Nepal – The country of extremes

Pics and story by PhD student
Jennifer Sherry

A bird's-eye view of the dramatic landscape around the village of Na

A bird’s-eye view of the dramatic landscape around the village of Na

Nepal is a country of extremes. Nestled between the two populous Asian giants, China and India, the country’s northern border parallels the most awe-inspiring strip of the largest mountain range in the world: the Himalaya.

The geographic location and dramatic landscape have undoubtedly shaped the cultures and lifestyles of inhabitants from the low-lying plains of the tropical Terai to the high altitude mountain valleys. Kathmandu, the capital city and international travel hub, is a mosaic of over-stimulating colors, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, temperatures, and cultures. Heading to the remote mountain regions after a stay in the frenetic city requires yet another round of remarkable mental and physical adjustments. These transitions appear to occur more seamlessly for locals than for bewildered western visitors, who fit less comfortably through half-sized doorways, sit less comfortably on bumpy bus rooftops, and apprehensively negotiate throneless bathrooms.



While the deep-rooted anxiety every PhD candidate feels while trying to collect not just enough data, but good enough data still hurries my project along, the social climate of Nepal dictates that I patiently wade through paperwork bureaucracy, stand composedly next to crowing roosters on crowded public transportation, and try to relax as the research process unfolds. A Nepali man once told me after a mutual near-death experience, “In Nepal nothing is ever certain, not even tomorrow” (and then he laughed hysterically as if it was the funniest thing he’d ever said). It’s this same acknowledgment of life’s fragility that makes people in Nepal extremely cheerful, unhurried, and better at living in the present moment than what I observe in our own society.

I’ve spent eight months in Nepal over the last two years and will be back for five more months before my data collection is complete in March 2015. As part of my PhD research, I intend to investigate the vulnerability of a remote mountain community that is threatened by the risk of a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF); a potentially catastrophic but highly uncertain hazard linked to climate change.
The glacial lake, called Tsho Rolpa, has been labeled one of the largest and most dangerous lakes in the Himalaya for its potential to collapse and flood human settlements for 100k downstream. Disasters of this nature have already occurred in the Himalaya and elsewhere, including several GLOF events in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca that have resulted in thousands of deaths. Disaster risk reduction efforts for GLOFs are already underway in Nepal and elsewhere, although to date they have achieved only mixed success.

My field work sites are located in a steep and narrow mountain valley where a community of Sherpa has cultivated agricultural land, tended to yak herds and their crossbreeds, and traded over the Tibetan border undisturbed by “outsiders” until the 1950s. At first glance, one can identify why this community has been labeled as ‘highly vulnerable’ or ‘disadvantaged hill people.’ Many of the villagers are illiterate, with few opportunities to earn a consistent income. Most live in basic stone houses with no stable electricity and no connectivity (internet, cell phone service, etc.). Access to health care and any emergency medical attention necessitates walking (or being carried) for ~15 hours up and down steep mountain trails before loading onto a rickety bus ride over dirt road switchbacks that are distressing to sit through even in the best of health.

Villagers working together to collect resources

Villagers working together to collect resources

Tsho Rolpa

Tsho Rolpa

Yet, in trying to assess how vulnerable this community is to hazard risk, and in particular, to understand how vulnerable they believe they are, I’ve come to interpret vulnerability as being tightly interwoven with a set of social-cultural characteristics that are separate from typical measures of economic poverty, access to resources, or level of development. In many respects, the Rolwaling community has maintained a high quality of life relative to other rural communities throughout Nepal and people in other least developed countries. Their commitment to productive labour, practicality, resourcefulness, high capacity for endurance, and close connection to nature have allowed them to thrive in a harsh and limiting environment over the last several hundred years. It seems a somewhat recent phenomenon that their sense of self-sufficiency and contentedness may have wavered.
From my perspective, the application of western concepts and ideals has not only led us to label these communities as disadvantaged and vulnerable, but it may have also caused the community members to view themselves as disadvantaged and vulnerable. In the past, not having a monetary income didn’t seem to matter to people who were mostly self-sufficient in food production and able to trade for other goods and services. Being illiterate did not prevent them following the seasonal environmental cues rather than a written calendar, nor did the absence of paper money prevent them from trading. Based on my observations and contact with community members, it seems that their capacity to self-govern and cooperate in socially acceptable ways and their strong ties to nature afforded them a high level of physical and psychological well-being and resilience befitting to their lifestyles.

Perhaps the most important outcome of my preliminary observations and my experience of acculturation is an explicit recognition that intercultural researchers will likely have different priorities and ways of perceiving the world than the local people who hold stake in the study. Failing to acknowledge the potential validity of multiple subjective meanings for reality can have detrimental consequences. For example, current efforts to reduce climate change risks have been faulted in the context of developing states for denying the agency of people at risk: to define the problem in their own terms; to apply their own systems of knowledge; to implement solutions that are appropriate to their needs and values and which accommodate uncertainty; and to make knowledge claims of equal value to those of science (Barnett & Campbell, 2010, p. 2). As the westernization process inundates even the remote corners of the world, these issues could constrain, rather than enable, the adaptive capacities necessary to reducing vulnerability.

This concern resonates with my experiences so far in Nepal. I have observed the process by which centralized governments work with foreign aid organizations that provide resources, while largely ignoring local people and their institutions, leading to disparities between perceived priorities and development. In some cases this has led rural village communities to interpret foreign aid as a group of people from a distant place, engaging in projects determined by them, and for their own purposes (Bhista, 1991). Deciding whose reality counts is ultimately a philosophical debate that I intend to avoid in my PhD thesis. However, I hope acknowledgement of these sorts of issues will be significant to the development of more socially appropriate and effective strategies for reducing vulnerability to hazards. My initial thoughts presented here are based only on my prior experiences and general observations in Nepal. I hope to explore these issues further throughout my data collection over the next year.
Barnett, J., & Campbell, J. (2010). Climate Change and Small Island States: Power, Knowledge, and the South Pacific. Earthscan.
Bhista, D.B. (1991). Fatalism and Development: Nepal’s Sturggle for Modernization. Orient Blackswan.

About ilwscsu
The Institute for Land, Water and Society is one of four Centres of Research Excellence within Charles Sturt University, Australia. Its principal focus is on integrated research which contributes to improved social and environmental sustainability in rural and regional areas.

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