Leh farmers see mountains going brown

The snowfill close to Khardung La Pass no longer feeds streams, say Leh farmers. Photo: Raintree

By Climatalk Desk

As Maruti cars and Innova vans noodled through dusty narrow lanes, local people in Leh often talked about their favourite topic over cups of steaming tea or noodle soup. Through the windows of their homes and shops they could clearly see what this catch-all term – “Climate change” – really means. The mountaintops are getting more brown than white.  Receding snowlines and shrinking glaciers are big issues here.

As a worldwide debate rages about the rate at which Himalayan glaciers are shrinking, over here people are living with its impacts. Glaciers are major water sources for this highland 3513 metres above the mean sea level. In this cold desert, annual average rainfall is just about 90 millimeters. Mumbai gets over 20 times as much and the desert town of Johpur four times. So mountain streams fed by glaciers have to bring water to local fields.

The problem is that, local people say, the glaciers have moved back and shrunk. Elders here can remember huge snowfills in the valleys and on the hillocks nearby. At the Stakmo village uphill, Punchok Nangyal, 92, took a break from rolling his handheld prayer wheel to recall old times. “I must have been in my 30s then. There was a lot of water in the streams fed by the glaciers,” he told a team of visiting newsperson in 2009 November.  His younger neighbours who tended their barley and potato fields beyond fluttering prayer flags and maroon-dyed strips of wool hung for drying nodded in agreement.

Phunchor Thaishi, 63, a Leh farmer cannot sow barley in time as water from glaciers come too late. Photo: Raintree

Their worry was that often there is not enough water. When it is time to sow barley in April, there is no supply from glaciers. They have to wait toll June for the moving mass of ice uphill to thaw and feed their streams.

Scientists do believe that global warming has a role to play, though every instance of shirking glacier cannot be attribute to it. As it happens some glaciers are expanding. One thing is clear, we are entering into a warming phase.  The surface air temperature in most parts of India has increased by half a degree centigrade during the second half of the 20th century, as scientists who track climate change note. But the temperature increase has been almost one degree centigrade during the same period in the Himalayas.

Such an increase has had its impact. An analysis of Indian Space Research Orgnaisation (ISRO) satellite data has shown that since the 1960s, glacier mass in the Himalayas has been reducing every year by 0.39 per cent. That adds up to over a 16-per cent loss since 1962. Many fear the loss could be at a faster pace now. Dr Anil Kulkarni of Ahmedabad’s Space Applications Centre, who led the studies said in a media interview: “We have studied over 1,000 glaciers. There should be no confusion — glaciers are receding.”  Locally ice fills and snow fills, that do not necessarily make glaciers, but still feed stream, are have also been significantly affected by rising temperatures, ISRO scientists note.

Last winter local farmers said that since early 1990s they have observed warmer temperatures, less snow on the mountain tops, erratic heavy rain spells and dwindling mountain streams. Ladakh-based NGO GERES India conducted a survey and found that a rising trend of mean temperatures in winter as well as summer. Ms Tundup Angmo, a researcher at GERES noted that rainfall and snowfall also show a clear declining trend, except for January 2008. As a result of the retreating glaciers, the water discharge into the Indus, the river which flows in Ladakh, has reduced too. There are changes in cropping patterns, she notes. Apple cultivation is moved to the upper reaches of the region.

“I am worried about the next generation,” said Kunzes Dolma, vice-president of the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh, who frequently moves around in the villages, talking with farmers. As if to seek blessings for the new generation Nangyal rolled his prayer wheel at a small Buddhist stupa at Stakmo. And they all knew prayers are just not enough.  And they did something more – that is another story.