Ladakh has an unwelcome visitor: Climate change. Retreating glaciers, water scarcity and changes in traditional agricultural patterns are having an adverse impact on this fragile ecololgy.

There' s an old saying in Ladakh that only a dear friend or a serious enemy will reach here; the passes are so high and the land so harsh. Climate change falls in the latter category and is an unwelcome visitor to this remote region which tourists have happily discovered in the last few years or so. Water, or the lack of it, is the main worry for this generation and the next. While the world debates the effects of global warming, Ladakhis who are most vulnerable to the vagaries of nature, are living through it already. The many small glaciers in Ladakh have retreated, natural springs are reducing as also the water flow in the rivers. While there are no scientific studies yet to bear this out, it is the people who are living witnesses to this change.

In the village of Stakmo near Leh, villagers testify to the receding glacier nearby, making agriculture very difficult. Over 80 per cent of the farmers in Ladakh depend on snow melt for their needs and any slight change in temperature is a catastrophe. High altitude wetlands are vulnerable to rising temperatures and Ms. Nisa Khatoon, Project Officer, Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) has led a study since 2000 to assess the impact of climate change on three major lakes in Ladakh, the Tso Moriri, Tso Kar and Pangong Tso. The lakes offer the only breeding grounds for the Black-necked Crane in India and key species found in the region include the snow leopard, Tibetan Gazelle, Tibetan Antelope, Musk Deer and Hangul. Highly endangered medicinal plants used in the Tibetan system of medicine also grow in the area.

Threat of tourism

The existing threat of climate change is exacerbated by tourism which coincides with the breeding season of the migratory birds, posing a major threat. For the first time, a regular uninterrupted survey on the status of the Black-necked Crane was conducted and during the survey, six new nesting sites were discovered, Ms. Khatoon points out. The study has produced data on the “Status and Breeding Productivity of Black-necked Crane” for more than eight years. Himalayan car rallies in wetland areas have been stopped in cooperation with tour operators too. Instead of this, to boost the local income, home-stays for national and international tourists have become popular.

The WWF has also recorded widespread changes as a result of the rise in temperatures and the subsequent snow melt in Ladakh, mainly through oral histories. Eyewitnesses have spoken of glaciers like Siachen, Khardung and Stok in Ladakh, which have either receded or almost disappeared in about a decade. Along with this comes a change in migration routes of nomadic tribes and an increase in the frequency and intensity of pest attacks, particularly the locust, due to rising temperatures.

In the Changthang region, where there are 22 wetlands, people of the nomadic tribe, the Changpas, acutely feel climate change. They are dependent on livestock and rear the famous Pashmina goats for their wool. Since about six years, the migration routes of the Changpas have changed due to decrease in pasture land. Untimely snowfall has led to a loss of livestock as well, says Ms. Khatoon. In the Tso Moriri and Tso Kar lakes, migratory birds are coming earlier than expected and one pair of Black-necked Cranes have not migrated. The wild rose blooms now in May instead of June. The Changpas used to extract salt from the brackish lakes but since the water level has risen over the years, this too has stopped. In the Tso Kar area there are 60 Changpa families which have to frequently migrate, while in Tso Moriri, 22 families have settled down there.

The summers are getting warmer and winters too and pests like the coddling moth are now found everywhere, says Tundup Angmo of GERES India, an NGO. Rain and snowfall are showing a decreasing trend, according to a baseline survey in 20 villages in Leh and Kargil areas which was conducted by GERES along with experts. In Kargil, water shortage has hit farmers and two villages were relocated in the Zanskar as a result. The cultivation of wheat is now possible due to the warmer climate and the sowing of barely is now pushed to May instead of June.

Urgent concern

Water shortage has led to hotels in Leh digging borewells, some 100 feet deep for water supply and in the Karzu area in Leh, this has led to the drying up of natural streams, says Ms. Khatoon. Concern about water is uppermost in the minds of every Ladakhi. The Women's Alliance of Ladakh, which spearheaded the successful campaign banning plastic bags in Ladakh, is one of the groups which has members in every village in Ladakh. Fifty-seven-year-old Kunzes Dolma, vice president of the Alliance formed 23 years ago, has been addressing local environmental concerns. Now it has teamed up with the NGO Navdhanya to conduct a survey on climate change in villages, based on a ready questionnaire which asks for information on awareness of climate change, evidence, and environmental changes, apart from changes in agriculture patterns, rainfall and snowfall. The Alliance has initiated several meetings on climate change already.

Lifestyle changes

Kunzes recalls colder winters when she was a child. Now the winters are warmer, she says. The quality of food was tastier then and now vegetables like capsicum, brinjal and cucumber are being grown. There is increased use of pesticides and the Alliance is campaigning against this as well.

There is a huge concern about the melting glaciers, and lack of water and even livestock rearing is reducing now with more and more people preferring to look for jobs. The traditional “goncha” a warm woolen dress is not much preferred now. Traditional homes in Ladakh have been designed using ecological and climatic wisdom. However, those mud houses are being replaced by cement structures. Clearly, there is also a cultural aspect to the climate change here. “Our aim is to promote nature conservation and our culture. The modern generation is dropping all our old ways of life and the explosion of cars is damaging the environment,” says Ms. Dolma.

Local and global links need to be forged to address climate change if regions like Ladakh are to be rescued from their vulnerability. The question is, who is listening?

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