Climate change in the Himalayas - The threatened life of shepherds

Amazing Places – Climate change in the Himalayas

Climate change is threatening the glaciers in the Himalayas. According to estimates, a quarter of the ice has already disappeared – a trend that has recently accelerated.

According to a recent study, the future of the Himalayan glaciers is bleak. They are disappearing at an ever-faster rate. According to the study, an average of eight billion tons of ice melted every year.1

As a result, water supply is at risk in large parts of Asia. Around 800 million people are affected.

The Glaciers in the Himalayas are shrinking rapidly

A quarter of all Himalayan ice may have disappeared in the short period of the past five decades. Glaciers have thinned by an average of about 43 centimeters a year since 2000. In previous decades, the figure was half that amount. 

Currently, the Himalayan ice sheet comprises about 600 billion tons, and the shrinking of the glaciers has been the subject of studies for some time.

However, these studies were usually limited to shorter periods or only individual glaciers were examined.

A new study now collects data from 650 glaciers in the entire Himalayan region.2

climate change in the Himalayas threatens water supply

Most of the countries around the 3,500 kilometer-long Himalayan mountain range are extremely arid and depend on water from the Himalayas. The Himalayas are also known as the “Water Tower of Asia.

Meltwater from the glaciers continuously flows away via lakes and rivers. However, when the timing and magnitude of glacial runoff changes, glacial lakes can overflow their banks, causing flooding along rivers.

Melting Glaciers - Mount Cho Oyu, Himalayas

Climate change will hit the poorest sections of the population hardest. Already, about one-third of the 250 million mountain dwellers live on less than $1.90 a day. More than 30 percent of people in the Hindu-Kush Himalayan region do not have enough to eat, and almost one in two is affected by malnutrition.

Researchers warn – the region is in for hard times: by 2080, economic, social and environmental conditions could deteriorate sharply. As a result, conflicts could easily flare-up in the region – unless governments work together to limit glacial melt and its effects.3

Water stream flowing through Himalaya Mountains
Water stream flowing through Himalaya Mountains

A publication in Nature magazine released in 2019 had revealed that up to 800 million people in Asia are at least partially dependent on the Himalayan glaciers.

The freshwater cycle in many Asian countries is fed by meltwater from the Himalayan glaciers. In these countries, both the drinking water supply and agricultural irrigation depend on the meltwater flows from the glaciers.

Meltwater is also used to generate electricity from hydropower in many places. So if the glaciers continue to melt at a similar rate, the amount of meltwater would also decrease.4

Access to the melt-water of the Himalayan glaciers ensures the survival of entire societies. If the glaciers continue to lose mass, people will have little to withstand the recurring droughts in the future.

Furthermore, the rapid melting of glaciers can cause melt-water lakes to overflow and flood human settlements located downhill.

Scientists attribute the melting of the glaciers to rising temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

In the year 2000, the temperature values in the affected areas are on average one degree Celsius higher than in the period from 1970 to 2000.

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Climate change is responsible for soil erosion

In Nepal, the deserts are also spreading further and further. The only thing that can help is sustainable agriculture – for example, growing grain only in terraces where the soil cannot be washed away so easily.5

High in the mountains, too, the situation is becoming increasingly problematic. In the Khumbu Region, there are several settlements of the Sherpa – they do both agriculture and secure their survival through livestock farming.

The Sherpas keep Yaks, Sheep and Cashmere Goats – these provide them with valuable protein as well as precious Cashmere Wool, through the sale of the latter they can earn additional financial income.

The data shows that Nepal loses 1.6 millimeters of soil every year, extrapolated to about 240 million cubic meters annually.

The Sherpas have always farmed sustainably – this means that they regularly let the soil rest. They leave the settlements for several weeks every year and also take their livestock with them. During this time, the grasslands can recover and grow again.

But climate change also threatens this rhythm of nomadism, which has been established for centuries.

The tree line is also shifting ever higher. Whereas in 1958 it was still at 3673 meters, in 2007 trees were already growing 160 meters higher.

Shepherds have to move to ever higher mountain regions to find pastures for their animals. But these areas are getting smaller and the paths longer.

As a result, the existence of many shepherds in the Himalayas is already threatened today.

The existence of the shepherds in the Himalayas is at risk

The shepherds and nomads in the Himalayas have lived for centuries on what nature offers them. However, this nature is changing with climate change, and it is becoming more and more difficult for the shepherds to preserve their tradition.

