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