When the Anthropocene Came to Halji

This is the second in a multi-part series discussing sacred landscapes and religion in the Himalaya. Read the first post here.

The rocky trail we had been hiking all day along the Limi River was interspersed with a mix of subalpine trees and large boulder fields, followed by a low stone wall alongside empty fields. As we crossed an old wooden bridge constructed of hand hewn logs and stones, a wide field of barley in various stages of harvest slowly came into view. The field was interspersed with a winding network of small streams, all nestled inside a small river valley. We were about to enter the village of Halji, our first destination in the remote Limi Valley of far western Nepal. Although I did not realize it as we crossed the bridge, we were entering another community on the front lines of a new era of climate chaos, or what some have taken to calling the Anthropocene.

Crossing the Limi River bridge to the village of Halji. Source: Chris Crews (Attribution via chriscrews.com)
Crossing the bridge over the Limi River to enter the village of Halji.
Source: Chris Crews (Attribution via chriscrews.com)

After traveling in this area for several weeks, it’s easy to appreciate how vulnerable many of these Himalayan communities are to the impacts of climate change, especially those located at higher altitudes where glacial melt poses a serious threat. Halji, the village we had just entered, is a poster child for what at-risk mountain communities facing an increasingly unstable and erratic climate future look like. Although we don’t tend to talk about the issue as much, climate change also poses serious threats to everyday religious practices, especially when sacred sites are located in vulnerable areas. As we spent time in Limi Valley, and talked with locals there, it became clear that what we were seeing in Halji was a portend of a much larger climate trend across the Himalaya.

Halji is located in a small river valley, surrounded by mountains on all sides, with less than one hundred families living there. At one end of the valley, located at the base of one of the mountain slopes, is the main Halji settlement, a cluster of several dozen stone houses and a large monastery complex. Directly behind this area the mountains rise hundreds of meters, and behind one side of this mountain range lies a series of glacial lakes that have formed and expanded thanks to the increasing ice melt from the top of the mountain.

The village of Halji, nestled at the base of the mountain. Source: Chris Crews (Attribution via chriscrews.com)
The village of Halji, nestled at the base of the mountain. The glacial lake is on the mountain to the left.
Source: Chris Crews (Attribution via chriscrews.com)

In early 2006, these glacial lakes began to burst, leading to a phenomenon scientists call a glacial lake outburst flood, or GLOF, which can destroy entire towns in an instant. On the afternoon of June 30, 2011, one such flood occurred. It washed away part of Halji, and in the process destroyed several homes and threatened a historically important gompa, or monastery, located in the middle of the village and close to the outflow path from the flood. By chance, a Norwegian graduate student was conducting fieldwork in the village at the time of the flood, and recounted the incident firsthand for the Nepali Times.

At around 4:30 pm there was a loud roar from up the valley, and everyone ran out of their houses. At first, the raging brown water was retained by the gabion walls, the last stretch of which was built only a month earlier. Soon, the embankments gave way and the water and the boulders raced towards the village with great force.

The ground shook and the water was nearly black because of the landslides along the banks. People managed to evacuate in time and move most of their belongings, but had to watch as their homes and fields were carried away.

Amazingly, no humans were killed, but the damage was done. When we visited the village three and a half years later, the damage was still clearly evident, with exposed building sides and a large debris pile where several houses had been sucked into the raging flood waters. The village had rebuilt and the residents had extended a rock retaining wall as protection from future flood surges, but it was obvious to our group as we walked through the outflow area that the new stone walls wouldn’t stop another severe flood.

Villagers in Halji are aware of their precarious situation, and have continued to petition the Nepali government for additional support to address this ongoing climate risk. Some outside groups and individuals, including the graduate student Astrid Hovden who witnessed the 2011 flood, have attempted to raise funds and public attention to help address the issue. Although some aid was sent, the larger glacial flood issue remains.

Besides the human and nonhuman lives at risk, there is a worry that another significant GLOF could damage or destroy Halji’s Rinchenling Gompa, which would be an irreplaceable cultural and historic loss. The monastery is estimated to have been built in the 11th century, and has been connected to the legendary Buddhist figure Rinchen Zangpo, who helped spread Buddhism throughout Tibet and Nepal, making it a historically important site for those studying the transmission of Buddhism from India to Tibet and Nepal. Based on recent dating of the central, four-fold Vairocana statue inside the temple, the Halji monastery may also be one of the oldest such monasteries in Nepal, which could make it a potential candidate for a UN World Heritage Site designation and an important site for religious pilgrims and cultural tourism.

The four-fold Vairocana statue inside the Rinchen Ling Gompa in Halji. Source: Chris Crews (Attribution via chriscrews.com)
The four-fold Vairocana statue inside the Rinchenling Gompa in Halji.
Source: Chris Crews (Attribution via chriscrews.com)

Discussing the damages she documented while working in the area with the online journal Asian Art, Hovden wrote:

Since the flooding started in 2006 more than 100 fields have been washed away and another 100 fields were completely covered by sand and rendered useless by the recent flood. Some of the livestock is reported missing after the flood and a few of the families have lost all their fields. Food aid will therefore be needed for the winter.

Water mills and important infrastructure like bridges and sections of the main road through the valley were also washed away, and virtually the whole path at the bank of the flooding river leading up to their pastures in a neighbouring valley was completely flooded.

As anyone familiar with climate change in Southeast Asia knows, increasingly frequent floods and more erratic and damaging monsoons are becoming the new norm across the Himalaya. The future for villages like Halji will only grow more dangerous, not less. As climate instability leads to more coastal flooding and melting mountain glaciers, both highland and lowland communities will increasingly have to address and make sense of climate-related disasters in their own backyards. When we spoke with the head monk of the Rinchenling Gompa, he told us that initially many villagers thought the floods were due to local spirits or deities being upset with the village, but after recent events they are convinced climate change is the real source of the problems, not angry mountain spirits.

In this respect, Halji is emblematic of wider changes across the Himalayan region. Just over a year earlier, in the summer of 2013, floods devastated Northern India and portions of the Himalaya, including the Kedarnath Temple and surrounding Kedarnath valley, killing dozens of religious pilgrims who were making their yatra, or pilgrimage, to Hindu holy sites in the region. Ominous scenes like those broadcast on Indian television from Uttarakhand, where a large statue of Lord Shiva in Rishikesh was first submerged, then washed away completely, by the raging water of the Ganges River, are becoming increasingly common. According to the Indian government, more than 5,500 people died in the aftermath of these floods, and millions of rupees of damage was done. Last year saw more erratic monsoons and drought conditions across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, a trend climate scientists tell us is not likely to improve.

Scientists and writers claim we may now be living in the Anthropocene, a new epoch defined by human actions so immense they are forcing changes to the entire planet that are outside historical norms and without precedent. Despite what commentators like Andrew Revkin claim, there is no such thing as a “good Anthropocene.” For mountain communities like Halji, and coastal cities like New York or New Orleans, increasingly the only options left for us in the Anthropocene are adaptation or extinction. This point was driven home a few days before we departed for western Nepal, when more than 40 people were killed on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal after Cyclone Hudhud caused a freak snowstorm and series of devastating avalanches, leading to one of the worst trekking disasters in Nepal’s history.

Welcome to a brave new world. Welcome to the Anthropocene.

(For those interested in the Rinchenling Gompa, I have included a series of photos I took, to give a sense of its importance.)

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All images courtesy of the author.

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