Glacial Lake Outburst Flood in Halji, north western Nepal

Last summer, as I was in Halji to do research for my PhD, I witnessed a terrible flood. The flood was caused by the outburst of a glacial lake in the mountains above the village. The torrents of water washed away two houses, livestock, important infrastructure, and more than hundred fields. In addition, another hundred fields were covered by mud and debris and thus rendered useless. Some of the villagers lost almost everything and will have a hard time getting through the winter.

Due to global warming, the village has been harmed by several floods the last six years and it is urgent to get proper flood mitigation measures in place. I therefore decided to set up this website as part of my efforts to spread awareness about the threat from Glacial Lake Outburst Floods and gather support to protect the village.

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Help protect Halji village and monastery

The director of The Mountain Institute‘s  Himalayan programme has agreed to help raise funds, and we are now developing a three-step plan to protect Halji village and the Rinchenling monastery. The initial and most urgent step is to get funding to help the villagers build further embankments and to divert the river flow away from the village. Next, The Mountain Institute is planning to bring in a team of experts to study the glacial lake and to develop appropriate long term mitigation actions to reduce the risk of the floods recurring. The final part of the programme is to preserve the monastery architecture. There has been a problem of leakage from the roof into the main monastery buildings and some of the murals and statues are in need of restoration. Proposals for grants to initiate the work have been submitted and we hope for positive response. Those who are interested in helping can make donations directly to the Himalayan programme through The Mountain Institute’s donation page and will be processed through PayPal.

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Rinchenling gompa in Halji – the oldest monastery in the Nepal Himalayas?

It has recently been confirmed by C-14 tests that the Vairocana (rNam par snang mdzad) temple in the Rinchenling monastery in Halji can be dated back to the early eleventh century. This makes the temple one of the oldest in the Nepal Himalayas. The result is quite significant and one more argument why it is so important to protect this monastery from the flood.

After having been through a period of decline, Buddhism was reintroduced to Tibet around the turn of the millennium. This revival,  the so-called second dissemination (bstan pa phyi dar),  was initiated from the western Tibetan Guge kingdom and entailed invitation of some of the most learned Buddhist scholars from India, extensive translation work, and the founding of a number of temples and monasteries throughout Guge, Purang and Ladakh.

One of the most important figures from this revival movement was the translator Rinchen Zangpo (Lo tswa ba Rin chen bZang po, 958-1055). He translated more than 150 Buddhist texts, and is credited with the foundation of 108 temples and monasteries. Local tradition claims that the temple in Halji was one of them, and it is also from Rinchen Zangpo that the Rinchenling monastery got its name.

But could the Vairocana temple in Halji actually have been founded by Rinchen Zangpo? Limi (or Halji) does not figure on the list of temples constructed by him in his biographies. And even if Limi is mentioned on the list of early temples connected with Rinchen Zangpo in two scriptures from neighbouring Khochar monastery (the 16th century Jo bo dngul sku mched gsum dkar chag and the 19th century Kho char dkar chag) Roberto Vitali  (1996a – 1996b) is skeptical to its accuracy. However, the lists of temples in the different versions of his biographies are not consistent, and probably not complete.

In fact, there are quite a few indicators suggesting that Rinchen Zangpo might have been involved. First, Rinchen Zangpo is named as the founder of the first temple in Rinchenling monastery’s own inventory (the current version was copied from an older original in 1870). Moreover, there are two statues of Rinchen Zangpo in the monastery claimed in the inventory to have been made during his life time (see photo above) and just after he passed away respectively. These have not been dated.

The four-fold Vairocana is a large statue (3,5 x 5 meters) crafted in Kashmiri style. The 2 other remaining four-fold Vairocana statues from this period are also in Kashmiri style and both are located in temples associated with the translator in Spiti. There also used to be one in Tholing (see the article by Church and Wiebenga on Another point to be mentioned is that Halji is located only one long day’s walk from Zher, where Rinchen Zangpo had an estate and one short day’s walk from what was reportedly his meditation cave high up in the mountains above the confluence of the Limi and Karnali rivers (Lhi mi yi ca se brag phug is mentioned in one of the biographies). Finally, the Lading cave near Halji in Limi has recently been identified by Kyabgön Rinpoche as the place where the translator might have passed away (it should be mentioned, though, that the scriptures are vague on this point).

