Tourism Development Compensating for the Effects of Climate Change in Rural Himalayan Communities

Tourism Development Compensating for the Effects of Climate Change in Rural Himalayan Communities: a Case Study in Upper Mustang Villages (Central vs. Peripheral Villages)

While this is just a sociological work in progress, I look forward to supplementing my research by collaborating with climatologists from Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University to measure glacier melt and examine the connections between climate, glaciers, human behavior, water resources and policy.


As the temperature in the Himalayas continues to increase 1.5 degree Celsius (between 1992 and 2003) three times the global average (Ashoka Trust for Research on Ecology and Environment, 2012), the effects of climate change severely affect the rural Trans-Himalayan communities, which rely heavily on natural resources. Climate warming has led to rapid deglaciation, and climate change has already begun to adversely impact water resources in Upper Mustang. In Upper Mustang, which is a high altitude desert, snowmelt from glaciers provides the only source of water.

Upper Mustang has been open to limited controlled tourism since 1992. Tourism development is evident in Upper Mustang as the annual visit demand growth rate continues to increase (Travel Industry Association, 2003). This high demand for visits has made tourism one of the major sources of income in Upper Mustang and the broader nation of Nepal. The tourism-generated income is necessary to create alternative sources to compensate for the adverse impacts of climate change, in particular water resources. This paper will explore the difference between central village development communities and peripheral village development communities. The former is a beneficiary of tourism while the latter lacks access to modern infrastructure, threatening its existence.

Figure 1 Map of Mustang, Source: Pohle 1999


Upper Mustang sits high, with an average altitude of 3,600m, in the Nepal Himalayas and is surrounded by Tibet on three sides. The arid, high altitude desert gives Upper Mustang a fragile environment. The self-sufficient local livelihood depends heavily on agriculture, growing millet, buckwheat, oats, barley, wheat, potato, peas and mustard. The major livestock are yaks, horses, mules, goats and sheep. An estimated 3,243 households live in Upper Mustang (Informal Sector Research and Studies Center, 2002).

Figure 2 Livestock in Lo Manthang, Source: Author

Historically, Upper Mustang was part of the ancient, lho smon-thang, Lo Kingdom serving as the cultural and economic trade link between Tibetan and Indian culture. The capital of Lo Kingdom was Lo Manthang, which today is the capital of Upper Mustang. Upper Mustang is an environmentally and culturally significant region and only a thousand tourists are annually allowed to travel since 1992 with the aim to conserve traditions and protect the locals.

Figure 3 Deep Gorges Along the Kali Gandaki, Source: Author

Today, the Upper Mustang Conservation and Development Project, within the larger Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), an autonomous non-government organization (NGO), manage Upper Mustang. They have taken the innovative approach to natural resources and tourism management. Since 2010, it is claimed that the fifty percent of the royalties generated from tourism go to Upper Mustang’s development.

Since 2008, each foreign tourist entering Upper Mustang has to pay 500 United States Dollars (USD) for ten days along with a licensed trekking group. Between 1992 and 2001, 8,328 tourists travelled to Upper Mustang and generated a total of 408,072,000 Nepali Rupees, however, only 33,405,000, which is 8% of the total, went back to Upper mustang (Dhakal, 2002). This mismanagement of resource allocation has resulted in inconsistent development and lack of cooperation (Banskota and Sharma, 2000; Shackley, 1995). There was inconsistency in development of Upper and Lower Mustang because Lower Mustang was occupied by people of Thakali descent, who had more access to education and progress than those in Upper Mustang, and they were the ones represented in parliament for Mustang district (Chhetri, 2006).

Since 2010, Upper Mustangis have taken matters into their own hands. The Upper Mustang Youth Society threatened to cut off all tourist activities until sixty percent of the tourist revenue has been given to Upper Mustang. Today, it is estimated that the fifty percent of the tourist-generated revenue goes to Upper Mustang (Khadka and Nepal, 2009).

The income is allocated for the integration of traditional subsistence activities into a framework of resources management, and for the development of small-scale conservation and alternative energy projects in order to raise the standard of living for the locals. The involvements of the Nepali state in health care, education and other public services are minimal because of the remote location of the Upper Mustang region.

Within Upper Mustang VDC, the tourist revenue allocation has not been distributed equitably between all villages as the central ones take majority of the share and the peripheral ones receive the leftover.

If one takes a look at the Nepal Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), it states that the revenue generated from tourist entry permits will directly go towards ACAP who will then support conservation education and management, community development programs, women development, heritage conservation and health programs (NTNC Annual Report, 2009). The Nepalese Government plays little to no role in Upper Mustang. There is no strong lobbying for Upper Mustangis inside the Nepalese government (Chhetri 2006).

