“I climbed Mt Everest and I’m scared”

Apa Sherpa — who has climbed Everest a record 21 times — is not afraid of heights or blizzards.

“The most worrying issue is that the mountains are holding less and less snow and I can feel it when I climb Mount Everest. It’s not a normal phenomenon,” he says.

These mountains are the source of water for millions of people living downstream, who depend on them for their lives and livelihoods. Apa Sherpa wants to galvanize the global community to save them. In 2012 he trekked with a team about 1,600 kilometers through the mountains of Nepal for about three months, to show the world the impacts of climate change on the ground.

Apa Sherpa was interviewed recently by Ramesh Bhushal, Nepal editor for thethirdpole.net, a reporting initiative of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN). Bhushal and photographer Nabin Baral travelled along the tributaries of the Koshi River from near Tibet to the Indian border to report on the challenges faced by people living in the region. The Koshi River drains a large part of east-central Himalayas and eventually flows to the Bay of Bengal.

The impacts of climate change along the Koshi River

As glaciers melt due to rising temperatures, the region is experiencing more floods and landslides leading to loss of life, homes and farm land.

Conversely, villages in the south-eastern parts of Nepal are suffering a severe water crisis. Trapped between the lofty mountains and roaring rivers, most of the villages in this part of the Koshi basin have very limited water available for drinking or for irrigation.

A farmer in Nepal sprinkles seed in sandy soil
There are now water shortages where there used to be plenty of water for farming. Credit: Nabin Baral

“A couple of decades ago we used to have winter paddy cultivation because there was adequate water in April. Now we don’t have water to grow maize,” Ramesh was told by Bhakta Bahadur Shrestha from Bhimeshwor village in Sindhuli district. Taps in the village were dry, fields were cracked and maize plants were desperately waiting for water.

Because of the water shortages, many families have had to migrate out of the area and those that remain rely on small springs that are often far from where they live. The poverty caused by the lack of water means that some children earn money hauling water instead of attending school.

A young girl sits with 2 metal containers by a water source
Children often miss school to fetch water far from where they live. Credit: Nabin Baral

The government has focused its resources on developing dams and hydropower, which they believe they can sell, instead of addressing water conservation for drinking and agriculture.

An unfinished dam between two mountains
Work is yet to resume at the Upper Tamakoshi dam site after the road was destroyed by last year’s earthquake. Image from Dolakha, Nepal. Credit: Nabin Baral

Impact of Timely Reporting

In a follow-up report on the series — Timely Reporting Matters: Surfacing Impacts of Data Journalism in the Himalayas — Ramesh documented the impacts that his series had on government officials and the community.

For example, the first story in the series pointed out the possibilities of floods in a region around the Nepal-Tibet border and that an early warning system that had been installed was not maintained and was in poor condition. A flood did occur and the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology fixed the problems very quickly.

“I was following your story, as you pointed out, the early warning system wasn’t functioning during that time due to some technical problem,” Binod Parajuli, a hydrologist at the department, told Ramesh. “It’s working now and we are regularly sending warnings.”

“Often stories are reported by the mainstream media only after the disasters,” said Nepal’s former environment minister Ganesh Shah in the follow-up story, applauding the Koshi series. “…but I think media has a role to bring issues beforehand so that timely decisions could be made by the policymakers.”

Shah shared every story in the series through his Facebook page.

Because the headwaters of the river basin are across the Chinese border in Tibet, it was difficult for Nepal to get information about what was going on upstream with regard to glaciers and landslides that may cause flooding. The series emphasized the need for better cooperation between governments to ease the lives of the people living in the river basin. According to a newspaper report, after the series was published, experts in Nepal were able to obtain information confirming that a flood had been caused by water pushing aside a landslide that had blocked the river between Khasa and Nyalum in Tibet.

Journalists in the region also suffer from the lack of information and data sharing. The Koshi basin series provided a lot of data that helped other reporters to understand issues in detail. Ramesh says that Abdullah Miya, senior reporter at Kantipur Daily — Nepal’s largest selling vernacular newspaper — sought his help as he struggled to report on a flood. Ramesh provided him with contacts and a recent scientific paper.

“It was extremely helpful as it is very tough to get information on the Tibet side and reporting this kind of news involves trans-boundary information,” Miya said later.

Two reports supported through this series — Is the mighty Ganga drying up? and Ticking time bombs in Uttarakhand — appeared in one of India’s largest newspapers, The Hindu. Although it is impossible to draw a direct causal link, after they appeared, the Union Ministry of Water Resources filed an affidavit to the Indian Supreme Court, opposing the building of any more dams in Uttarakhand. This was the first time any central ministry in India had officially taken such a step.

More information:

The Koshi River: a journey down the lifeline of Nepal, a four-part series

Timely Reporting Matters: Surfacing Impacts of Data Journalism in the Himalayas, by Ramesh Bhushal, August 3, 2016

Loss and damage, here and now, by Joydeep Gupta, July 13, 2016

The Koshi River series, funded by a grant from the Skoll Global Threats Fund and administered by EJN, was among the first in-depth multimedia reportage of a river basin in Nepal. It drew a lot of attention in the local media. Nepal’s most popular online news portal picked up the series and published it, as did many others in the country.

(This story was originally posted on Medium.)