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'It could just sweep us away': This school is on the front lines of climate change

Climate change is affecting the everyday lives of residents in Beding, Nepal. Snow and glaciers are melting around the high altitude Himalayan town, and the melting coupled with more variable rainfall means river flooding is an ever-growing threat.
Ryan Kellman
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NPR
Climate change is affecting the everyday lives of residents in Beding, Nepal. Snow and glaciers are melting around the high altitude Himalayan town, and the melting coupled with more variable rainfall means river flooding is an ever-growing threat.

Presidents and prime ministers, secretaries and kings are in Egypt for the United Nations annual climate change negotiations. And when world leaders talk about climate change, they evoke one group more than any other: children.

The plight of future generations, and the need to protect today's children from a future made unlivable by global warming, is at the moral heart of international climate negotiations. The United Nations estimates about a billion children are at extremely high risk because of climate change, whether that's because of rising seas, heavy rain, drought or deadly heat waves.

But what is life like for children living on the front lines of climate change? How is information about a changing planet passed down to the inheritors of a hotter Earth? And in places where the Internet is not ubiquitous, how do young people understand the changes that they are witnessing?

We visited one school in Nepal's Rolwaling Valley and talked to students and teachers there about their experiences, frustrations and hopes for the future.

Many of the peaks near Beding have less snow and more bare rock than they used to because of global warming. They are a constant reminder of the changing climate for students and teachers at the town's monastery school.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
/
NPR
Many of the peaks near Beding have less snow and more bare rock than they used to because of global warming. They are a constant reminder of the changing climate for students and teachers at the town's monastery school.

A school surrounded by beauty and danger

The Rolwaling Sangag Choling Monastery School is nestled in a steep valley. At the bottom is the Rolwaling River. Behind the school, the rocky cliffs of the Himalayan mountains climb dramatically to peaks of more than 23,000 feet. It is about a two day walk from the school to the nearest road. The area only had sporadic solar electricity until earlier this year.

The school is home to nearly two dozen boys who live and study there most of the year, except for a brief period in the winter when they return to their hometowns nearby.

The Rolwaling Sangag Choling Monastery School is home to 21 students, including Mingma Thamang (bottom right.) The school is located at about 13,000 feet above sea level.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
/
NPR
The Rolwaling Sangag Choling Monastery School is home to 21 students, including Mingma Thamang (bottom right.) The school is located at about 13,000 feet above sea level.

It is a life that is intensely, unavoidably, connected to nature. And the students, especially the older ones, have noticed nature changing.

"We can see many mountains here," says Mingma Thamang, an 18-year-old student at the school who has hiked up to a nearby glacial lake multiple times in recent years. He says he has heard rumors that the lake, which is upstream from his school, could cause a big flood in the future.

18-year-old Migma Thamang is nearly ready to graduate from the school. He says he hopes to pursue further religious education and someday become a lama – a Buddhist religious leader.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
18-year-old Migma Thamang is nearly ready to graduate from the school. He says he hopes to pursue further religious education and someday become a lama – a Buddhist religious leader.

Indeed, the lake is at critical risk for flooding, according to scientists. And the school is located very close to the river, and would likely be damaged or destroyed in such a disaster.

Bolendra Acharya has taught at the school for 12 years and says there are other obvious changes as well. Snow that used to cover the nearby mountains in thick blankets is now spotty and thin. Now, bare rock shows even on the highest peaks. And rain that used to arrive on a reliable schedule in the summer is now more variable.

Bolendra Acharya has taught at the school for 12 years. He grew up in a neighboring valley and says he has witnessed profound changes in the area's climate.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
/
NPR
Bolendra Acharya has taught at the school for 12 years. He grew up in a neighboring valley and says he has witnessed profound changes in the area's climate.

The unreliable rain is a problem because most people who live in the area farm, raise livestock or work in the mountain trekking industry. When the rain comes late, or all at once, it hurts crops and makes it difficult to safely cross the river. Domestic yaks and other livestock are unable to access grazing areas.

Nima Sherpa, 91, is the oldest person living in Beding, Nepal. When she was a child, she says a large lake nearby didn't even exist. But as glaciers melt in the mountains, the lake has swelled and transformed life here by threatening the town with flooding.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
/
NPR
Nima Sherpa, 91, is the oldest person living in Beding, Nepal. When she was a child, she says a large lake nearby didn't even exist. But as glaciers melt in the mountains, the lake has swelled and transformed life here by threatening the town with flooding.

And as the area gets more popular with local Nepalese tourists, it also becomes more dangerous for hikers who are using narrow riverside paths and suspension bridges because of high water from heavy rain and glacial melt.

Acharya grew up nearby and says, when he was young, life in the valley was very different. "Our life was safe. We would just cross the river," he says. "But now it seems like, at any time, it could just sweep us away. There is a kind of fear among us. Anything could happen."

A student in the monastery school library. They study math, basic science and history as well as religion and language. The goal is to include climate change in future curricula.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
/
NPR
A student in the monastery school library. They study math, basic science and history as well as religion and language. The goal is to include climate change in future curricula.

A desire for to know more about a changing planet

Acharya makes it a point to talk to his students about the environment. "From my point of view, I'm very interested to introduce the students to climate change," he says, "because they live in an area where there is a lot to learn."

Right now, there's no formal climate change curriculum, although they do study general science. The primary goal of the school is to educate students to become lamas – Buddhist religious leaders. Students study math, history, science and other academic subjects for the first five years and those that continue on for the remaining three years focus on religious and language training.

"We learned about the weather, about different types of animals," says Thamang.

Lhakpa Sonam Sherpa, who recently graduated from the school, says he learned about plants and animals of the region, and about the larger geography of Nepal.

Many young people in the area are unaware of the how they fit into the larger picture of global climate change, despite their personal experiences with changing weather patterns. Lhakpa Sonam Sherpa recently graduated from the monastery school and says he'd like to know more about global warming.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
/
NPR
Many young people in the area are unaware of the how they fit into the larger picture of global climate change, despite their personal experiences with changing weather patterns. Lhakpa Sonam Sherpa recently graduated from the monastery school and says he'd like to know more about global warming.

But students at the school say they know only a little about where their home fits in the larger picture of global climate change, and would like to know more.

"We want to learn more about the environment," says Thamang. "Because then maybe we can do something to make it cleaner and safer."

The teacher, Acharya, says even if most of his students will go on to work in religious roles that don't directly interact with environmental policy, it's still important to bring climate change into the classroom. These future religious leaders will be the ones that local people turn to as they try to make sense of their changing environment. And decisions to protect local forests or adapt to flood risk will likely include consultations with religious authorities in this heavily Buddhist area.

To that end, Acharya says he wants his students to understand that the changes they are witnessing are being caused by people in other parts of the world.

"We are not the people polluting the environment. It's factories in cities, especially out in the bigger world. It's not people like us, living in rural areas, that are contributing to the damage of Earth," he says. "Local students need knowledge about climate change, to be empowered to make their own decisions, and to protect themselves."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A young man walks through the Rolwaling Valley.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR

Rebecca Hersher
Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
Ryan Kellman
Ryan Kellman is a producer and visual reporter for NPR's science desk. Kellman joined the desk in 2014. In his first months on the job, he worked on NPR's Peabody Award-winning coverage of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. He has won several other notable awards for his work: He is a Fulbright Grant recipient, he has received a John Collier Award in Documentary Photography, and he has several first place wins in the WHNPA's Eyes of History Awards. He holds a master's degree from Ohio University's School of Visual Communication and a B.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute.