sturdy stick in his right hand, a hollow backpack, a blue mask on his face, and a white cap, Jit Bahadur Rana Magar, a mule herder and a porter in his early forties, was guiding his herd of mules, through the Tenzing-Hillary Suspension Bridge, named after the first climbers confirmed to have reached the summit of Mount Everest.


He was making his way downwards after the successful delivery of goods to some local business owners at Namche Bazaar (11,290 feet/ 3,340 meters above sea level) in rural Northeastern Nepal, an altitude acclimatization stop for trekkers making their way to the Mount Everest Base Camp.



The views looking down the river gorge may be disorienting, and the drop certainly fatal, but Magar has been going on this exact same breathtaking route for years, if not decades. He whistled and howled at the mules every time they tried to mess up their lane. The mules shuffled into alignment — the bridge could only fit two people walking shoulder-to-shoulder — bells jingling against the fluttering lines of traditional prayer flags draped against the modern brick-and-steel structure.


“Do you have names for each of your mules?” I asked him casually.


Magar seemed hesitant to respond to an unknown face.“Oh. Yeah, each mule has a unique name and they are familiar with me,” he finally replied. He seemed more open once I introduced myself as a journalist.


Magar, a local of a neighboring district, Okhaldhunga, has been a mule herder in the Everest region for the last twelve years. The mules that he takes care of are owned by local businessmen where he works as a staff herder. The herders, like him, know each of the mule's name, their habits, disconformities, and potential medical emergencies.


But the last two pandemic years were tough, he said. “We were basically jobless during the period. I had to go back to farming in my village but it was barely enough to run the family. So, I had to return.”



But as he returned – things were not quite the same. Many of the mules that he took care of had died. And it was a pattern consistent among all the herders. “Altogether, in the last two years we may have lost 100-150 mules in the Everest region only,” he pondered.


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One of the aged porters working deep within the Nepalese Himalayas. (Saugat Bolakhe for The Xylom)

There hasn’t been a proper scientific study to point to a definite cause for the death of the mules but Magar suspects that it’s closely linked with a trough in the tourism business. Local businessmen buy mules mainly from India with an individual costing nearly NPR. 90,000 (850 USD). They also hire herders and mule caretakers like Magar. But as the pandemic halted the flow of tourists, the local business owners couldn’t afford to keep herders. The mules that were regularly fed with powdered maize and chickpea flour were left to eat meadow grasses. In the absence of herders, the mules weren’t cared for, fed, and nourished well. The owners may have ignored their medical emergencies as well, resulting in the death of many weak and vulnerable mules.


For local businessmen, mules are safe investments. If a healthy mule is fed, nurtured, and taken care of well, it is essentially good for porting business for nearly 25 years. Thus more mules mean more jobs and more income. According to the Government of Nepal’s Central Bureau of Statistics’ most recent data, Nepal’s travel and tourism sector support 371,140 jobs, which constitutes 11.5% of the country’s total employment. A significant portion of those jobs includes labor works like porters and mule herders. In the last few decades, as climate change and its risks have emerged as a prominent issue, it’s clear that the vulnerability that the mountaineering and trekking business, and in turn labor workers like Magar, are exposed to has increased exponentially.


A landmark report released in 2019 claims that even if we achieve the most ambitious Paris Agreement goals of limiting warming to 1.5℃ (2.7℉), it would still lead to the loss of nearly a third of the glacial ice of the Himalayan region by the end of the century. If the effort fails and major fossil-fuel-burning countries and corporations continue business as usual, the rise of temperature in the region can get as large as 5.5℃ (9.9℉) – global warming hits snowy, high-altitude regions harder than most lower-altitude regions – and the Himalayas will be at the front seat of the immediate consequences of climate change.



All these points to a loud and clear message: The pandemic and its impact on mountain tourism in the last two years may have been just a glimpse of what is to follow in the coming decades. What’s more, vulnerable labor workers like Magar would disproportionately bear its consequences.


“Some of the mountains that drew trekkers to Nepal are becoming less and less appealing,” says Phurba Sherpa, former Chair of the Nepal National Mountain Guides Association. “It has also made climbing trails more dangerous.” He elaborates that many tourists wanted to hire him as a guide to climb Pasang peak, one of the neighboring peaks to Mt. Everest, but he had to turn down considerable sums of money that could feed the average Nepali for months because the mountain has turned too dangerous.


