Banner by Matt Stoss

Acclimating to a New Future

by Cassidy Power

Deep in the Himalayas, a man lives alone in a village that was once the site of centuries-old traditions. Now, he is the last member of the Dhe people to live on the ancestral lands. In the early 2000s, the village's water shortage reached a critical level. The Dhe people were confronted with a dilemma: stay in the village and face starvation or relocate elsewhere and lose their cultural identity. It was a seemingly impossible choice, but in 2009 the members of the Dhe village decided to relocate miles away to the Thangchung plain.  

The relocation efforts aren't over yet. Eight years after the decision to leave their ancestral lands was made, the Dhe villagers are struggling to raise the funds to build permanent housing in Thangchung. So far, only one house has been built as a prototype. In the meantime, fourteen households moved to a location that's a two to three day walk from the original village. The other ten households left the area completely.

Dhe used to be prosperous, generating income from animal husbandry. Yaks, goats, and cattle provided enough earnings to support the village and maintain their self-sufficiency. Villager Tsering Larkke Gurung described Dhe’s past, saying “In our forefathers’ time there used to be thousands and thousands of animals with enough grass to feed on…but now we hardly have one thousand animals and they do not have enough to graze.”

Climate change is to blame for this village’s rapid decline. The snowfall has decreased to such an extent that agriculture is no longer possible. By 2011 over two-thirds of the land had dried out, forcing the villagers to abandon those areas. In recent history, each household had one or two ponds to use for daily water needs as well as irrigation. In 2012 there were five ponds total during the peak of wet season. With 24 households, this simply wasn’t enough.

Resulting from the lack of water, less than half of the villagers had enough land to support themselves. The glaciers are melting at a rapid pace, causing landslides that destroy what little crops were left. Without a means of food production, the people of the Dhe village had to resort to selling their cattle to buy food from other villages. Without cattle, they had decreased incomes, perpetuating the downward spiral.  

The strain on economic resources wasn’t the only effects of climate change in the village of Dhe. Cultural changes occurred as well. After centuries of a continuous traditional lifestyle, residents were forced to turn to cheaper alternatives, like instant noodles and ready-made food. Wheat and barley used to be staples in their diet, but in the last years of the Dhe village, foreign rice and potatoes took over.  

Dhe, and the villages nearby, are largely Buddhist. Religion has shaped the way the view these changes. Other villages believe Dhe’s misfortune is the result of a curse laid upon the village for skinning a yeti and cutting down old trees. The Dhe people deny these accusations and instead believe these events are simply part of their destiny.

Fidel Devkota, an anthropologist from Germany, lived among the Dhe and has been following their story for nearly a decade. Devkota has been instrumental in the relocation efforts and brought to light the plight of the Dhe with his film The Last Yak Herder of Dhe. The film, which runs thirty minutes long, was released in 2014 and provides a personal view of the impact of climate change.

“The village looks quiet and deserted… we feel sad in our festivals because we do not have enough people to celebrate it together. As our festivals are not meant to be celebrated with just one to two person, it would be nice if we can celebrate with all friends and families,” Pasang Gurung told Devkota in 2011. Festivals such as yartung, loshar, and tiji are all important traditions in the village. In the later years, with the food shortage, these festivals were near impossible to celebrate. Festivals in Dhe are centered on the idea of a village feast, with each household contributing something to the cause. As food sources dwindled, these festivals became harder and harder to practice.  

There’s a tradition unique to the Dhe village that is now gone due to the Dhe villagers’ migration. Dhimpuche, or yartung, is for children under 13. At the highest point in the village, there is a pine tree with great significance where the children would journey to as part of the ritual. Along with a llama and a pancake-like feast, the children met at the pine tree and partook in a type of Buddhist worship called puja. Now, the villagers have relocated so far from the original village that the trek is too dangerous for the children to make.  

It’s rituals like these that are dying out due to climate change. Dhe is the first refugee village of climate change in Nepal, but research shows that it will be far from the last. The loss of culture is unquantifiable, and the toll it takes on those affected is an experience most cannot imagine. Going from a tight-knit, self-supporting village with a centuries-old way of life to refugees in a foreign environment has emotional and societal tolls, causing the people of the Dhe village to mourn what once was.