Traditionally, nomadic peoples and other herders move from the lowlands to the highlands in the summer to take advantage of the seasonally available grazing grounds at various altitudes. But the changing climate in this part of the central Himalayas has upset the rhythm of the shepherds’ lives.

In the past, the nomads’ annual journey began in April, moving to pastures up to 5000 meters above sea level. In September, they came back down to about 2500 meters before descending to the foothills in December. There they remained until the cycle began anew in the spring.

At that time, however, precipitation could still be relied upon. According to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), there is always less precipitation in the fall and winter.

Less snowfall in the middle altitudes puts a strain on the pastures that herders have been caring for centuries.

Meanwhile, to ensure their animals get enough to eat, herders ignore the “fixed schedule” that specifies how long each herder is allowed to stay in a certain place.

But by staying longer, they also increase the risk of overgrazing, which puts additional pressure on the environment.

In search of pasture, herders are also climbing further and further up the mountain on new trails. But that has reportedly led to a higher mortality rate among the sheep – likely due to the poorer quality of the grass.

Smaller herds, in turn, mean there is less wool, meat and milk to sell, making life as a shepherd even less lucrative overall.

In addition, invasive shrubs and bushes such as Lantana (ornamental grass), Parthenium and Ageratina Adenophora threaten the grazing grounds. These plants are not originally from India or Asia.

However, thanks to milder temperatures, they are spreading to higher and higher elevations, displacing native forage plants for goats and sheep.

Shepherds in the Himalayas - A Dying Culture?

Most shepherds in the Himalayas have probably never heard of the concept of man-made climate change, but they are connected to nature and concerned about the future of their grazing lands.

It’s getting more and more difficult for them to maintain this centuries-old tradition. An increasing number of people are leaving the mountain villages, especially the young generations who once followed in the footsteps of their ancestors, have either moved to the cities or are working elsewhere.

Also, a growing number of older people are considering giving up this unprofitable nomadic life. But for them, it’s not just a job they’re quitting. It is more like giving up the entire culture that has sustained their families for centuries.

The art of surviving in this barren landscape and extreme climate is what they have brought to perfection

Part of their culture is the Dham celebration which is held once a year. This is often the only time of the year when they meet their people, enjoy many different foods, arrange marriages, or plan future gatherings and other social events.

When the festivities are over, they will again lead their loaded yaks, the goats and sheep up the mountain to where the herd can still find good pasture.

This has been the tradition of the Himalayan shepherds for centuries, and for many of them, there is no real alternative.

Map of the Himalayas Mountain Range – with the 10 highest Mountains of the World. ↑

The Himalayas are a high mountain system in Asia. It is the highest mountain range on Earth and lies between the Indian subcontinent to the south and the Tibetan Plateau to the north.

The boundaries to the west and east are not geologically based and are therefore drawn differently. The mountain range extends for at least 2500 kilometers from Pakistan to the India-China border area in Arunachal Pradesh and reaches a width of up to 330 kilometers.

The Himalayas are home to ten of the fourteen mountains on Earth whose peaks exceed 8000 meters, including Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth at 8848 meters above sea level.

With its southern location and the Tibetan Highlands rising in the back of the Himalayas as an extensive plateau, the Himalayas exert a significant influence on the climate of South and Southeast Asia.

The world’s highest peak, Mount Everest itself isn’t safe from the climate change. According to researchers, world’s highest glacier on the highest mountain loses decades worth of ice each year.

Thousands of climbers trek to Everest Base Camp near the Khumbu Icefall (17,999 ft.) in the Himalayas, but higher temperatures in the Himalayas are melting the glacier making the base camp dangerous day by day. Nepal government even proposed to relocate the Everest base camp because of the climate change.

So yes, it’s a real wake-up call for people to know how harsh the climate change can become in future.

Read also about The life of the Changpa, as the nomads of the Tibetan highlands call themselves.


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  1. Global Climate Change and Melting of Himalayan Glaciers
  2. Acceleration of ice loss across the Himalayas over the past 40 years - SCIENCE ADVANCES 19 Jun 2019 Vol 5, Issue 6 - J. M. MAURER, J. M. SCHAEFER, RUPPER A., CORLEY
  3. Aryal, S., Cockfield, G. & Maraseni, T.N. Vulnerability of Himalayan transhumant communities to climate change. Climatic Change 125, 193–208 (2014).
  4. Pritchard, H.D. Asia’s shrinking glaciers protect large populations from drought stress. Nature 569, 649–654 (2019).
  5. Chalise D, Kumar L, Kristiansen P. Land Degradation by Soil Erosion in Nepal: A Review. Soil Systems. 2019; 3(1):12.

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