Arjun Sharma | Jan 14, 2019 | 6 min read
Jammu: Receding glacial snow, unusually heavy rainfall, floods and changing weather patterns have significantly changed the lifestyle of residents from the arid desert of Ladakh, the Northern Indian city bordering Pakistan and China.
Climate change in Ladakh has forced residents to modify their long-established housing structures. Traditional wooden homes, constructed to accommodate severe weather conditions, have now been renovated and modified into concrete spaces. The primary reason being that old wooden structures are unable to withstand the heavy rainfall Ladakh has been witnessing over the last few years. However, these concrete houses fail to protect residents from the cold, and it’s a win-some-lose-some situation.
Construction of roofs is a challenge as well. Earlier, houses in Ladakh were covered with strong materials like wood, stone and clay to withstand extreme weather. However, these roofs are not designed to protect in case of heavy rain. Residents are now forced to use the more expensive tin or concrete material to cover their homes.
Several theories have been put forward regarding the sudden climate change in Ladakh; locals, however, believe that the government’s green drive in the 90s -- where thousands of trees were planted across the region -- could be behind the unusually high rainfall. Since the late 90s, the Army and other government agencies spent lakhs on the desert development programme for afforestation in Ladakh, planting trees like willow and other fruit-bearing plants to increase the green cover in the arid desert. However, there are no scientific studies to prove this claim.
Rinchen Dorje, 62, a government teacher from Leh, changed his traditional wooden structure to concrete a couple of years after retirement. “Fear of rain and floods is still fresh in our minds. My house was also destroyed partially in 2010 flash floods. I changed to a concrete structure to escape from damage that rains have started to cause almost every year,” he says.
Less snowfall and heavy rainfall is a major cause of concern for locals who say they have never witnessed such erratic climatic conditions. In 2010, flash floods shook the city of Leh where more than 200 people died and thousands lost their valuables and homes.
Iqbal Bijal, President of Society for Knowledge Improvisation Through Promoting Opportunities, an NGO working for the upliftment of the poor in Ladakh, says there were times when Ladakh had seen no rainfall through the year -- “This is a phenomenon we started witnessing after 2002.”
He adds that traditional forms of food storage have been affected by the rain as well. Ladakhis originally stored cheese and other food items in wooden basements for preservation during the five months of harsh winter. However, with rainwater seeping in, they’ve had to shift to more expensive forms of storage. Tin or concrete roofs are also now a necessity for farmers -- as compared to the traditional wood or clay ones that are unable to withstand heavy rain. After harvest, apricots are put out to shrivel, and these roofs help keep fruit dry during the rainy season.
Farmers have been significantly affected by climate change. Fruit farmers in Ladakh usually grow apricot, while the others principally grow barley, wheat and paddy. They claim their crop and fruits now taste different as the increase in temperature reduces the time they take to ripen. Tsering Nobru, a farmer from Choglamsar village in Leh, says back then, apricots would ripen by mid-August in Ladakh, but now ripen much earlier in the month. “While early ripening of fruit is better for farmers, the problem arises when trees bear fewer fruits,” he claimed. Farmers claim that due to an increase in temperature, insects and germs like bacteria, fungus and algae grow more and affect the crop and fruits.
While heavy rainfall brings its own set of problems, lesser snowfall in the region has also affected residents in Ladakh. Farmers face severe water scarcity, and residents including hotel and guesthouse owners have been forced to consider alternative methods. They now drill their own borewells to derive groundwater for the large number of tourists who visit the region every year from around the world.
Surface water is the main source of irrigation for Ladakhi residents, from approximately 10,190 hectares of land around Indus river’s tributaries. This is done through a sophisticated and carefully-managed system of small, hand-built mud canals, which make effective use of melting snow and ice at high altitudes. Earlier, irrigation from groundwater was negligible.
In some parts of the city, snow water harvesting from artificial glaciers was used for irrigation during the first few months of the harvest season, according to a study conducted by S Daultrey, a visiting research associate, and R Gergan, a project engineer, both from the Ladakh Renewable Energy Development Agency.
The study talks about using technology to bring about innovation in Ladakh’s future and explains how this can only be done by studying the local community’s needs and understanding its potential impact on them.
Sonam Lotus, director of the Indian Meteorological Department, says climate change is particularly visible in Ladakh, which can be seen by the decrease in snowfall and increased rainfall. To curb this and reduce the pace of climate change, there is a need to conserve the environment and minimise human intervention in the region, he explains.
Not only houses and agriculture, but even the region’s culture is under siege due to rapid climate change. Paintings and carvings in Buddhist monasteries that dot the cold region have been destroyed due to seepage of incessant rains during the last few years.
A study on heritage conservation in Ladakh by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works explains how this significant increase in rainfall over the last decade has affected and damaged different kinds of heritage structures -- “...the region is now experiencing short but heavy downpours that the traditional mud structures are not equipped to withstand.” The paper also discusses how there is extreme water seepage into old structures which has caused both internal and external damage. The study also adds that in the long run, melting glaciers from the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges also threaten these heritage structures.
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