Fragile adaptation in Ladakh

Destructive floods have led farmers to question their ability to survive in the arid reaches of the Himalayas. Athar Parvaiz reports from north-west India.

The devastating flood that struck the normally arid desert of Ladakh, north-west India, in August has multiplied the worries of local farmers, already struggling with water shortages and harsh climatic conditions. Flashfloods and mudslides killed 233 people and damaged 14.2 square kilometres of agricultural land.

Tucked high up in the western Himalayas, Ladakh is a sparsely populated, rugged desert where people struggle to turn barren and parched soil into cultivable land. The soil of Ladakh is not fertile and absorbs little water. Average rainfall is only 50 to 70 millimetres a year. In these adverse conditions, farming is an unenviable task, but diligent farmers, with support from NGOs, have created an irrigation network covering 50 square kilometres of agricultural land in Ladakh. This allows them to live off the land, against the odds.

But nothing prepared farmers for August’s weather events. Unprecedented cloudbursts triggered flash floods, which in turn deposited thick layers of debris on the agricultural land and destroyed over 70% of the irrigation network built up by the farmers over years of hard work. “Crops can only be cultivated on this land after the flood debris is cleared and the top soil is exposed,” said Lobzang Tsultim, director of local NGO Leh Nutrition Project. “Obviously, the farmers can’t clear this debris manually, they need JCB machines, which the government and NGOs need to provide to them.”

According to Tsultim, the government and non-profit groups are making no effort to restore the damaged land, on which the farmers’ livelihoods depend, to its original state. Apart from tourism, farming is the main occupation of people in Leh district. An average farmer makes up to US$1000 (6,680 yuan) every year by selling crops like barley, potatoes, wheat and other products to the Indian army.

The recent floods have intensified local people’s fears about the shifting climate. They are unable to decipher or explain the erratic weather patterns, but have no doubts that conditions are changing.

“Glaciers are receding rapidly and the winters are getting shorter and warmer. The snowfall which we do get, melts quickly,” said Tashi Namgiyal, a farmer. He added that the popular “Chadar Trek”, a crossing local Tibetans have made for generations during winter, when the Zanskar River surface – part of the Indus watershed – freezes solid, is now possible only for two months. It was previously possible from December to March.“We are now seeing pests in upper villages that used to be found only in villages lying lower,” he added, pointing out other signs of changing conditions. “We are also witnessing shifts in sowing and harvesting of barley.”

Tsultim agrees with this assessment: “Whether you call it man-made climate change or attribute it to other natural process, we are experiencing a lot of changes around us. Our region is arid and we have small glaciers which we draw water from. But over the last several years, many of these glaciers have receded. Not only this, we have seen some of our limited pasture lands drying up because of water scarcity.”

The farmers worry they may have to migrate away from their native land if the glaciers – their source of water – continue to diminish. “Farming is the only art we know. If there is no water left, there would be no agriculture, meaning we might have to leave this land one day in search of water,” said another farmer, Sonam Tundup.

But Tsultim believes there are other choices. The Leh Nutrition Project has worked with Chewang Norphel, a civil engineer known as the “Iceman”, who has pioneered innovative adaptive solutions to water shortages, including artificial glaciers – created by diverting a water course, lowering its velocity and volume and getting it to accumulate in the shadow of a hill. [See chinadialogue article “The iceman of Ladakh” for more on Norphel’s work.] These artificial “glaciers” provide water to irrigate farmland in the early cultivation season, when there is not enough water available from natural glaciers.

Norphel’s determination to help famers adapt to climatic changes has not stopped here. He is now building a reservoir near a huge wasteland, which will transform the area into cultivable land for the farmers of Chamdaydo village. The 74-year-old has already created almost 40 reservoirs in as many villages, enabling farmers to turn wastelands into fertile farming territory. Tsultim asserts that adapting to the changing climate is the best option. “You have to either adapt or become extinct.” This is the message he wants to give farmers.

Athar Parvaiz is an environmental journalist based in Kashmir.

Homepage image from Athar Parvaiz