Beyond the beauty: Farmers of Spiti Valley endure the effects of climate change

Beyond the beauty: Farmers of Spiti Valley endure the effects of climate change

Beyond the beauty: Farmers of Spiti Valley endure the effects of climate change

Melting glaciers and the resultant water shortage has forced several farmers to give up agriculture and move to alternative sources of livelihood.

Spiti, Himachal Pradesh: Beyond the picturesque landscapes, fascinating valleys, adventure sports and peace and quiet that comes with Spiti is the alarming aspect of climate change that's altering the cold desert tourist destination. The farmers of Chicchim, Kibbar, Kaumik and Langja, situated at 4,000m above sea level, are facing the worst effects of this crisis that's been adversely influencing the availability of irrigation water in the region.

This remote region has only one crop season, with peas and potatoes being the most cultivated. Besides seasonal vegetables, farmers also grow several exotic vegetables, black peas, and black cumin here, all of which are sent across to hotels in Delhi and Chandigarh.

However, they now face a worrisome drop in agricultural output due to the dual effects of climate change and water shortage. This has seen many farmers move away from agriculture into other occupations.

The adverse toll on farming

Take Sher Singh of Langja village, for instance. Once a farmer who grew peas, potatoes and barley, Singh moved away from agriculture owing to a regular shortage of water to irrigate his farms. The meagre income made it difficult for him to support his family. He now drives a tourist taxi.

Those who continue to farm are faced with a myriad problems. Farmer Kaljang Lade of Chiccham village complained of water availability for irrigation decreasing by the year. Traditional water resources, too, are drying up due to rising temperatures, he told 101Reporters.

“We hardly receive more than 60mm of rain per year. Hence, farming is getting to be extremely difficult now,” he added.

As per weather reports, Himachal Pradesh received a large deficient (-89%) rainfall than its normal quantum of rain in April this year. Since the amount of rain was the lowest received in 19 years, this itself has had an impact on farming. 

Farmer Angdui from Lara village in Demul panchayat has been growing cauliflower, peas and apples. He said the continuous rise in temperatures and melting glaciers had made matters extremely difficult for farmers like him. People here generally grow vegetables, which need ample irrigation. Shortage of water often destroys standing crops, he revealed.

Farmers like Lobsand Dorje (left) and Angdui (right) are facing crop loss and reverting to subsistence farming in the face of regular water shortage (Photos: Raman Kant)

“Going by the present trend, I fear that the problem will only intensify in future,” he told 101Reporters.

Lobsang Dorje, a local resident of Pin Valley, revealed that the water shortage starts manifesting itself around mid-April every year; snowfall has also dropped in the past seven to eight years. With water resources gradually drying up, there might not be any drinking water available in the next few years, he fears. Agriculture has, understandably, become difficult now.

Earlier, Dorje used to cultivate peas, potatoes and barley for the market. But now, he can only manage to grow enough for his family on his marginal landholding. In the absence of an alternative source of livelihood, survival is tough for farming families here now.

Melting glaciers and dried up resources

In Spiti, communities follow very strict customary rules regarding water. There are different sources of water used for drinking and irrigation. However, climate change has caused them all to dry up. Consequently, quarrels have often erupted between different villages on water-related issues.

Explaining the water crisis, Langja Panchayat Pradhan Chhering Palden told 101Reporters, “We live in one of the remotest parts of the world. This place remains covered by snow for six months of the year, with temperatures hovering around -30°C. During winter, we remain cut off from the rest of the world. We can only grow a single crop here, for which we work very hard, and it sustains us for the whole year. Since there's hardly any rain here, we are dependent on glacial snows. June-July are the months when we need water to irrigate our crops. But since the glacial snows are melting early due to a rise in temperatures, we are deprived of water during the crop growing season.”

Elaborating on this issue, Ishita Khanna, who heads Ecosphere, an NGO working in this region, said, “It's snowing very little and late. Hence, the snow does not settle down on the land. As a result, the snow starts melting early, creating a shortage of water.”

Spiti Valley has a population of 12,000 people, with 3,252 farming families, all of whom are marginal farmers with small landholdings. Agriculture is the only means of livelihood for most.

Hence, an untoward effect on agriculture can have a deleterious effect on lives here. With global warming having compelled many farmers to stop cultivating their usual crops, many lands lie fallow. Several men have migrated to adjoining towns like Kaza or cities like Chandigarh in search of work, unable to sustain their families on agriculture alone.

The way forward

To overcome the problem of water shortage, local residents have formed the Spiti Civil Society to conserve water resources. According to Sonam Tange, who heads the organisation, efforts are afoot to save existing water resources. Canals have been repaired to facilitate irrigation; many farmers are now irrigating their land using water from canals that are 15-25 km away.

There have been official initiatives, as well. Jal Shakti Department Assistant Engineer BC Roy said the government was trying to rejuvenate natural water resources, with the active participation of local residents. Wherever possible, canals were being built. On sandy stretches, tanks were being constructed to conserve water for farming.

According to Agricultural Development Officer Dr Chandrashekhar, “Summer arrived a fortnight earlier in Spiti this year, and the heat only rose by the day. In some parts, even drinking water became a problem. I've already apprised top officials about the issue. The departments of agriculture and jalshakti vibhag are looking into this and will formulate a plan to alleviate the problems faced by farmers soon.”

Ecosphere has also taken some initiatives in this regard, Khanna revealed.

An aerial view of the farmland around Kaza, the subdivisional headquarters of Spiti Valley (Photo: Raman Kant)

“We conducted a survey and found that the situation was particularly bad in the villages of Demul and Chiccham. We hydrologically mapped these villages and built a check dam and artificial glacier in Demul. This can also recharge the groundwater. We intend to map other villages, too, and build these structures wherever feasible. We're also encouraging local residents to rejuvenate their traditional resources, as of now.”

Edited by Rina Mukherji


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