By Sophie Westbrook, ’19


Rising to nearly 22,000 feet above sea level, the Upper Mustang region of Nepal is a desolate place. The climate is unpredictable and sometimes deadly, as biting winds racing off the Himalayan summits make last Sunday seem like a good day for the beach. Upland agricultural communities exist on the edge of subsistence. Little-changed by the country’s industrialization, they huddle amid the majestic peaks. Every intrepid visitor – the region opened to foreigners in 1992 but remains difficult to access [1]  – will marvel at its cultural richness: towering monasteries, linguistic quirks, snow leopard mummies. Few will see the split between continuity and change in these isolated villages. Fewer still will think about watershed management, the hidden determinant of success or failure above the “Plain of Prayers.” [2]

Water is everything to humanity. We follow, steal, hoard and worship it because our survival is intimately connected with availability. Many groups see it as part of our being: threatening one’s water is a direct injury, not a property issue. Where supplies are insecure, water management is a key driver of social organization. It takes a community to defend the individual’s rights because water is always a shared resource. Environmental conditions, formal rules, and informal norms therefore build off of each other. Teasing apart the connections can tell us a lot about the way we think and create culture. At least, I hope so: that’s what this column is going to explore.

The Upper Mustang, populated by farmers with few economic alternatives, is a good place to start. Low rainfall means that each village depends on ice melting from the glaciated peaks looming above them [3]. Streams, mostly seasonal, usually support enough agriculture and grazing to maintain a small population.  The system has always been highly vulnerable to shocks, so markets are flexible. Above the fluctuations, long-term sustainability used to be enforced through the Mukhiya (“village chief”) system [4]. That mode of regulation has disintegrated because an unstable central government is moving into local politics. Just last fall, minority ethnic groups protested their lack of agency under the brand-new federal constitution [5]. The strife has raised questions about who has the authority to manage the water supply. Where no one is laying out shares, everybody competes for short-term dominance.

At the same time, the water itself is getting tough to work with. Climate change changes high-mountain snow patterns, causing flooding, droughts, and lost groundwater. Fortunately, this kind of environmental challenge is easier to answer with the villages’ traditional strengths: cooperation and adaptability. In the last few years, they have planted hardy crops like apple trees, collected more water, and invented new systems to divide up the scarce resource [3]. They have largely protected crop yields. However, the adjustments have done little to encourage already disinterested youth that there is a future in traditional agriculture.

At this point, development is the elephant in the room. It’s coming fast. Right now, a highway is under construction that will link the region directly to China[1]. The Upper Mustang will suddenly be accessible to tourists and entrepreneurs from around the world. Water quality may suffer, especially if community leaders find their influence weakening as people and ideas stream in. That said, I bet the most radical change will happen in inhabitants’ mindsets. Watching and praying for water aren’t nearly so necessary in a ‘modern’ context. Cultures change with improvements in well-being, so writing elegiacally about this is inappropriate. Still, I do hope that water stays in the public consciousness. Acknowledged or not, it will continue to underlie everything the Nepalese do and strive for.



[1] Crowder, Nicole. “A Fortress in the Sky, the Last Forbidden Kingdom of Tibetan Culture.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 5 Jan. 2015. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.

[2] “Kingdom of Mustang.” Himalayanexpeditionscom. Canadian Himalayan Expeditions, 2016. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.

[3] Pandeya, Bhopal. “High Altitude Agriculture — The Challenges of Adapting to the Changing Water Supply in the Himalayas.” Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation. ESPA, 24 Feb. 2015. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.

[4] Aryal, Achyut, Dianne Brunton, Ram Pandit, Rajech Kumar Rai, Uttam Babu Shrestha, Narendra Lama, and David Raubenheimer. “Rangelands, Conflicts, and Society in the Upper Mustang Region, Nepal.” Mountain Research and Development 33.1 (2013): 11-18. BioOne. BioOne, Feb. 2013. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.

[5] BBC. “Nepal Profile — Timeline.” BBC News. BBC, 27 Sept. 2015. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.

This article is the first in a column called “Water, Water Everywhere”. Check here throughout the rest of the semester for the rest of Sophie Westbrook’s posts.