“Some of the mountains that drew trekkers to Nepal are becoming less and less appealing. It has also made climbing trails more dangerous.” -- Phurba Sherpa, former Chair of the Nepal National Mountain Guides Association

If mountains are not covered with snow throughout the majority of the year, they will be less appealing to tourists, negatively affecting foot traffic and spending on towns along trekking routes. This can turn the majority of the transportation jobs useless for most of the year. As Mt. Everest is the spotlight mountain of the world, many labor workers like Magar may feel like they are on the safe side, but are they really? Again, not so easy.


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A laborer hauls a doko (Nepali word for a typical bucket) full of firewood. (Saugat Bolakhe for The Xylom)

Erratic weather patterns fueled by climate change can result in unpredictable climbing seasons. Another scientific research led by Santosh Nepal, a climate scientist at the International Water Management Institute and formerly with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, found that snow coverage across the western Himalayas during the peak trekking seasons in the autumn and spring can reduce by as much as 25% by the end of the century. It means, depending on the climate patterns, the predictable peak seasons would instead become a Russian Roulette of feast and famine, injecting uncertainty into the already cutthroat field.


And evidently so, as we may have seen a glimpse of what is about to become a more common sight in near future. On the way back to Lukla (9,383 feet/ 2,860 meters above sea level), home to the only airport in the region and the preferred entry point to the Himalayas, our team of journalists participating in the Himalayan Climate Boot Camp encountered a quarrel between a local porter and a mule herder. The herder was guiding more than 20 mules upwards. While crossing a suspension bridge, a mule stuck one of its hind legs on a tiny gap space on the bridge and tumbled over failing to get up because of the unbearable weight on its back. The local porter un-mounted the loads so that the mule could recover before the herder arrived at the scene. Yet, the herder assumed that the porter intruded unnecessarily and alarmed his herd. The blame was clearly misplaced, but still, the herder called up his friend and teamed up to harass the porter. Though we, along with other bystanders, managed to calm him down, locals agree that the sights like these are becoming increasingly common.

The psychology behind this quarrel seemed quite obvious as well. During the peak trekking season, in order to cover up the expense for the whole year, many labor workers tend to overwork, invigorating unhealthy competition among their peers. A recent report prepared by the American Psychological Association, “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Inequities, and Responses” concludes that increased average temperatures could cause a demonstrable increase in interpersonal aggression as well as intergroup violence, for example through the fight for dwindling resources. Climate anxiety also emerges more strongly among people on the frontlines of the climate crisis.


All these points to a loud and clear message: The pandemic and its impact on mountain tourism in the last two years may have been just a glimpse of what is to follow in the coming decades. What’s more, vulnerable labor workers like Magar would disproportionately bear its consequences.

To make it worse, the report points out that Sherpa, Magar, and their peers are at the intersection of a number of identities that make them more vulnerable to the mental health impacts of climate change, particularly impacts arising from disasters and their aftermath:



  • They are economically disadvantaged: although the most skilled sherpas make thousands of dollars a year, the per capita income in Nepal is still less than 1,200 USD, lagging behind its neighbors;

  • They are Indigenous peoples of color: both the Sherpa and Magar are legally recognized as Adivasi Janajati by the Nepali government in 2015, following decades of struggle before and after the restoration of democracy; and

  • They are outdoor workers: Sherpas are one of the most dangerous occupations in the world.


Unbeknownst to all these, Magar, working as a laborer has high hopes for his kids and family.

I still remember asking him why he thinks the mountains are getting so bare, rocky, and warm. He posited that “the mountain gods must be angry with the people.”



I wanted to stop him there, to tell him that it’s not the gods, but people from faraway lands who prioritized profit and their personal comfort above all else, who did not bat an eye about the melting glaciers, the rising seas, sweltering heat waves and the vulnerability of laborers like him.


I wanted to tell him all these, but I couldn’t. I didn't know where to begin. Would he understand fully what was going on? As I struggled to find words, Magar was gone — for he was more worried about his bread than my climate change lecture.


“Ha… Ha… Gorey! Ganga!!” I could listen to his howl in the distance.



Magar with his herd of mules. (Saugat Bolakhe for The Xylom)

 

This story is supported by the 2022 edition of the Himalayan Climate Boot Camp, funded by the Spark Grant Initiative of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ).

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Saugat Bolakhe

Saugat is a science writer based in Nepal. As a graduate of Zoology from Tribhuwan University, he is interested in writing about evolutionary biology, climate change, and conservation biology. His words have appeared in Scientific American, Discover Magazine, The Third Pole, and The Scientist. Saugat loves music and you may occasionally find him screaming a few Nepalese or English songs. He can't dance that much but can sure do a backflip.