The Himalayan Ticking Time Bomb

If you view the Himalayas from above, they appear to cut through southern Asia like a beautiful scar. But as striking as this mountain range is, from above and from on the ground, it is also one of the starkest examples of visible climate change. Once we see this area from that perspective, it is hard to turn away.

The Nepali Times’ online producer Ayesha Shakya uses digital tools to portray evidence that the Himalayas’ glacial lakes are melting rapidly. One of the first pieces of digital journalism Ayesha created was for an exhibition in Katmandu organized by American climber and filmmaker David Breashears and GlacierWorks. Climate+Change showcased dramatic before and after images of the Himalayas as well as an interactive map depicting the location of Nepal’s under-threat lakes and glaciers.

“These glaciers are basically ticking time bombs that could burst at any moment. There are many settlements that live below these glacial lakes so they are a real hazard and threat to their livelihoods,” Ayesha said.

A grassy area with mountains in the background
Upper Mustang villagers. Credit: Gopen Rai and Nepali Times

Ayesha explained how difficult it is to report on this particular issue because the glacial lakes are very remote and high up in the mountains. She said: “There are no good monitoring systems in place, so it is very difficult to assess how bad the situation is. But what we do know is that the rising global temperature is causing these glaciers to melt.”

But melting glaciers are not the only climate change issue facing communities in the Himalayas. Climate change is wreaking havoc with the predictability of weather systems. Ayesha said: “Over the last few years, rainfall has been very erratic — when it rains, it rains a lot. But when it doesn’t rain, months can go by without seeing a drop of water fall from the sky.”

High and Dry

Ayesha’s career in journalism has so far taken her from the tops of the Himalayas to the remote corner of Upper Mustang. Tucked behind towering cliffs and deep canyons this region is Nepal’s most arid, and rainfall there is becoming a distant memory.

A woman is talks into a mic while two men videotape
Journalists Ayesha Shakya, in an interview. Photo courtesy of Ayesha Shakya.

Using her fellowship from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network, Ayesha recently visited this region and created a multimedia online package for Nepali Times called High and Dry, which documented the climate change plight of the people living there. After this was published, the Nepali Times was awarded the WWF Media in Conservation Award for its reporting on environmental stories.

Ayesha said: “Small communities living in the Himalayas are bearing the brunt of global warming. Because Upper Mustang is so dry and in the shadow of the Himalayas, I wanted to go there to report on the water crisis that’s making life so difficult for the villagers.”

White mud houses in a village in the mountains
Upper Mustang villagers collecting water. Credit: Gopen Rai and Nepali Times

Ayesha’s multimedia piece uses graphs and maps to highlight that this trans-Himalayan region receives less than 200mm of rain each year and that erratic rain and snowfall have led to a deepening crisis. However, whilst this data plays a crucial part in the piece, what makes it really powerful is the stories of the villagers accompanied by images of them.

For example, the piece contains a video in which the villagers talk to Ayesha about the hardships they are facing. The village chief, Topke Gurung, said: “Only one water tap works in the village so we need to take turns in using it. Sometimes people get into arguments over water too.”

This video is cleverly interspersed with text which delivers more detail for the reader. For example, it explains how with only one water tap working in the village, the residents of Samzong are now having to move to Namashung, a small village in the outskirts of Lo Manthang. One of the villagers, Karma Gurung, is filmed saying: “We are happy to move to Namashung but it is difficult to leave this village completely too. Once we move to Namashung, life will be a lot easier.”

When we hear from the villagers directly, the emotional connection is so much stronger than if Ayesha had simply quoted them in her piece. This video is complemented by a stunning photo gallery, depicting women queuing to use the village’s only tap and walking along the dry cracked earth carrying heavy pales of water home.

High and Dry is the perfect example of how Ayesha and other journalists in the Earth Journalism Network use increasingly available environmental data and new mapping and data visualization tools in their work. By combining this data with images and videos which tell the stories of people on the ground, we as readers are better able to understand this global crisis from a local perspective.

Jennifer Cobb is Vice President for Communications and Outreach at Internews. Internews’ Earth Journalism Network is active at the Paris Climate Talks, with a contingent of 40 journalists, journalism fellows, and senior journalism mentors from around the world attending the talks. Follow Earth Journalism for more information and updates from #COP21.

Learn more about the women journalists that Internews works with around the world and Internews’ five-year initiative, Women’s Voices, Powering Change.

(Banner photo: Credit: Gopen Rai and Nepali Times)

(This story was originally posted on Medium.)