Changing climate, changing life

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Changing lifestyle and heavy influx of tourists is putting the fragile ecology of Ladakh region under stress, which is already witnessing the negative effects of climate change. Athar Parvaiz discusses some ways out.

The combined impact of flourishing tourism, climate change and changing lifestyle in this internationally renowned adventure haven is rapidly squeezing its scant dampness only to render it further dehydrated.

A booming tourism is depleting its scarce water resources which have already borne the brunt of changing climate patterns. Ladakhis, influenced by a sturdy influx of tourists, are shifting to a consumerist way of living that is causing environmental stress in this rugged mountainous region tucked in mighty Himalayas over an area of 97,000 square kilometres.

While this high-altitude cold desert has been witnessing the impacts of climate change, the residents are finding it difficult to uphold their traditional style of living, thanks to the thriving tourism business and the advent of modernism in this tourist haven.

Such lifestyle would have helped them cope better with declining natural resources, particularly water, which is increasingly becoming scarcer in the wake of climate change.

Unplanned and unregulated tourism in Ladakh – widely known for its breathtaking mountain ranges – is a major cause of concern. It could inflict enormous damage to the cold desert’s fragile ecology and environment.

According to official statistics, Ladakh had received 71, 173 (including 30,220 foreigners) tourists in 2008 and these figures further improved in 2009 and 2010 despite a devastating flood, caused by cloud bursts, in August this year.

Based on data from Tourism department, the number of visitors to Ladakh has increased manifold in the last few years. “It started increasing sharply from 2004, when we received more than 34,000 tourists,” said a tourist official in Leh.

The growing tourism is putting the environment and ecology of the region in jeopardy in the absence of regulatory controls. With the number of tourists increasing sharply each year, more and more hotels and guest houses are being constructed.

“For decades the people of this region have been using compost pits as toilets, which don’t require water,” said Sonam Dorje. Now, this traditional practice stands abandoned not only in households, but more than 200 hotels that have come up with flush toilets in Leh – one of the most thinly populated regions of the world.” The population density in Leh is only eight people per square kilometre.

Since there is no drainage system in place, toilet wastes flow into the streams, the source of most people’s drinking water. Water is already in short supply in Ladakh since glaciers have been receding and the annual precipitation is just 10 centimetres. Adding to the severe water shortage is the mushrooming of hotels.

Since hotels require water in abundance, they dig bore wells when surface water is not available in good quantity. The indiscriminate digging of bore wells is again proving detrimental to the environment by causing a drop in the ground water.

The lack of appropriate regulations on drilling deep bore wells has further exacerbated the situation. There is an urgent need for the formulation of such regulations to ensure an “environment-friendly” tourism development.

Nisa Khatoon, project officer of the environmental lobby group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Ladakh, said that the scarcity of water has also led the common folk to dig bore wells for their domestic and agricultural needs.

“Most of the households in Leh have farmlands for cultivating vegetables and some of them dig wells for both domestic and agricultural use, which puts a lot of pressure on the ground water,” Nisa said.

She and other environmental activists in Ladakh have observed a tendency among the local folk to shift to a lifestyle that has an impact on the environment, among others in the form of depletion of natural resources and increased power consumption.

The people, for instance, have abandoned traditional compost pits and replaced them with flush toilets in their homes, increasing domestic consumption of water. They are also buying electrical appliances and gadgets such as refrigerators and washing machines, observed Nisa.

Noting these changes in lifestyle and concerned about the concomitant environmental stress, some women activists in various villages of Ladakh have gone out of their way to urge people to stick to their traditional style of living and uphold the Ladakhi culture.

“Our culture and our traditional style of living are under threat. This is a huge challenge to us,” said Kunzes Dolma, vice-president of the independent Women’s Alliance of Ladakh.

As a result, they have launched an awareness campaign across Ladakh, urging the people to stick to their traditional lifestyle that is compatible with nature. “We have never had any serious problems in the past as our style of living was in harmony with nature. But now, when we need it the most in the wake of climate change, people are opting out,” she added.

Ordinary individuals and experts have attested to the changing climate patterns as evidenced by warmer temperatures and decreased snow on the hills.

A survey conducted by GERES-India indicates that between 1973 and 2008 there was a rising trend in mean temperatures by one degree Celsius in winter and five degree Celsius during summer. “For the same period, rainfall and snowfall also showed declining trend although January 2008 was an exception,” Tundup Angmo, who heads GERES in Ladakh, said.

