The Changpas, a nomadic tribe of Tibetan people living in the high-altitude plains of eastern Ladakh, have a sustainable way of life, uniquely adjusted to the harsh terrain they inhabit. Most of them are pastoralists, raising pashmina goats and yaks, with which they have co-evolved in a sense.
Their Buddhist belief does not allow them to kill animals for meat. It is only when animals die a natural death that the carcasses can be used for meat and hide, which the Changpas use to line their huts and make garments. Even the sheep’s head is not wasted: they often put it up in the fields to scare away snow leopards. Living at an altitude of nearly 15,000 feet (around 4,500 metres), the Changpas have coexisted with their livestock for generations in an unpredictable landscape lashed by wild winds and heavy snow. But in the last decade, the conditions in the cold desert have been getting harsher, more punitive, throwing them off balance.
The winter of 2013 was catastrophic. Extreme snowfall and plummeting temperatures cut off access to their usual winter pastures. Around 24,000 livestock perished due to extreme cold and starvation and 90 per cent lambs were either stillborn or dead in infancy. The snow lay so thick that it became difficult for the animals to get food. Over the years, summers have lengthened too, so much so that there are now fans and air conditioners in Leh, Ladakh’s capital.
As the climate becomes unpredictable, the quality of the wool declines. The Changpas supply nearly 80 per cent of the wool consumed by the Jammu and Kashmir region, as per data provided by the Animal Husbandry Department of Ladakh. The wool is getting thinner, and the Changpas live in constant fear of the situation getting worse. The livelihoods of about 300,000 people in Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir are dependent on pashmina wool.
As a photographer who developed his craft in the land of the Changpas, I have witnessed the impact of climate change from close quarters. Experiencing calamities ranging from droughts and cloudbursts to earthquakes and flash floods, I have interacted with families whose homes have been damaged. In an unforgiving landscape made more hostile by climate change, how do they access education and healthcare? A humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the high Himalayas that many of us are unaware of.
My photo project, “The Silent Disaster”, consists of photographs taken over eight months in a span of five years. It records the impact of the climate crisis on the community’s culture, education, health, and livelihood (rearing animals, selling milk products and pashmina). My project took me to the remote villages of Karzok, Nyoma, Puga, and Hanle in Changthang. I stayed there for months and built a rapport with the community. In the course of time, I got acquainted with the changes in their lifestyle even as I got to know their traditional stories. I first visited Changthang in 2013, the year of the catastrophe. Since then, I have gone back repeatedly and each time I feel the fear the Changpas feel about their future.
I have engaged with their micro-level practices, such as breeding of sheep and extraction and collection of wool, and documented their cultural habits. The Nomadic Residential School in Puga village, Changthang, is the only school in the region providing housing and education for over 120 children between 3 and 18 years of age. The students are mainly from Korzak and Nyoma villages. While the families expect the children to retain their tribal knowledge and sustain their unique pastoral system, the school prepares them for a modern livelihood in cities away from tribal lands.
So, many parents are now in two minds about sending their children to school. They think that keeping them at home, where they can learn traditional practices, may be a better option. Angchuk, a Changpa nomad, returned to his village after completing high school in Puga. He has been engaged in the family business for the past two years, helping his parents rear goats in the valley.
Mountain communities are affected more than others by climate change since their land is the place where much of the drama is unfolding. The story of the Changpas must be placed in the larger narrative of the global climate crisis so that they get the attention and help they need to mitigate its effects.
Siddharth Behl is a Delhi-based documentary photojournalist. His works are chiefly social documentaries focussed on climate change, migration, refugees, and historical research.