By Shristi Kafle
Solukhumbu: Until few a months ago Nawang Thame, a Sherpa from the Jorsale village in the Khumbu region in the district of Solukhumbu, used to have sleepless nights because he was living in fear that the glacial lake Imja, located a few kilometers away from the world’s highest peak Mt. Everest, could flood.
Right after the devastating earthquake of April 2015, his fear deepened as the quake triggered flooding through a number of glacial lakes in the Himalayas. Although Imja was not affected, some other small glacial lakes burst, most notably with two in succession in June creating terror and chaos among local Sherpas living downstream.
Nawang, 29, along with his neighbors made a temporary shelter and lived under tents in an open space and spent a few days in a “wait and watch” mode to survive further possible Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF). The danger, however, was seemingly over for a while and people started returning to their daily lives.
However, the community members in Jorsale, located at the bank of the Dudhkoshi River known for its milky water, could not rest until the Community Based Flood and Glacial Lake Outburst Risk Reduction Project at Imja was completed recently.
Nawang, who works as the Chairman of a local club told Xinhua, “We are very happy that the project was completed successfully and the water level in the Imja Lake has been lowered. It feels like we have been given a new life. There are no more fears and now we can sleep peacefully after decades of worry.”
Nawang’s statement comes after Nepal formally announced last week the completion of the much-awaited and technically challenging climate change adaptation Imja Lake Lowering Project. The lake located just below the Island Peak was at immediate risk of bursting and had been posing a threat to the communities in the region for decades owing to rising global temperature.
Imja Lake, one of the biggest and most dangerous glacial lakes in the Himalayan country, is located at an altitude of 5010 meters above sea level. The depth of the glacial lake is 150 meters and it has expanded by 1.28 square kilometers.
According to research, the lake has been expanding annually since the 1960s as global temperatures have been on the rise. As the lake was posing a high potential risk of an outburst, the safety project was implemented by the Nepal Army, who successfully lowered the water level by 3.4 meters and formed outlet channels for excessive water.
“We started the project in April and it took us six months for its completion. It is a particularly challenging project due to the high altitude and extreme weather conditions. We only had a narrow window of three months to complete it, but we were successful,” Bharat Lal Shrestha, Lieutenant Colonel from the Engineering Department of Nepal’s Army told Xinhua.
Shrestha added that it was a technically difficult project as all the construction materials, including excavators had to be carried by helicopters due to a lack of roads and transportation in the Everest region. To be noted, he said, it takes 7 days of trekking to reach Imja Lake from the Tenzing Hillary Airport, located at Lukla, which is the nearest airport in the region.
Around 150 people including 40 Army personnel and locals from Khumbu were mobilized for the state project that was under the auspices of the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology of Nepal. The project was jointly funded by the Global Environment Facility and United Nations Development Fund.
The project was initiated based on research carried out in 2014 on electrical resistivity tomography, ground penetrating radar and bathymetric design. Since the lake is located at the Sagarmatha National Park, which is a World Heritage Site and a major tourist destination, the threat was much higher than first anticipated.
Prabin Man Maskey, Senior Technical Adviser at Imja Project, told Xinhua, “We have installed GLOF sensors and these sensors are going to capture any GLOF activity. Six vulnerable locations have early warning sirens and we have 18 community-based early warning systems as well. So this way, any GLOF events that is going to happen is going to be captured and transmitted in real time. And, people will be able to save their lives if anything occurred.”
The community-based project has directly benefited more than 96,000 locals in the Khumbu region, as well as trekkers, guides and tourists. Under the project, various communities living downstream from the lake across the Dudhkoshi river corridor, have been provided with infrastructures for disaster prevention and solutions to mitigate risk.
The four village development committees of Solukhumbu, Khumjung, Chaurikharka, Namche and Jubing have been identified as risky settlements and have been provided with evacuation centers, early warning systems and capacity building training programs.
Pasang Norbu Sherpa, head of a community-based task force in the Pangboche downstream settlement located at 3900 meters above sea level, told Xinhua, “We were always living with risk but now we feel secure. We have various equipments for dealing with disasters, from sirens and hammers to ropes and safety helmets. We organize mock drills too. It’s really helpful for future disasters.”
The project has installed automated hydromel sensors in 6 highly vulnerable communities, which inform the people immediately after the water level has increased in the lake. Similarly, 12 task forces have been formed in the highest risk communities, and provide training on first aid, search and rescue techniques and early warning systems.
Similarly, the project has prioritized downstream settlements located in various districts of the terai region bordering India, such as Mahottari, Saptari, Siraha and Udayapur.
Sophie Kemkhadze, Deputy Country Director at UNDP Nepal told Xinhua, “We started this project to mitigate the risks caused by the Imja glacial lake. The water level is controlled now and the risk of outburst is minimized.”
“But most importantly, we have done the work downstream to address potential disaster risk. We have worked with the local communities to develop infrastructures for their preparedness. That’s a major strength.”
According to reports, Nepal has experienced 24 glacial lake outburst flood events in the past few decades, including three incidents in the Dudhkoshi river basin alone, causing huge damage and loss of life and infrastructure.
A study by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) stated that there are a total of 3808 glaciers and 1466 glacial lakes in Nepal. Among these, 21 in the high Himalayas are considered to pose potential risks and four glacial lakes are at high risk of an outburst, after the risk reduction endeavors carried out at the Chhorolpa and Imja glacial lakes.
Though Nepal’s temperature increases annually only by 0.04 degree Celsius as compared to larger countries, the impact of climate change is higher on the environment here, including forests, water resources, agriculture and biodiversity in the region.
Since many glaciers are melting and forming glacial lakes, which are in need of immediate attention, it is high time for the Nepalese government to act promptly to save human lives.