Bro­ken ice

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS -

Even as melt­ing Hi­malayan glaciers play havoc in the lives of peo­ple in the re­gion, In­dian pol­i­cy­mak­ers are still woe­fully ig­no­rant about these "wa­ter tow­ers"

Hi­malayan glaciers are re­ced­ing faster than be­fore. To un­der­stand their chang­ing be­hav­iour in the wake of cli­mate change and their in­flu­ence on global warm­ing, In­dian sci­en­tists have for the first time set up a high-alti­tude glaciol­ogy re­search sta­tion, HI­MANSH, in the lofty moun­tain range. SHREE­SHAN VENKATESH ac­com­pa­nies the sci­en­tists as they carry out field re­search in the hos­tile ter­rain and vis­its com­mu­ni­ties de­vis­ing ways to cope with less and less of snow­fall. Will their find­ings in­flu­ence the gov­ern­ment pol­icy that has so far been in­dif­fer­ent to these least un­der­stood repos­i­to­ries of wa­ter, re­spon­si­ble for some of the ma­jor rivers in the coun­try?

Wel­come to Komik, the world’s high­est vil­lage, nes­tled in the up­per reaches of the Hi­malayas at 4,587m above the sea level. This vil­lage, which de­rives its name from the snow­cock that roams the alpine pas­tures, bor­der­ing snow­line, is wit­ness to ways of sur­viv­ing one of the world’s harsh­est cli­mates. For gen­er­a­tions, Komik res­i­dents had rev­elled in heavy snow­fall, of­ten two- to three-me­tre deep. For them, it her­alds suf­fi­cient soil mois­ture for grow­ing their only crop bar­ley, and helps in the buildup of glaciers that en­sure year-round wa­ter avail­abil­ity. But of late, this vil­lage of 15-odd fam­i­lies in Hi­machal Pradesh’s Spiti dis­trict has an in­flux of un­usual vis­i­tors—cli­mate sci­en­tists and a few me­dia per­sons like this re­porter, ac­com­pa­nied by a pho­tog­ra­pher. At the core of this chang­ing de­mog­ra­phy is chang­ing cli­mate. While the res­i­dents un­der­stand lit­tle about cli­mate science, they are now try­ing to re­align their lives around a new re­al­ity—less and less snow, re­ced­ing glaciers and an arid land­scape. The Cho­cho Khany­ilda glacier, the lone wa­ter source to the cold arid vil­lage, has been shrink­ing over the past 15 years. “Snow­fall has also re­duced. We now re­ceive less than a me­tre ev­ery year,” says Tser­ing Ang­dui, a farmer in his for­ties. “A glacier spring that would run through the vil­lage when I was grow­ing up dis­ap­peared in the late 1990s. Even our farm yield has re­duced by a third in the past decade.

Ear­lier, we would not have the space to store our har­vest. Now, we don’t know how long these lands will sup­port us,” he adds.

Ang­dui’s fears are valid. Sev­eral stud­ies sug­gest that the Hi­malayan range is among the most sen­si­tive re­gions to cli­mate change (see ‘The lit­tle we know’, p38). Since the 1950s, the cold arid zone in Hi­machal Pradesh has wit­nessed a sharp rise of about 1 oC in mean tem­per­a­tures, as per the State Level Cli­mate Change Trends, pub­lished by the In­dia Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal Department in 2013. In the past five years, rain­fall in La­haul and Spiti has been so er­ratic that it in­di­cates an av­er­age de­cline of over 50 per cent in an­nual rain­fall of about 170 mm.

The im­pact of cli­mate change can also be seen in Langcha, a vil­lage of about 170 peo­ple lo­cated around 25 km from Spiti’s ad­min­is­tra­tive cen­tre Kaza. “Snow­fall has al­most halved in the re­cent years. So we now have less wa­ter for ir­ri­ga­tion. We now ex­pe­ri­ence in­creased heat af­ter mon­soons and al­ter­nat­ing cy­cles of high and low tem­per­a­tures, which have af­fected agri­cul­ture,” says Yeshe Ch­hopel, a farmer from Langcha. Sim­i­larly, glaciers have dras­ti­cally re­duced in Thankarma, nes­tled amidst mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions on the bor­der of Spiti and Kin­naur dis­tricts. “In the 20 years that I have spent here, I have seen the glacier re­treat by about a kilo­me­tre. The gulf in the day-night tem­per­a­tures has also been ris­ing, which is not good for the ecosys­tem,” says A D Negi, a re­tired state gov­ern­ment em­ployee.

The story is equally wor­ry­ing in Ladakh— In­dia’s only other cold arid dis­trict—where an­nual pre­cip­i­ta­tion is de­clin­ing at a dis­as­trous rate. Since the 1970s, Ladakh’s snow­fall and rain­fall have both re­duced by close to 1 mm per decade, as per Knowl­edge Sys­tems of So­ci­eties for Adap­ta­tion and Mit­i­ga­tion of Im­pacts of Cli­mate Change,

pub­lished in 2013. The warm­ing up of the area has meant that farm­ers in Ladakh’s vil­lages are now mov­ing to new crops, new streams of rev­enue and of course, new de­mands of wa­ter. “Ap­ples and apri­cots would never grow at these heights ear­lier. But it has been pos­si­ble be­cause the tem­per­a­ture in the re­gion has been ris­ing in the past decade or so. While our in­comes have in­creased 10-15 times due to the new crops, it has also in­creased the de­mand for wa­ter, which is not easy to find here,” says Tser­ing Wang­dush, a farmer from Ladakh’s Nang vil­lage. Ac­cord­ing to Wang­dush and oth­ers from the vil­lage of about 400 peo­ple, sur­round­ing slopes used to be snow-cov­ered all-year-round but now they have snow only at the top.

