Mount Everest is the highest point in the world, with a summit of 8,849 meters (29,032 feet) above sea level. It is part of the Himalaya, which spans 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) across the countries of India, China, Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
Mountains like these are known as the water towers of the world, because they provide half of the world’s population with freshwater. Ten major rivers originate in the Himalaya and supply freshwater to 1.3 billion people living in its watershed.
For many people all over the world, life revolves around water and the support it gives. People need clean freshwater for drinking, cleaning, irrigation of crops, industrial activity, and even supplying energy. The following stories focus on four different groups of people who live in the Mount Everest watershed, and for whom water is a central focus of daily life.
Bamboo Traders on the Sapt Kosi River
Over 50 different varieties of bamboo grow in Nepal. It is fast growing and in high demand for construction and handicrafts across the country. In the remote mountainous village of Bhojpur, located in eastern Nepal, local men risk their lives to get their bamboo to market. Because there is no road access, they tie the bamboo into cone-shaped bundles using vines, which then serve as rafts that the men navigate down the river to market.
Their journey takes them down the snow-fed Sun Kosi tributary to join one of Nepal’s largest rivers: the Sapt Kosi (also known as the Kosi or Koshi River). The Sapt Kosi River originates in Tibet and flows through Nepal and into the Indian state of Bihar, eventually joining the Ganges (Ganga) River.
The bamboo rafters’ journey is a dangerous one, past giant boulders and through fierce rapids, using nothing but a long bamboo pole to steer. Assuming nothing goes wrong, the trip takes hours and ends in the Sunsari district, near the eastern Nepal-India border. An experienced trader can transport around 150 pieces of bamboo a day using this rafting method.
At the market in Sunsari, the bamboo sells for the equivalent of around $0.50 USD per stalk. It is little compensation for such a dangerous job. Bamboo trading along the Sapt Kosi is already heavily dependent upon the weather; the rafters cannot travel on the dangerously swift river during monsoon season, from June until September. With climate change creating more unpredictable monsoon seasons, it can be even harder for bamboo traders to prepare for what is to come.
Farmers of the Sapt Kosi River Basin
The Sapt Kosi River Basin is a large catchment fed by snowmelt from the Himalaya. Seven tributaries of the Sapt Kosi River meet in the foothills of the mountains, before spilling out across Nepal’s southern plains and into the Indian state of Bihar.
Agriculture is the main source of income for residents of the Sapt Kosi River Basin. However, the Sapt Kosi River is known for its regular flooding and unpredictable behavior. Farmers living on the floodplain are at the mercy of the river: The sediment rich waters irrigate crops and keep the soil fertile, but the unpredictable flooding can destroy both livelihoods and lives. In August 2008, severe flooding displaced more than three million people in Nepal and Bihar, and hundreds were killed.
Farther up in the hills of the river basin, farmers face a different challenge. While the monsoon rains between June and September replenish Nepal’s groundwater, they can also cause deadly landslides and flash flooding. These events are common in the mountainous regions of Nepal. They then face an opposite extreme during the dry season: Water becomes scarce in the foothills, and women have to travel farther to collect water for their households.
The residents of the Sapt Kosi River Basin are also starting to feel the effects of climate change. In the long term, it is likely that monsoon seasons will be wetter and dry seasons will be drier, increasing the likelihood of flooding and droughts. This makes life more difficult for the people living in the Sapt Kosi River Basin, particularly farmers. Some have switched to growing different crops that require less water, while others have chosen to find work elsewhere. As the planet continues to warm and the region’s water availability grows more unpredictable, farmers’ lives and livelihoods are left increasingly at risk.
Hindus Visiting the Ganges River
The Ganges River begins in the Himalaya and runs 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) through India to the Bay of Bengal. Today, the Ganges provides water to over 400 million people who rely on it for drinking, bathing, and irrigating crops.
