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Feeling the heat

Published : Nov 05, 2010 00:00 IST

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Higher-than-normal temperatures in Ladakh pose a threat to its glaciers and thereby life in the region.

in Ladakh

THERE is a Ladakhi song that praises the white glaciers on the mountainsides in the winter and blesses them for filling the blue lakes in the valley in spring. It captures the essence of life in Ladakh, dictated as it is by the seasons.

Fields are sown with the knowledge that water will come from rivers and glaciers. Migrating pastoralists take their flocks to the higher pastures in spring, when the glaciers have retreated temporarily, and bring them down in the winter. The grass that grows on these higher reaches is rich in nutrition as it feeds off the glacial moraine, which acts as a slow-release fertilizer. By the time the flocks come down before the winter, the lower slopes would have re-greened and would provide adequate grazing before the winter sets in. The harvest would have been collected and hay stored for winter feed. Wildlife, too, follows this pattern of glacial-dictated migration. As spring approaches, high-altitude wetlands, which had either frozen or had a thin film of ice, thaw and become home to birds, mammals, grasses, marsh plants and a host of other forms of life.

Glaciers are the lifeline for all farming and pastoral activity, the region's largest income generators. So, when they are threatened, life in the region comes under immediate threat.

While the debate over climate change continues, the experiences of those who have been affected directly by the changes are now being taken more seriously. Witness reports, until recently a neglected form of proof, are increasingly being given the respect they deserve. The legendary wildlife biologist George Schaller, who has worked for long in high-altitude regions, and other scientists like him always give credence to anecdotal evidence. He told Frontline: Local people and nomads are like the canary in the mine. When something starts to go wrong they are the ones who feel it first. Their lives depend on the seasons and they feel the brunt of any change.

Kunzes Dolma, 57, who is the vice-president of Women's Alliance of Ladakh, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), says signs of unnatural change have been there for a while. Recalling the days of her childhood, she says water kept indoors in buckets would freeze solid even if the bukharis (stoves) were kept burning. Now perhaps a thin layer of ice will form. She remembers the surrounding mountains being thick with snow for months, something that no longer happens. At one time there were lots of streams running alongside the roads but now you rarely see this. Leh never had a water problem, but now we know water scarcity, she says.

Kunzes Dolma also says that vegetables grown in Ladakh now are more varied than they used to be. At one time we could only grow barley, beet, knol khol and turnips. But now because it is warmer we grow brinjals, capsicums and tomatoes. Dolma observes that women used to wear the traditional Ladakhi goncha even in summer, but it is now too warm for that.

Nisa Khatoon, a native Ladakhi who is a field officer with the WWF in Leh, says she was sceptical initially of anecdotal evidence because she wanted scientific proof, but her field observations in the high-altitude wetlands of Ladakh changed her thinking. She says she first noticed the changes when pastoralists used the migration routes along the tso (lake) Kar more frequently than they used to. They were being forced to move more often because of degrading pastures that could not sustain them or their livestock for an entire season. Then she saw other definite changes in the migratory patterns of birds [which] were not favourable. The birds and animals are being forced to change they come out of the usual season and then there is not enough food for them or the ice has not yet completely thawed.

She said the breeding patterns of the black-necked crane and the bar-headed goose had been altered forcibly because breeding islands in the tso Moriri were submerged by untimely glacial melt. The observation is particularly worrisome because both species are on the endangered list and the Ladakh breeding grounds are among the few they frequent.

Chewang Norphel, standing by a trickle of a stream on a mountainside, smiles when questioned about the lack of scientific data on melting glaciers. Scientific data? he says quizzically, I am the scientific data. The retired civil engineer shot to fame in the 1990s when he developed a simple high-altitude water management system that came to be known as artificial glacier. Essentially, this mimics natural glacial formation. It is done by diverting a part of a stream to flow in the shadow of a mountain so that it freezes quickly and does not run off'. When spring comes this man-made glacier is ready to thaw and provide a guaranteed supply of water.

Last November, Norphel was in the process of building an artificial glacier for Stakmo village. Phunchok Namgyal, 92, says that until two decades ago the village had such low temperatures that the glacier above it did not recede even in summer. It provided adequate melt water for the fields from mid-April to early October. That is a thing of the past. The glacier is now just a rocky gully with a small stream, but Tsering Mortep, Norphel's assistant, was confident that the artificial glacier a few kilometres away would provide water at the right time. He was right. A year later, in a telephone conversation with Frontline, Namgyal said the Stakmo glacier had been successful. Though still young it had frozen over sufficiently and in the spring of 2010 provided adequate water to Stakmo's fields of barley, green peas and potato. It is being made operational for this winter as well.

