The Mountain Institute’s expedition to Imja Lake has demonstrated the importance of “muddy boots” when working in remote mountain communities — of getting out of the office and into the field before designing any program. During the planning of this project (and during the trek to Imja Lake), most of us thought the major challenges would be technical: what is the structure of the terminal moraine; what is the volume of water flowing into and out of the lake; how can we solve the engineering problem of stabilizing the lake so it does not burst; and how can we transport materials to the lake without roads?
However, after being here for several weeks (with our muddy boots), a number of the scientists and engineers are realizing that the greatest challenges may be social and political, not technical. In development, we prefer to work with host country government and non-government partners. The Mountain Institute in Nepal always designs projects so they are implemented by Nepalis with assistance from an outside partner (i.e., us), rather than development projects implemented by outsiders in Nepal.
It is unclear right now who our best partners might be in the Imja Valley. There are village and district level committees; in some areas, committees of lodge owners are forming. But there is little or no coordination between the various constituents on many issues. For example, there is no community water service in these villages. Instead, individual homes and lodges run their own pipes from the rivers to their own buildings. In some places, a half-dozen black pipes snake across the landscape from the river to the village — everyone acting for themselves.
There is the Sagarmatha (Mt Everest) National Park management. And there is the Nepali national government. A project of the scale of managing Imja Lake’s flood risk calls for a big partner, not a village of a few dozen families and a handful of tourist lodges. However, the national government’s influence in the Imja area is not evident — there are few schools and no post offices. In fact, it’s pretty remote at Imja Lake, as this photo shows!
One of the early challenges of any project in Nepal is understanding the communities’ interests and encouraging coordination among many small, at-risk villages to strengthen their voices. We gain their trust so they work with us — and then we work together with the government and the Park. Technical solutions may seem simple by comparison. But of course, The Mountain Institute is accustomed to working successfully to gain the trust and admiration of communities, governments and funders, which is why we are so successful.