GERES, a non-governmental organisation headquartered in France, advocates sustainable development and international solidarity, which is what its French name stands for.

According to WWF’s Nisa the emerging threat of climate change would cause severe damage to the wetlands of Ladakh, which are the only breeding grounds for the endangered black-necked cranes in India.

“The unplanned and unregulated tourism is also a major threat to the biodiversity of the area as the tourism season coincides with peak biological activity,” said Nisa.

The worries of the Ladakhi farmers, who have been struggling with water shortage and harsh climatic conditions over the past few years, have only multiplied by a devastating flood which struck this cold desert of western Himalayas in August this year. The calamity besides claiming 233 lives, damaged 1420 hectares of agricultural land.

People of this rugged mountainous desert turn barren and parched land into cultivable patches of land by sheer hard work and a passion for farming. The hard work of the farmers and the support from some NGOs has resulted in an irrigation network, which covers 5000 hectares of agricultural land in Ladakh.

The soil of Ladakh is least fertile and has low water-holding capacity even as the region receives an average precipitation of only 50 to 70 mm annually. All these adverse conditions make farming in Ladakh a difficult proposition, but the diligent farmers make it possible against all these odds. If anything has demoralized them, it is the destructive flood which not only deposited thick layers of debris on their agricultural land, but also played havoc with more than 70 percent of irrigation network which had taken years of concerted efforts by the farmers.

“Crops can only be cultivated on this land after the flood debris is cleared and the top soil is exposed,” says Lobzang Tsultim, Executive Director of a non-profit organization Leh Nutrition Project.

Emergency officer of Save the Children, in Ladakh, Robert Folkes, appends his take more assertively: “Obviously, the farmers can’t clear this debris manually, they need JCB machines  (earthmovers) which the government and NGOs need to provide them.”  According to Tsultim no efforts are being made by the government and the NGOs to bring back the damaged land into its original shape.

Farming, apart from tourism, is the main occupation of people in Leh. An average farmer makes up to 25 to 30 thousand rupees for his annual yield of crops like barley, potatoes, wheat and other products by selling these to Indian army.

The disaster caused by the cloudbursts has only strengthened the fears of Ladakhi people about the changing climate. They are unable to decipher and explain the erratic weather pattern, but have hardly any doubts regarding the changing climatic conditions.

“Glaciers are receding rapidly and the winters are getting shorter and warmer. The snowfall which we get, melts quickly,” said Tashi Namgiyal, a farmer.

“We are now seeing pests even in upper villages while they were earlier found only in villages lying lower. We are also witnessing shift in sowing and harvesting of barley,” says Namgiyal, Chadar Trek (because of freezing of upper surface of River Zanskar) is becoming shorter by many weeks over the last few years. “Earlier it used to last from December to March, but now it lasts for only two months,” Namgiyal added.

“Whether you call it climate change or attribute it to any other natural process, we are experiencing a lot of changes around us,” said Tsultim of Leh Nutrition Project.  Tsultim, however, asserts that adapting to the changing climate is the better option. “You have to either adapt or extinct”.

Under the banner of Leh Nutrition Project, Tsultim works with the “Glacier Man” Chewang Norphel who, over the years, has created more than a dozen artificial glaciers thereby helping farmers to adapt to the impact of climate change. These artificial glaciers provide water to farmers in the early cultivation season when the water from natural glaciers is too scarce.

Norphel’s love for farmers and his fighting spirit is not restricted to the artificial glaciers only. These days, he is helping farmers of Chamdaydo village by building a reservoir with a capacity of 1.5 million gallons near a huge chunk of wasteland.

“Once this reservoir is completed, all this land will turn into cultivable land and each of the 22 families of our village will get property rights for about five acres of land,” says Sringumut, a farmer of Chamdaydo village who is one of the workers at the reservoir.

As of now, says Sringumut, each family is getting less than an acre on lease from the Gompa (Buddhist Monastery). “And when we have our own land, we can even get a loan from the bank if we want to start some small enterprise. Right now, we are not in a position to apply for a loan since we don’t own any property apart from our small hutments.”

Another farmer, Tashi Nargiyal is even more visionary: “The reservoir can also serve as a stadium for skating during winter, apart from serving as a source of recharge for our hand pumps for drinking water during summer. Simply, it will bring a lot of prosperity to us poor villagers.”

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