All these indicators combined suggest that the temple in Halji might very well have been founded by Rinchen Zangpo. This is further supported by the result of the carbon dating, which testifies to the antiquity of the temple. To the best of my knowledge, no other monastery in the Nepal Himalayas have so far been confirmed to be older.

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Photos from the glacier

The first of the following three photos shows the location of the glacial plateau under which the lake causing the flood is located. During a flood, the water flows under the glacier and feeds into the small lake at the second photo. Since the lake doesn’t have the capacity to hold much water and there is no end moraine or other barrier, the water passes through the canal in the third photo before washing down all the way to the village.

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The source of the flood

The floods have been caused by the outburst of a glacial lake, a so called GLOF, in the mountains above Halji village. In the past, there were no such floods, but the recent years’ global warming has resulted in rapid meltdown of the glacier. In 2013, the main source of the flood was identified by a group of researchers as a supra-glacial lake, located at an altitude of approximately 5300 metres. According to the researchers, the lake drains through a series of en-glacial channels.

The glacier above Halji.

Two of the lakes in front of the glacier.

The flood has carved a deep scar in the terrain all the way down to the village.

The source of the flood is a glacial lake located at an altitude of 5300 metres in the mountains above Halji.

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What can be done to save the village?

Initiatives so far
The Nepali government provided some support for the building of gabion walls in 2010 and 2011. For the support given, local villagers built walls at the side of the village, which helped retaining the water for some time, but the embankments were too short and too low to hold against the currents when the river grew bigger in the evening.

After the recent flood, the district authorities have also allocated rice and money for buying kitchen utensils to the two families who lost their houses. However, seven families will have to build new houses this winter and more funding is needed.

What can be done?
Immediate actions should include securing sufficient food supplies and funding for rebuilding the homes of the affected families. It is also important to rebuild and strengthen the embankments before the next flood.

In order to estimate the risks for future outbursts of the lake and resulting impacts and expert team should be mobilized and sent up to the glacier. The expert team should produce a detailed technical report assessing the risk for further flooding and develop long term strategies to minimize the risks of a future disaster.

Long term mitigation strategies may involve controlled drainage of the lake, building of further gabion walls to protect also the cultivated land and possible ways of diverting the water away from the village. Constructing a deep canal, fortified by embankments, might be the most feasible solution.

Rescuing the beams.

Building gabion walls to protect the village.

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Eyewitness report

Account of the flood
In the afternoon of July 30th 2011, a devastating flood struck Halji. At around 4:30 pm a loud roar could be heard from the river, and everybody ran out of their houses to check what happened. In the beginning the water was retained by gabion walls, the last stretch of which was built only a month earlier. But as the flood grew fiercer, the embankments burst and water gushed towards the village with great force. The ground was shaking as the water carried large amounts of rocks and debris. The rocks made the water change its course several times, and chunks of land kept sliding down colouring the water almost black and filling the air with a strong smell of mud. People immediately started evacuating the houses near the river bank and managed to move most of their belongings to the houses of relatives further away. After a while it became too dangerous to enter the houses and at around 7:30 pm, the first wall gave in. An hour and a half later two houses were cut open by the flood. People could only passively watch their fields and homes being carried away by the torrents of water. By 10 pm in the evening, the flood slowly started to recede, and by the next morning, the water level was down to normal.

Two houses which were situated near the river bank were completely destroyed by the flood. In addition, the families living in five directly adjoining houses will have to rebuild their homes this winter. The flooding river has carved out much of the moraine ground on which the village is built, and twelve houses and the one thousand year monastery, which is now located only a few metres from the river bank, are at great risk. Officers from the local police force visited the site of the disaster the day after the flood and estimated that approximately 200 ropanies of land were destroyed that evening. Some of the livestock is also reported missing. Since the flood in 2006 more than 100 fields have been washed away and another 100 fields have been completely covered by sand and rendered useless by the recent flood. Some of the poorer families have lost all their fields and food aid will therefore be needed for the winter.

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