The Ganges is especially important to Hindus, who believe that the river is the embodiment of the Hindu goddess Ganga. To them the river is known as Ma Ganga, meaning “mother Ganges,” and its waters are said to have properties that protect and purify those who bathe in it.
In the holy city of Varanasi, Hindu pilgrims bathe in the waters and give offerings of floating candles and flowers. Along the same riverbank where thousands gather each day, seeking both spiritual solace and a relief from the heat, cremation pyres burn the bodies of the dead. It is a common practice to cremate loved ones on the banks of the river and spread their ashes on the water. Hindus believe that the Ganges has the power to release people from the cycle of death and rebirth and allows the deceased to pass safely to the afterlife. However, many families cannot afford the firewood necessary for complete cremation, and half-burned or unburned corpses can sometimes be seen floating along the river.
Despite its religious significance and sacred status, the Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. In addition to human remains, untreated sewage often gets dumped directly into the river. Tanneries, textile factories, distilleries, and chemical plants all add their own toxic waste to the waters. A report released in 2018 showed that water from the Ganges tested as “clean” or “almost clean” at only four out of 41 sites along the river. However, the polluted water does little to deter devout Hindus from worshiping at the Ganges; Varanasi is visited by about one million pilgrims each year.
Women and Girls Collecting Water in India
It is easy to take water for granted. In developed countries, a person can turn on a faucet and instantly have clean running water. It is used for a variety of everyday activities, such as brushing teeth, taking a shower, flushing the toilet, preparing food, washing clothes, watering gardens, and more. To some, clean water may seem ordinary and ever-present—but to others it is one of the most rare and precious resources on the planet.
Walking to collect water is a daily routine for women and girls across India, where 163 million people do not have clean running water near their homes. Collecting water for daily household use is considered women’s work, and it has a massive impact on every aspect of the lives of women and girls. On average, rural women in Africa and Asia walk 5 kilometers (3 miles) or more each day to collect water for their household. Even a modest 20 liters (5 gallons) of water weighs over 18 kilograms (40 pounds)—a tremendous weight to carry for such long distances. Women and girls risk injury carrying heavy water containers for miles across difficult terrain, and many suffer from long-term back, neck, and foot injuries as a result. It is estimated that, across the world, women and girls collectively spend 200 million hours obtaining water every day. As the demand for freshwater grows and climate change creates even more instability in water levels, rural women and girls will likely have to walk farther for even less water.
The global population is growing exponentially, and demand for water is increasing. The Everest watershed is particularly stressed by this growing demand. People living in this region face a future with reduced Himalaya glaciers, which could dramatically change the behavior of rivers like the Sapt Kosi and Ganges. Further, the growing Indian population is a strain on the Ganges, demanding more clean water than it can provide, which increases the burden on women and girls who have to travel farther afield to find a safe supply. Access to water is a basic human right, and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) for clean water and sanitation calls for “universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water” by 2030. According to the 2019 Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, to reach this goal in the Everest watershed, national governments, local governments, and local organizations need to work together to strengthen water management both in mountain and downstream communities.
the art and science of cultivating land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).
learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.
process of silt and sediment building up in an area.
period of greatly reduced precipitation.
a structure, usually of stone or earth, constructed to prevent a river from overflowing.
act in which earth is worn away, often by water, wind, or ice.
flat, low-lying land near or adjacent to a river that is prone to flooding; usually formed by built-up sediments deposited by the river.
water that is not salty.
mass of ice that moves slowly over land.
water found in an aquifer.
watering land, usually for agriculture, by artificial means.
the fall of rocks, soil, and other materials from a mountain, hill, or slope.
seasonal change in the direction of the prevailing winds of a region. Monsoon usually refers to the winds of the Indian Ocean and South Asia, which often bring heavy rains.
person who travels to a place for a religious or spiritual reason.
system to collect and store rainwater.
channel of earth through which a river flows.
solid material transported and deposited by water, ice, and wind.
water supplied by snow.
highest point of a mountain.
entire river system or an area drained by a river and its tributaries.