Hope in the Himalayas

French president Emmanuel Macron’s One Planet – Polar summit and the story of the Himalayan people experiencing the extremes.

Unpredictability is one of the most dangerous things. The livelihood of mountain communities is based on three things; mountaineering, tourism and agriculture, all of which rely upon a predictable weather pattern.

The road was closed alongside the Jardins des Plantes, Paris, as sleek limos dropped off heads of states outside the Natural History Museum. 

They were here to discuss the cryosphere crisis at French president Emmanuel Macron’s One Planet – Polar, the first summit to be called by a G7 leader on the melting of the poles and glaciers. 

Pema Gyamtsho didn’t arrive by limo: he walked around the corner from his modest hotel; his journey is much longer and the stakes far higher. 


The former Bhutanese agricultural minister, who is now the director general of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), had come from Nepal to persuade the international leaders to acknowledge the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) as "the third pole".

Whilst nobody lives permanently in the north or south poles, the 2,500 kilometres of the HKH covering the eight countries of Nepal, Indian, China, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Myanmar, Pakistan and Bangladesh is home to 240 million mountain people. 

Two billion people depend upon water flowing from the highest mountains in the world, the source of ten large Asian river systems including the Indus, Ganges, Yangtse, Irrawaddy and Yellow River. 

Yet ICIMOD scientists have calculated that while in the past five years $7billion has been spent on research in the north and south pole, a mere $5.8million has been invested into the Hindu Kush Himalaya, home to 40 per cent of the world’s poorest people.

I first met Gyamtsho at ICIMOD’s vast compound of red bricks and glass in the southern part of the sprawling, chaotic city of Katmandu after I had returned from Mustang, a remote area of the high Himalayas near the Tibetan border. 


While I waited for Annie Dare, the director of marketing, I looked around an exhibition in the glass foyer displaying posters of mountain people. One caught my eye. “For centuries”, it read, “millions of people have lived among the beautiful mountains, peaks and valleys of the HKH. But today all that is in danger”.

On another poster, a map of the extensive range had no country borders. For the multi-national scientists of ICIMOD, founded in 1983 by the Nepali government, national boundaries are irrelevant as they seek ways to mitigate the impact of climate change.

Himalaya means "abode of snow" but the mountains are melting, bringing both drought and flooding to the people living there. As many as 20 to 30 per cent of the nine million springs flowing from the mountains have dried up. 

Jigme Biste the former King of Lo, a semi-autonomous kingdom covering the Mustang area which only ceased to exist when Nepal became a republic in 2008, told me he has had to relocate two villages because they no longer had any water. In other places floods are killing people.

“I am so sorry to keep you waiting. Everyone is a bit busy today. You probably saw the headlines about the floods in Sikkim" says Dare. More than a hundred people had died and 20,000 more were evacuated or in relief camps. She led me upstairs to meet Gyamtsho. 

Unpredictability is one of the most dangerous things. The livelihood of mountain communities is based on three things; mountaineering, tourism and agriculture, all of which rely upon a predictable weather pattern.


Five of their scientists had also just called-in to say they had been trapped on a glacier in Mustang by an unexpected snow dump. “A hundred and twenty people have died from floods in the past two years”, said Gyamtsho in a sunny room piled high with science papers.

“Nepal is experiencing extremes”, he explained. “It’s mostly to do with water. There is too much rain, or too little with droughts affecting agriculture production: avalanches and landslides are happening far more frequently. Higher up the glaciers are melting very fast so the risk of glacial lake outburst floods is increasing. 

"We can’t see the impact of melting permafrost because its underground but on the southern slopes of the Himalayas that is worrying,” he says. A peer reviewed study in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded in 2018 that climate change had enhanced avalanche risks in the Indian Himalayas. 

Scientists anticipate that in Bangladesh alone there will be 18 million climate refugees as seawater levels rise. It’s all too easy to hear these words sketched in scientific parlance as statistics but in Kagbeni, a little village with a big past, a flood last August washing away twenty homes, was devastating. 