There are seven Village Development Committees (VDCs), the basic unit of political parties democratically elected: Lo Manthang, the capital of the ancient Kingdom ‘Lo’, Tsuksang, Gami, Tsarang, Tsoshar, Tsonup and Surkhang. Inside the main seven VDCs there are smaller remote villages under their jurisdiction. While the VDCs are accessible by road, the smaller villages, such as Samzong, are only accessible through foot and horse.


Fig 4 (L) Travellers on horse, Samzong, Source: Author

Fig 5 (R) Travellers along the Kali Gandaki, Source: Author



Due to the road accessibility, the VDC center villages have benefited from the aid and project grants provided by INGOs and governments; locally led projects include alternative energy harnessing and small-scale irrigation infrastructures. However, villages in the periphery of the VDCs such as Samzong and Dhye are much less accessible and have not developed a sustainable infrastructure.

Sustainable development is pressing in Upper Mustang, as effects of climate change are much more visible and drastic. Due to the effects of global climate change, temperature in Upper Mustang has been increasing drastically. The glacial melt of the Trans-Himalayan range in this region is witnessed through flows of the tributaries of Kali Gandaki River.

Fig 6 Middle Rongbuk Glacier (above 1968 & below 2007), Source: John Novis, Greenpeace

As the sources of the Kali Gandaki River become less predictable and the temperature continues to rise drastically, VDCs center villages have developed irrigation projects in the past decade to supplement this growing problem. However, the remote villages have not created alternatives and are now at the brink of disappearance.

Existing scholarly research on Upper Mustang include vulnerability of Upper Mustang’s ecosystem and tourisms’ impact on the environment (Boselli, et al. 2005). While, the Effects of tourism as having negative impact environmentally and culturally on the locals have been discussed in previous research (Nyaupane and Thapa 2006; Boselli et al 2005; Mehta and Kellert 1997), this paper explores the different circumstances of the central VDCs vs. the peripheral VDCs due to their access to tourism-generated funding fueling their modernization which compensate for the growing effects of climate change.

Central villages are defined as villages with the VDC’s office and have roads passing through them. Peripheral villages are in the edges of their governing VDC’s office and are not accessible by road. Lo Manthang, Geling and Gami falls under a central village, as Dhye and Samzong are peripheral villages.

Central Villages: Lo Manthang, Geling, Gami

Lo Manthang has historically been the site of Lo Kingdom’s capital. Today, Lo Manthang serves as the cultural capital for Upper Mustang. It is the most populated village in Upper Mustang. Lo Manthang VDC is also the site for the Upper Mustang Youth Society headquarter, which is run by local Mustangi youth and initiates locally spearheaded development projects. Lo Manthang also serves as the Upper Mustang site for ACAP office.

Infrastructures in Lo Manthang include: three schools, the only library in Upper Mustang and the only health facility in Upper Mustang.

Lo Manthang has planned for a Windmill Project for the past two years under the leadership of Tashi Bista, the chair of Upper Mustang Youth Society. The windmill installations are planned for July 2012. Two local youth were sent to South India for six month long training. The project team assessed the use of alternative energy sources and finally decided that windmills would be the most cost efficient for Upper Mustang.

Mustang is living abroad have gathered and raised funds for the Windmill Project and other projects through organizations like Mustang Lo Tso Dhun Kyidug NY-USA, Mustang Kyidug USA and American Himalayan Foundation. According to local sources, almost every household in the central villages, such as Lo Manthang, has at least one member living and working abroad.

The apple belt in Mustang was traditionally in the lower villages like Marpha. Today, due to changes in temperature and availability of modern irrigation system, the apple belt has moved into higher regions such as Geling and Gami. Apple cultivation has generated new sources of income for the locals. The Communities Moving Forward (CMF) Organization has created a project called the Action Apples, which works to facilitate the growth of the apple and local capacity building.

Fig 7  (L) Action Apples Model Source: CMF Projects

Fig 8 (R) Before Irrigation Project, Geling Source: CMF Projects

Fig 9 (L) After Irrigation Project, Geling Source: Author

Fig 10 (R) Greenhouse established with Japanese funds between Gami and Tsarang, Source: Author

Samzong and Dhye

Samzong village is a remote settlement in Tsoshar VDC, ward 9. There are 16 households in Samzong. Dhye village is also a remote settlement in Surkhang VDC. There are 23 households with 150 people living in Dhye. These two villages are in the edges of their respective VDCs, accessible only through foot and horse. Both the villages have for millennia depended on the annual glacial melt for agriculture and basic livelihood. However, today the water sources are dry, creating a lack of water for agriculture, livestock and household uses. The land that was farmed for centuries has now desertified.

