In the High Himalaya, Black Carbon Wreaks Quiet Havoc
RAIHANA MAQBOOLThus exclaim the people living at the foothills of the great Himalayan mountains of Nepal, making their living through tourism – often the sole option – while suffering through more and more pollution, warming and environmental degradation.
“The mountain is changing.”
These people understand and express the changes in different terms but they have reached the same conclusion: the short-lived climate pollutant called black carbon, among others, is wreaking havoc on the region, especially on its glaciers and its weather.
Chimmi Tenzing has lived all his life in Jorsalle, a small village in the Himalayan region of Nepal. Majestic peaks overlook the settlement and a river cuts through it. He owns a tourist lodge here that he has been running for seven years.
Tenzing worked for three years in Pyramid International Laboratory, a high-altitude research center located at 5,050 m above sea level, in the Khumbu Valley at the base of the Nepal side of Mount Everest.
In these years, he frequently visited the Everest base camp and has seen first-hand the changes in the glaciers here.
The colour came first to his mind.
“When I was working at the laboratory, I used to visit the base camp area as well and I have seen visible changes in the glaciers there,” Tenzing said. “It is not only that you can see the glaciers have turned black in color, but when you touch them, even your hands turn black.”
Many people in the communities here don’t understand the scientific terms but are aware of the changes taking place around them.
Tenzing said he has been observing the Namche area – where both Jorsalle and Mount Everest are located – since he started working at Pyramid. Black carbon, or soot, is a type of the fine particulate matter better known as PM2.5. It is also the second-largest contributor to global warming, since it is emitted during the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels.
Indeed, various studies have shown that the greenhouse effect of black carbon can be up to two-thirds that of carbon dioxide.
Tenzing belongs to the Sherpa community, a Nepali ethnic group known for their mountaineers. He used to collect raw data and send it to the laboratory.
“We used to keep Pyramid [facilities] alive through solar power and also used to help the scientists in research work. I was an integral part of the lab but had to leave the job after I got married,” Tenzing says, adding that the black carbon is not only at specific mountains but everywhere.
Dependent on tourism
The people in this area are fully dependent on tourism for livelihood and only a few crops grow in the upper reaches. The local community says that the changes in the glaciers may affect their tourism business as well.
“We are fully dependent on tourism and we have no other way of earning livelihood here. If the glaciers start melting fast it means that this will affect the tourism business as well,” says Techin Sherpa who runs a shop in Namche Bazaar selling Tibetan items.
Annu Sherpa, 77, climbed Everest twenty-four years ago as a head guide with a team of Australian climbers. Annu is retired now but made his last climb to the base camp six years ago. He owns a clothing shop in Namche Bazaar and has seen visible changes in the mountains through all the years.
“I made my first climb to Everest, the glaciers at that time were pure as white but the last time I trekked again; the changes are visible. They look dirty now and the color has turned black at many places,” Annu said.
Annu explains that people living in these are not responsible for the changes up in the mountains but says the communities living near Everest are vulnerable to climate change.
“It is not the fault of people living here. We don’t use any methods that may lead to the production of black carbon or any other kind of pollution but it comes from the other counties and cities of Nepal,” Annu told adding that the people of Namche Bazaar keep the environment clean.
The locals living in Namche say that they witness inconsistent patterns in the seasons.
“Even the weather patterns have changed now. This is the time for a warm temperature but it’s not. Even the snowfall is not on time. We could see the mountains clad in snow but hardly see that now, Annu says pointing to the nearby mountain.
Recent studies suggest that anthropogenic black carbon deposits are further accelerating glaciers and snow melt in these mountain ranges.
According to a report Glaciers of the Himalayas: Climate Change, Black Carbon and Regional Resilience by World Bank Group published in the year 2021 glaciers are melting faster than the global average.
“Along with rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns, black carbon deposits—air-borne particles generated by incomplete combustion from brick kilns, diesel exhaust, and the burning of biomass—are speeding up glacier and snowmelt in these ranges,” the report reads.
The research report covered the Himalaya, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush (HKHK) mountain ranges, and said glaciers are melting faster than the global average ice mass.
“The rate of retreat of HKHK glaciers is estimated to be 0.3 metres per year in the west to 1.0 meters per year in the east. Black Carbon adds to the impact of climate change,” the report says.
Himalayan glaciers provide water to hundreds of millions of people downstream and reports suggest that the speedy melting of glaciers will affect the lives and livelihood of millions of people.
“As glaciers shrink, the lives and livelihoods of many people downstream are affected by changes in the water supply. We can slow glacier melt by collectively acting to curb the black carbon deposits speeding the thinning of the ice. Regional cooperation to protect these resources will pay important dividends for the health and well-being of the people in the region,” Hartwig Schafer, World Bank vice president for South Asia, said in the press release.
Shichang Kang who teaches at the Northwest Institute of Eco-Environment and Resources of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the population of approximately 235 million people of the Indus basin is projected to increase by 50% by 2050, and the basin’s GDP is projected to encounter a nearly eightfold increase.
“It is evident that, owing to the expected strong growth in population and economic development, the demand for fresh water will rise exponentially,” Kang said. “Combined with increased climate change pressure on the river headwaters, an already high baseline water stress and limited government effectiveness, it is uncertain whether the basins can fulfil its water tower role within its environmental boundaries.”
This could negatively impact 1.9 billion people living in or directly downstream of mountainous areas.
The study by the World Bank report further says that the black carbon deposits due to human activities are accelerating glaciers and snow melt in the Himalayan ranges and are changing temperatures and precipitation patterns.
“This is essentially soot from fires in the surrounding lowlands which rises in the air and settles on glaciers. Because of its dark color, black carbon absorbs solar radiation faster. Not only do they darken the glaciers, but these pollutants can also lead to warming of the air mass, leading to higher temperatures around the cryosphere and melting of its ice,” the report reads.
“Governments may improve the ecological compensation mechanism and its actualisation, setting up support for the transformation and upgrade of agriculture, which will reduce the carbon emissions from straw incineration,” Kang said. “Also, the related governments should explore new energy consumption mode that benefit for black-carbon mitigation in South Asia.
“For example, for diesel retrofits in industrialised countries, and improved brick kilns in developing countries. Meanwhile, strict and effective control the forest fires will substantially reduce the local carbon emissions.”
While people have sensed the catastrophic impacts of pollution on the environs here, there seems little hope for them in the absence of comprehensive policies for reducing pollution levels and regulating the footfall here.
Besides taking larger measures to improve the environment and cut down on massive pollutants across Nepal, the efforts to curtail adverse impacts on the glaciers would also mean that there are proper checks and balances on the number of visitors and range of activities which would subsequently mean less business for the locals.
Would they be willing to approve such a policy in the absence of an alternative economic package? The questions remain to be answered.