Before Laxmi took on the family business, she was a peace-keeper during the Taoist insurgency which kept tourists away from Nepal but now she runs her family’s small tourism hotel, YakDonalds.


Kagbeni is the gateway to upper Mustang and on the old spice route connecting Tibet with India in the rain shadow of two large massifs, the Annapurna and the Dhaulagiri. It’s huge, sparse and stony; grey slopes of shale pock-marked with the scent of juniper trees, and apple and apricot orchards bending in the wind. 

Small rammed-earth homes sit between the confluences of two large rivers. It’s a sacred place where the more adventurous come to climb the highest peaks in the world, visit Muktinath a pilgrimage destination for Buddhists and Hindus alike, follow in the footsteps of Peter Mattheissen looking for the snow leopard or like me, to be immersed in a spiritual place, today more Tibetan than Tibet.

It took me nine hours to drive the 110 kilometres from Pokhara along a narrow, muddy track cut from the side of the deepest gorge in the world. It would have taken seven but we had to wait for a digger to clear away the debris from a landslide. 

“In the past we hardly saw rain. In winter we had snow but this year we noticed the change,” says Laxmi. “Winter was too warm. There was snow in March. In June and July we needed fans. With heat like this we get scared in the mountains. We don’t sleep. It’s never happened here.”

Warmer temperatures cause flooding. “Intense rain, which never happens, bringing debris, stones and mud is frightening. The yaks cannot live in this heat.” She continues talking about the potatoes for which Mustang is famed. “Rain will damage our food crops. Then we will have to leave but where will we go?”


Part of ICIMOD’s remit is to avoid this. At the ICIMOD Living Mountain Lab just outside Katmandu, their scientists are experimenting with ways to help mountain people live with climate change. Trees anchor soil and prevent run-off but they are also important for energy production. 

Huge round aluminium dishes heating saucepans and burning brickets made from yak dung provide alternative energy sources to discourage firewood collection. Irrigation channels, water-collection sacks, mushroom woodpiles, stacked vegetable terraces and hedges of nitrogen-replenishing plants are just a few of many simple but ingenious solutions. 

For Laxmi, the tiny miniature village demonstrating how warning signals above villages vulnerable to flooding can save lives, is particularly relevant. The urgency of Gyamtsho’s message cannot be ignored.

I caught up with him again at the end of the Paris conference at which thirty-two countries signed the Paris call for Glaciers and Poles and Macron pledged a €1 billion to research in the polar regions. With him were two younger scientists - one of whom is the grandson of Kanchha Sherpa, who had accompanied Sir Edmund Hilary on his 1953 expedition to Everest.

Tenzing Chogyal Sherpa, a glaciologist with ICIMOD was leading the expedition trapped in the mountains the day I visited ICIMOD. “We were monitoring a glacier when it happened,” he told me. 


“We could have walked 40kms through deep snow along a steep 60 degree slope but it was very risky. Two feet of snow can cause avalanches. So we called a helicopter." He said these abnormal events are now becoming the norm.

“Unpredictability is one of the most dangerous things. The livelihood of mountain communities is based on three things; mountaineering, tourism and agriculture, all of which rely upon a predictable weather pattern. 

"If that is disrupted then their livelihoods are disrupted. That is exactly what is happening,” he said. And this is why the ICIMOD is pushing to get the Hindu Kush Himalaya onto the international agenda.

Gyamtsho was satisfied that he had made his point. “Today I put in my statement that the Himalayas should be described as the third pole; not the ignored pole because its very densely populated so the impacts are more immediate and more catastrophic than in other mountain areas,” he told me. 

It remains to be seen how many of those €1 billion euros ends up in the Himalayas.

This Author

Annabel Heseltine a journalist, columnist and TV and radio broadcaster. She is editor of the education magazine School House. She travelled with Cazenove+loyd.