In 2011 al Jazeera correspondent, Steve Chao did a special coverage on Samzong village. Samzong was described as the poorest village in Upper Mustang. During ancient times, Samzong was a thriving prosperous village of cultural and geographical significance. The Nepalese Department of Archaeology and American Sky Door Foundation has led an excavation mission in Samzong for the past three years. They unearthed an ancient cave civilization with artifacts dating back 3,000 years. This has created a difficult relationship between the locals and the excavators as the locals protest the objects being taken away. In order to compensate the locals, the researchers provided 50,000 Nepali Rupees to create a museum. However, locals have not built the museum as the village’s survival takes precedence over it.

While the new location for Samzong resettlement has not been confirmed, Dhye villagers will be resettled in Thangchung in a lower part of Upper Mustang.

Fig 11 Relocation Map of Dhye Village, Source: Dhye VDC

Dhye village has been facing an acute shortage of water for irrigation over the last six to seven years. The irrigated land over the period has also been reduced to less than 50 percent and animal husbandry (particularly goat herding) has declined 40 to 45 percent. Two households from Dhye have already moved elsewhere within the last three years. Inhabitants mentioned that for the past seven years they have used their livestock to transport small supplies of water from far-distances. “It is getting extremely difficult for people to even arrange two square meals a day,” a villager mentioned, adding, “there is hardly any greenery to be seen around the village, which just seven years back used to be very green” (Shah 2010).

Unlike the households of Central Villages, the majority of the peripheral villages do not have family members living and working abroad. Due to this lack of foreign connection, initially the locals’ fundraising initiatives for relocation were primarily undertaken inside Nepal. Today, unlike the Nepali government, INGOs such as WWF-Nepal are fully involved in the resettlement process.

The area of new settlement is accessible to glacial melts from Damodhar Kunda. Also, the new area is under the old VDC and familiar to the villagers. Phase three of the resettlement project is being undertaken in 2012 when the houses for the villagers will be ready to move into.

Proposed Map for Dhye Villagers’ New Settlement in Thang Chung. Source: Dhye VDC


While opening Upper Mustang has prompted out-migration as changing climatic conditions is visibly affecting the livelihoods of Himalayan communities, tourism-generated income and access to modern infrastructure is determining their survival. Learning lessons from the past, assuring that all communities regardless of their location have equal access to resources can assist in solving the decades long problem of patchy development.


Al Jazeera Correspondent: Mustang: A Kingdom on the Edge. 2011

Annapurna Conservation Area Project (2010). Annual Report.

Ashoka Trust for Research on Ecology and Environment (2012). Bi-annual Report.

Banskota, K. and Sharma B (2000). Upper Mustang: Linking High-Value Trousim with Local Development, in Sharma P., 2000 (editor). Tourism as Development: Case Studies from the Himalayas. Book Faith, India and Studien Verlag, Innsbruck

Boselli A. M., (2005). The Upper Mustang (Nepal) ecosystem: Population, Water Quality and Tourism. Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management 8 (3): 285-291, 2005

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Dhakal, Dipendra Purush (2002). Resource Mobilization for Upper Mustang Biodiversity Conservation Project. A report prepared for the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation (in press). Pp 8-10

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Paudel Keshav P, Andersen P. Assessing Rangeland Degradation Using Multi-Temporal Satellite Images and Grazing Pressure Model in Upper Mustang, trans-Himalaya, Nepal (2010). Remote Sensing of Environment 114 (2010) 1845-1855

Shackley, M (1995). Managing Cultural Resources in the Himalayan Kingdom of Upper Mustang. Asian Affairs, vol. 16, Issue 2, pp 172 -183.

Shah, Akanshya. “Nepal’s First Climate Refugee Village in Mustang”. Himalayan Times. May 31, 2010.

Shiva Vandana, Bhatt V K. Climate Change at the Third Pole (2009). Navdanya Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology: New Delhi, India.

Shrestha Arun B, Aryal Raju (2010). Climate Change in Nepal and its Impact on Himalayan Glaciers.  Reg Environ Change (2011) 11 (Suppl 1) S65-S77



Tsechu is currently a Masters in Public Administration in Environmental Management and Energy Policy candidate at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs; she has BA in Asian Middle Eastern Cultures. Her research interests are questions of power, political economy, and cultural politics in nature-society relationship. In her free time, Tsechu enjoys bird watching, nature walks, geocaching, map making and everything outdoors in general.
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