The enormity of climate change and its impact is on everyone’s lips in Ladakh where over 80 per cent of the farmers depend on the snow melt for their needs.

Seventy-four-year-old Chewang Norphel strides briskly across a mass of boulders in the steep and rough terrain below what was once the Stakmo glacier, explaining his latest project. The man who pioneered the artificial glacier in Ladakh does not let age deter his enthusiasm to bring water to the people of his region. Funded by the Indian Army’s Sadbhavna project Mr. Norphel plans to build three artificial glaciers, a kilometre away from Stakmo village near Leh, which will store two million cubic feet of ice which will start forming mid-November. The snow melt in the upper reaches of the mountains in the distance trickles down to the three-tiered series of stone embankments that have been built to arrest the water flow in the shady side of the hillside.

This ice will melt by mid April, in time for the sowing of crops. With 700-odd residents, Stakmo is one of the eleven villages in Ladakh district to have this artificial glacier, which is a simple water harvesting and conservation system. Mr. Norphel, a retired government civil engineer, recalls that there was a natural glacier here till about 30 years ago. While drinking water is piped to the village, it is for summer crops that water is needed. Stakmo has three hamlets with 120 hectares of land, split into small holdings. People grow wheat, potatoes, peas, barley and vegetables.

The enormity of climate change and its impact is on everyone’s lips in this cold desert where over 80 per cent of the farmers depend on the snow melt for their needs. Water is almost a luxury now. There is no authoritative study done so far to estimate the impact of receding glaciers in Ladakh, points out Ms Nisa Khatoon, project officer, of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Leh. Scarcity of water has led to people digging bore wells in Leh, which is likely to have an impact on the underwater springs. Ms Khatoon also notes a reduction in pasture lands affecting the migration routes of the Changpas, a nomadic tribe that lives near the lakes in the upper reaches of Ladakh.

Like Mr. Norphel, 92-year-old Phuntchok Namgyal from Stakmo does not need scientists to tell him about global warming. The lack of studies on Ladakh’s retreating glaciers is no dampener. I am the scientific data, quips Norphel. Namgyal’s village faced a serious water crisis due to the poor snow melt. Outside a large house in the village, 78-year-old Yamjor Tashi uses the traditional loom to weave woollen cloth. His younger brother Phuntchok recalls the glacier which used to provide them with plenty of water. In the last five years, the problem has become acute, he says. Most people grow their food and weave wool here. Their self sufficiency is one of the casualties of global warming. For years, Ladakhis have used everything that was locally made, all that is changing now.

The artificial glacier was pioneered by Ice Man Mr. Norphel in 1987 in Phuktse Phu village. Citing the benefits of water conservation, he says it increases production and income. Sometimes people can harvest two crops and use the water for tree plantation. It increases ground water recharge and rejuvenates spring water. Due to the high altitudes at which these embankments have to be built, the costs go upto Rs. 11 lakhs. The idea is easy to replicate and the Leh Nutrition Project (LNCP) formed by Mr. Norphel has used this technique in other states too.

Worry for the next generation

Since 1993 farmers have observed a decline in plant biodiversity and Ladakh has over the years, witnessed warmer temperatures, less snow on the mountain tops, unusual heavy spells of rain and reducing natural streams. A baseline survey conducted by GERES India, an NGO in Ladakh, indicates a rising trend of mean temperatures by 1{+0}C degree for winter and 5{+0}C for summer between 1973 and 2008. Ms Tundup Angmo of GERES says, for the same period, rainfall and snowfall show a clear declining trend with the exception of January 2008. The glaciers in Khardung and Stok Kangri have retreated and new pests, for instance the coddling moth, are appearing in all parts of Ladakh. As a result of the retreating glaciers, the water discharge into the Indus, the river which flows in Ladakh, is reduced. Apple cultivation is moved to the upper reaches of the region at heights of 12,000 feet.

As Kunzes Dolma, vice-president of the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh puts it, the worry is for the next generation. While Ladakhis fight their own battles, the world squabbles over emission cuts.

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