The environment ultimately is about people and this must drive the negotiations at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Denmark next month.

Prime Ministers, Presidents, Environment Ministers, scientists, journalists and bureaucrats the world over are counting the days to December 7, when they will gather in impressive numbers at Copenhagen, Denmark for the United Nations Climate Change Conference to discuss what can and should be done about global warming. They will quibble over how to fix responsibility, they will fight over words in long documents, they will challenge evidence presented as proof of the crisis, and they will negotiate percentages and deadlines for curbing emissions of greenhouse gases.

Regardless of how the responsibility for the current mess is apportioned, one factor that everyone agrees on is that it is the most vulnerable, the poorest, those who depend on the environment, who will be hit the hardest if the earth continues to grow warmer. Yet, the most vulnerable are also, often, the most sensitive and the most sensible when it comes to making environmental choices.

Fragile ecology

To understand this, travel up to the rooftop of India, the high Himalayas where in a veritable desert sits Ladakh, a land of history and spectacular geography. Here you see no trees but the presence of those silent snow-capped peaks more than makes up for this. Here streams are so clear you can see every pebble over which their waters flow. Here men and women are strong and sturdy as they battle the harsh climatic conditions every day. Yet the extremes in climate have not affected the Ladakhi approach towards life and people. Hill people are generally known to be friendly. But Ladakh is must qualify as some of the friendliest and kindest people I have ever encountered.

Especially impressive are the women of Ladakh. Kundes Dolma is the Vice President of the Women's Alliance, an organisation set up more than two decades back by a remarkable Norwegian woman who made Ladakh her home, Helena Norberg-Hodge. Ms. Dolma, her weathered face wearing a perpetual smile, recounts the work of her organisation. She tells us how they have managed to stop the use of polythene bags in Leh for the past 10 years. “We saw the problems polythene bags caused for our cattle, which swallowed them and also how they blocked the natural streams that flowed into Leh,” she says. So the women campaigned for an end to plastic bags and today no shopkeeper in the town will sell you goods in a plastic bag.

With the growing number of tourists visiting the town, this is not easy to sustain. But the women continue to campaign and monitor. But what do they do about the impact on resources, such as water, in the face of growing tourism? A decade ago, people in Leh had enough water from the snow-fed streams. Today there are only a few of such streams and the quantity of water in them is notably less. “I worry about the coming generation because of the water scarcity”, says Ms. Dolma.

Some scientists hold that what Leh experiences today is the consequences of decades of accumulation of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere. This has resulted in a rise in temperature affecting the glaciers in high mountain ranges like the Himalayas. The evidence of this is still being gathered. Glaciers are notoriously inaccessible and tests and surveys have to be conducted over a span of time to convincingly establish that there is a change in the amount of ice accumulating in them each year. It may take many more years before such scientific proof is available.

But the observations of women like Kundes Dolma suggest that some significant changes have begun to take place and that these cannot be ignored.

Women also tell us that part of the problem is the manner in which Leh is developing. Instead of traditional forms of building that consisted of using mud and rocks, materials that are locally available and suitable for the dry climate of Leh, people are now using cement and concrete to build hotels and guesthouses. Instead of the traditional dry toilets, where no water is used and that produce a mountain of manure for the fields after a few months, people are now using flush toilets that use up precious water. Instead of depending on water from the mountain streams and shallow wells, hoteliers are now sinking tube wells that draw out water from deep in the ground.

Familiar yet strange

The result is water shortage, and no recharge of natural underground aquifers. With less snow in the winter, the quantity of water in the streams has decreased. You now see boys pushing carts full of canisters of water on the streets of Leh, a sight that was unfamiliar in previous years.

In a harsh climate, you need fuel to keep warm. In Leh, people can get gas, although at a higher price. But in the scattered settlements, perched on the steep mountains — where access to a road means walking for three or four days — the only source of fuel is what can be foraged in terms of fuel wood. Dry shrubs and bushes provide a tenuous source of fuel for heating and cooking. It is this dependence on nature for something as basic as fuel that joins the women of Ladakh with millions of women in the rest of India.

Ironically, all this talk of global warming has suddenly drawn attention to the way poor women cook in India. There is talk of inventing smokeless chullahs. The concern for this is more out of the growing awareness that carbon particles thrown up by the burning of fuel wood and coal also contribute to global warming than the health of the women who sit in small, badly ventilated rooms and inhale the toxic smoke from these stoves.

More than two decades back, in the early 1980s, before there was any serious talk of climate change, the concern for women's health, and a recognition of the importance of this, had led architects and engineers to design smokeless chullahsand propagate their use in the villages. Women like Madhu Sarin, a Chandigarh-based architect, designed the Nada chullah in consultation with the women who would eventually use it. She understood their concerns and built the chullahs accordingly. It required engagement with the women, not experimentation in a laboratory.

Today, smokeless chullahsare once again being talked about, but are being designed by people who know nothing about the kind of food women cook in our villages. If policy had been propelled by a genuine concern for the health of millions of women, who not only inhale the smoke but also spend hours foraging for the fuel wood, today India would have been in a position to tell the world that it has curbed the emission of carbon particles not because of international pressure but because it cares for its people.

Whether the earth warms or cools, whether the oceans rise or the glaciers recede, ultimately environment is about people. It impacts their lives, every aspect of it. It is this concern that must drive negotiations in Copenhagen or anywhere else in the future.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com