A cli­mate of change

So how are these peo­ple com­bat­ing cli­mate change? While some vil­lages are re­ly­ing on tra­di­tional wa­ter dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tems, oth­ers are in­no­vat­ing lo­cal solutions. In Langcha vil­lage, res­i­dents are re­ly­ing on their tra­di­tional wa­ter dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem where all the glacial melt­wa­ter is saved in a sin­gle reser­voir and each fam­ily is given a spe­cific time to use the reser­voir. “This tra­di­tional sys­tem has so far been ad­e­quate in tid­ing over wa­ter short­ages,” says Ch­hopel. In Thankarma, Negi has af­forested a 90-hectares bar­ren for­est land by grow­ing trees and crops to­gether.

He has used con­tour farm­ing to en­sure that avail­able wa­ter is dis­trib­uted evenly, elim­i­nat­ing the need for ir­ri­ga­tion. Ad­di­tion­ally, the tree cover in the farm has cre­ated a hu­mus layer that has in­creased the soil’s wa­ter re­ten­tion ca­pac­ity. “The model en­sures max­i­mum wa­ter re­ten­tion and is self-sus­tain­ing,” says Negi. “I have cur­rently man­aged to grow only de­cid­u­ous trees but I am con­fi­dent that conif­er­ous trees like pine and chilgoza can also be grown. These will help bring snow­fall in the re­gion and might pre­vent the glacier from re­treat­ing fur­ther,” he says.

In Nang vil­lage, res­i­dents have cre­ated their own glacier to sup­ple­ment the nat­u­ral one. “To­day, wa­ter from glaciers is prac­ti­cally unavail­able dur­ing April and May, when it is needed the most. So, we cre­ated an ar­ti­fi­cial glacier closer to the vil­lage us­ing ex­cess glacial melt­wa­ter runoff dur­ing the sum­mer. This would mimic a real glacier and pro­vide wa­ter for ir­ri­ga­tion dur­ing those two cru­cial months,” says 81-year-old Chawang Nor­phel, the pi­o­neer of ar­ti­fi­cial glaciers. Fif­teen vil­lages around Leh have ben­e­fit­ted from ar­ti­fi­cial glaciers in the past decade.

The solutions, though novel, are un­likely to work for long be­cause the new cli­mate re­al­ity in the re­gion is not only dire, but also un­pre­dictable. Sa­boo, a Ladakh vil­lage of about 1,000 peo­ple, was badly hit dur­ing a cloud­burst in 2010 and again in 2013. The vil­lage, apart from los­ing peo­ple and houses, also lost an ar­ti­fi­cial glacier that had been painstak­ingly in­stalled in 2009.

At the same time, peo­ple liv­ing in these pris­tine ar­eas are slowly em­brac­ing pol­lut­ing tech­nol­ogy and are also en­cour­ag­ing tourism for eco­nomic gains. In Septem­ber this year, the 15 Komik fam­i­lies for the first time pur­chased three diesel­guz­zling thresh­ers to help cut bar­ley crops. The fam­i­lies say the pur­chases were done be­cause of the con­ve­nience, which is sur­pris­ing be­cause their pro­duce is re­duc­ing ev­ery year due to cli­mate change. Ladakh has seen a six-fold in­crease in tourism since 2004. This has pushed the lo­cal econ­omy, but has also put added pres­sure on nat­u­ral re­sources, par­tic­u­larly wa­ter.

“We have started mass aware­ness about cli­mate change im­pact and strength­en­ing our dis­as­ter re­sponse mech­a­nisms. But on the pol­icy front, we are im­peded by lack of in­for­ma­tion around the dy­nam­ics of glaciers—how they be­have and are likely to change—with­out which we can­not be­come cli­mate re­silient,” says Phun­chok Dorji of the Ladakh Au­ton­o­mous Hill Devel­op­ment Coun­cil.

Now weather has be­come un­pre­dictable and ex­treme. So wa­ter con­ser­va­tion has be­come a pri­or­ity -Tser­ing Wang­dush, farmer, Nang vil­lage, Ladakh ‹ A glacier spring that would run through the vil­lage when I was grow­ing up dis­ap­peared in the late 1990s - Tser­ing An­dui, farmer, Komik vil­lage, Hi­machal Pradesh

Of late, Langcha vil­lage in Hi­machal Pradesh has been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing in­creased heat af­ter mon­soons and al­ter­nat­ing cy­cles of high and low tem­per­a­tures

The 15 fam­i­lies in Komik, the world's high­est vil­lage, re­cently in­stalled three diesel-guz­zling thresh­ers even though re­seed­ing glaciers have re­duced their farm yields by a third in the past decade

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