Warmer temperatures than before have brought new problems. Tundup Angmo, climate change coordinator of GERES, a French NGO that works on sustainable development, says the coddling moth that feeds on apples and apricots, which was only known to be present in the lower reaches of the Himalayas, is now seen in Ladakh. Indeed, apples and apricots are also relatively new crops in Ladakh. Warming weather has brought the apple belt up from 9,000 feet (2,743 metres) to 12,000 feet (3,658 metres).

The NGOs carry out small questionnaire-based surveys to collect anecdotal evidence. GERES surveyed 20 villages in Ladakh. As many as 211 individuals in a sample, all over the age of 65, were asked about the changes they have witnessed and more than 90 per cent said winters were warmer than before. The responses were supported by 30-year meteorological data that showed a rise in mean summer temperatures from July to September and a rise of one degree celsius in winter temperatures, combined with less snowfall than before. Women's Alliance has initiated a climate witness study on climate change. It uses a simple questionnaire to ask women whether they have noticed changes in seasonal temperatures, whether the rainfall and snowfall have been timely, and whether they have introduced any new crops.

Scientific data, especially on glaciers, are hard to come by. Rajesh Kumar, a glaciologist at the Birla Institute of Technology extension centre in Jaipur, says research on retreating glaciers in India is only 25 years young and adds that only China has been conducting long-term studies. It is true that there is no long-term record of systematic measurement of glacial mass balance in the Himalayan belt and that scientists, including Syed Iqbal Hasnain, glaciologist and senior fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), admit that our science is weak. It is equally undeniable that glaciers are melting and some, like the one at Khardung La, have all but disappeared.

Up at 5,359 m above sea level, on the highest motorable road in the world, Hasnain looks out over boulders and patches of ice. It's November and there is no glacier, he says with some shock. It has been a number of years since he visited Khardung La, but he is sure that at this time of the year the glacier should have been very much in evidence. So are Ladakhis like Norphel, who says the Khardung glacier has not just been retreating, but has been fragmented [by increased temperatures] and has melted away. The 74-year-old says he remembers the Khardung glacier as a river of solid ice in his youth.

Ladakhis say that easy access to Khardung La has contributed greatly to the disappearance of the glacier. Earlier, it was just herders and their animals that passed by on foot. The road has been there for over 30 years now and it's possible that it has hastened the decline of the glacier. Too many changes too soon see the camp and how much energy it uses heating, fuel, supplies being delivered by trucks, says Norphel.

A similar theory has been put forward to explain the cloudburst and subsequent flash floods at Choglamsar on August 5 and 6. Even dissenters of the climate change theory find it difficult to explain how a high-altitude desert with an average precipitation of 90 mm had a cloudburst that was so devastating that it wiped out Choglamsar and parts of Leh town, and resulted in the death of at least 180 people and untold numbers of livestock and in uncalculated damage to property. The explanation lies in the infamous Asian Brown Cloud, which has made warmer winters a feature of Ladakh. Soot and other particulate matter hung in the atmosphere and essentially prevented the heat that rose from the land from dispersing into space. The trapped heat caused warmer winters which, in turn, caused glaciers to melt early.

Water trapped deep inside glaciers used to be a lifeline when gradual thawing released it in spring. But with warmer winters, this water is released earlier (it usually flows away un-utilised, but artificial glaciers capture it for use later).

More warmth and water resulted in people planting trees and growing crops. The sudden greening is believed to be one reason for the intense precipitation of August. Incidentally, Ladakh saw unseasonal floods in July 2005 and August 2006 as well. The vanishing Khardung glacier and the Choglamsar cloudburst are examples that bolster the theory that rapid and excessive human presence leads to drastic climate variations. The theory is a controversial one and has many detractors, but, like witness reports, it is worth considering since Ladakh is living proof of the effects of climate change.

Speaking of her concerns and those of the many women she interacts with in Ladakh, Dolma says, I am very worried for the future of my grandchildren. I am fearful of water scarcity, of our consumeristic lifestyles that make such demands on resources. We are all leading an anti-nature lifestyle and this will have repercussions for us. In Ladakh, we depend a lot on the regularity of the seasons. If this changes, what will happen to us?

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Nov 05, 2010.)

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