40 years ago, Western tourists did not know the Gokyo Lakes. A stone’s throw from the beaten path of Everest base camp trek, trekkers love these lakes. Those who seek to escape the “crowd” of the busiest routes find there quieter settings. And a unique view of the surrounding mountains and their legendary peaks, such as Cho Oyu or Mount Everest. In 2019 almost 20,000 visitors passed through the small hamlet of Gokyo. Almost a third of the tourists who entered Sagarmatha National Park made this trip to Gokyo. Many of these visitors were pilgrims.
Gokyo Lakes: sacred for Hindus and Buddhists!
The small Sherpa village is surrounded by mountain lakes, considered sacred by the Hindus and the Buddhists. To face these 20,000 tourists a year, Gokyo has changed and the consequences are dramatic. If the lakes are still sacred, the pastures of Gokyo have altered a lot. Ang Rita Sherpa makes a bitter observation of all these developments in the Nepalitimes.
Wetlands with exceptional biodiversity, those lakes are a stopover for several birds migrating through the Himalayas. They also host several rare species of plants and animals. The Himalayan Tahr (wild goat) and the snow leopard are thus among the residents… Over the past decades, the small shepherds’ shelters have given way to ever-more tea-houses and lodges. Locals have found a more comfortable source of income there than raising yaks and have, in fact, reduced grazing areas. Over-exploited, the remaining pastures are severely damaged and erosion is on the horizon.
Beyond the use of lakes for communication events, the impact of tourism is far from being marginal.
Wastewater, wood exploitation, waste management
There is no major infrastructure to accommodate the flow of tourists. However, the lodges want to meet visitors wishes. They often offer “western” toilets with a flush! It comes with a double negative impact. First, water consumption. Second, lack of an efficient reprocessing system. The septic tanks are overflowed and this wastewater ends up in the lakes or the surrounding rivers. Here as elsewhere, water is a scarce resource. The very rapid retreat of the glaciers raises fears of difficulties to find water in the decades to come throughout the Himalayas.
To heat and cook meals for tourists, one also needs energy. In addition to the gas bottles imported on the back of mules, there is a massive use of wood. The shrubs around the Ngozumba glacier are therefore exploited. At a pace that hardly leaves them time to regenerate. Waste management is also not optimal. Plastics are found in the water of sacred lakes.
Armed with this observation, Ang Rita Sherpa of the NGO The Partners Nepal proposes to make the conservation of this place a priority. Which will come, according to him, with the implementation of more stringent regulations. As a building permit system to limit new lodges. Or the creation of a “building code” that improves sanitation or energy consumptions. Already, some damage seems difficult to counter, starting with the overexploitation of the surrounding wood. It may still be possible to limit the impact of tourism and target more sustainable development for these high-altitude and remote regions. Unfortunately, willing to attract 2 million visitors a year in the country, the Nepalese authorities seem to have chosen a quantitative approach rather than a qualitative strategy.
Credits Gokyo Lakes © Cooper7979 CC BY-SA 3.0