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In the High Himalayas, Sherpa Women Bear the Disproportionate Effects of Climate Change

At 39 years old, Dawa Sherpa has many roles to juggle.


She’s an entrepreneur running a guest house for international and domestic trekkers making their way up Mount Everest in Namche, Nepal. While her husband owns a separate business in Kathmandu, their son and daughter are busy with their studies. Dawa is so preoccupied with managing the household that she barely has time to work in their small plot where she used to grow potatoes and other green vegetables. With the changing climate in the Himalayas, her problems continue to exacerbate. “While the mountains used to be snow-white 10-15 years ago, we now see increasing black spots in the mountains. In the last two years, potatoes were heavily destroyed due to the burial of mud in excessive snow”, said Sherpa.

“While the mountains used to be snow-white 10-15 years ago, we now see increasing black spots in the mountains. In the last two years, potatoes were heavily destroyed due to the burial of mud in excessive snow.” -- Dawa Sherpa, entrepreneur, mother, wife

A lot of publicly available climate research about the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region is carried out by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a regional intergovernmental knowledge and learning center based in Kathmandu, Nepal. The results are not encouraging: In 2019, they projected that the Himalayan mountains would warm an additional 0.3-0.7°C compared to the global average, even if we reach the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to preindustrial levels. The same year, a systematic review in their Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment Report finds that going by a “business-as-usual” scenario, two-thirds of the HKH’s glaciers will be lost by 2100. A 2020 ICIMOD inventory report further stated that 21 glacial lakes in the Nepal Himalayas are at high risk. In the Khumbu region, there is growing evidence of a rapidly warming atmosphere and the resultant impact in the development of large lakes, the replacement of glacial ice by ponds, boulders, and sand, and the upward movement of the snowline. The impact of climate change, hence, is real.


Nonetheless, the impact is uneven along the lines of class, caste, gender, and ethnicity. Studies around how the inequitable distribution of assets, resources, and power; unequal access to land rights, technology, knowledge, and mobility; coupled with repressive cultural norms and rules that put women at a greater risk of the climate crisis have been well-documented. The story of women like Dawa Sherpa brings to the fore the growing impact of climate change and increasing livelihood challenges in the Himalayas and its disproportionate harm to women.


 

A Sherpa woman uses a hand tool at her home in Khumjung Village (12,500 feet a.s.l), Solukhumbu District, Province No. 1 . (Courtesy of Gobinda Pokharel)


While the Sherpa tribe is well-known for their extraordinary physiology and daring (and often dangerous) mountaineering exploits, the migration of men for off-farm activities from Nepal and the Indian Himalayas has put additional pressure on women to manage agricultural labor, including other rural livelihood activities. In the Khumbu region, the mobility of male members has put a heavier burden on women who have to take care of dwellings and manage natural resources around the homestead.


Mingma Chamji Sherpa (not related to Dawa), a 12th-grade commerce student studying at Lukla, Khumbu, shares her observations and experiences of the impact of changing climate on the agro-pastoral tradition of Sherpa in general and on women in particular. The practice of animal husbandry, common in the past, has been abandoned today. “We used to have 20 oxen and two cows, but these days we have a single cow as we have no time to look after it. On the one hand, there is a shortage of human resources to manage household chores as the male members in almost every household in the region have left the village amid shifting business priorities. On the other hand, unfavorable weather patterns and unprecedented disasters like landslides have resulted in declining interest in the pastoral tradition although such practice is highly valued in Sherpa culture as it brings prosperity to the family and community,” said Sherpa.


“We used to have 20 oxen and two cows, but these days we have a single cow as we have no time to look after it.” -- Mingma Chamji Sherpa, student

Despite the rich knowledge that women possess owing to their lived experiences and roles as cooks, caregivers, and water and firewood collectors that put them in a position to contribute towards climate adaptation and the development of a green and resilient economy, existing policy provisions don’t recognize women as contributors and agents of change in responding to the climate crisis. For instance, the Nepal Climate Change Policy published in 2019 embraces the need to integrate Gender and Social Inclusion (GESI) into climate adaptation and mitigation but considers women only as passive beneficiaries. Dr. Pasang Dolma Sherpa is the Director of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Research and Development (CIPRED) and a Co-chair of the Facilitative Working Group (FWG) of Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform (LCIP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). She said, “Women are at the center of climate impacts: as educators in the communities, as nurturers providers, and as first responders. But existing policies, on the one hand, don’t have an intersectional approach, and on the other, posits women only as vulnerable and marginalized groups”.