Climate Change in the Ladakhi Himalaya

By Wendy Foden

© Wendy Foden

© Wendy Foden

I recently took a six-week journey through Ladakh, a high altitude dry desert area in the Himalayan region of North Western India. My conservation career had started as a field-based ecologist, but as seems inevitable I became office-bound as my career progressed. I found myself becoming further and further away from the rapidly unfolding climate change impacts that were my specialty. The aims of my journey were in equal measure to ground myself in how climate change is playing out in one of the fastest changing regions on the planet and to indulge my long-standing love for the Himalayan range. I set off with sturdy boots, a good camera, voice-recording equipment and deep excitement. Some of what I saw, heard and learned will be the subjects of this and subsequent blog posts.

One way in which I sought to find out how the climate and subsequently livelihoods and biodiversity are being impacted was simply to ask people about it and gather accounts of their experiences and reflections. In a remote village in the Nubra Valley, I spent the night with the large extended family of the local school teacher, Kunzes, a 30-something Ladakhi woman who spoke excellent English. She and the family welcomed me warmly and sat me down near the yak dung stove with a cup of tea and some vegetables to chop. Various family members wandered in and out while the women began supper and the children played around us.

With chatting underway, Kunzes translating for the others, I asked her “Could you ask your grandmother if she’s noticed any changes in the weather since she was young?” The old woman nodded frequently as Kunzes explained my question. “The weather is not as it used to be,” Kunzes translated. “Before, the summers were not so warm as now. Also, the winters were not so cold.” Like my previous and subsequent interviewees, she proceeded to tell me about the extreme cold and the heavy snowfall of the previous winter (2012-2013) in which as many as 40,000 livestock had died from the cold or starvation. This and the flash floods of 2010, which killed at least 200 people, mainly in the Ladakhi capital of Leh, have been linked to changes in the Indian Monsoon system and ultimately to global climate change. Changes in the system are predicted to bring greater variability in precipitation and more frequent extreme events to the region.

Ladakhis typically rely on yaks or dzos (cow-yak hybrids) for milk, as well as for their dung, which is dried and used as fuel for cooking and warmth. The exceptionally cold winter of 2013-2014, believed to have been driven by changes in the Indian Monsoon system, killed more than 40,000 of the region’s livestock. © Wendy Foden

Ladakhis typically rely on yaks or dzos (cow-yak hybrids) for milk, as well as for their dung, which is dried and used as fuel for cooking and warmth. The exceptionally cold winter of 2013-2014, believed to have been driven by changes in the Indian Monsoon system, killed more than 40,000 of the region’s livestock. © Wendy Foden

“How has this affected you and your family?” I asked Kunzes; her grandmother had lost interest and returned to dinner preparations. Kunzes turned to face me and told me about their goats lost over the winter, but contrary to most people I spoke to, she didn’t mention a family member lost in the flood. “The main thing is our crops. Now there is not so much water when we need it, and then sometimes too much. Before we knew how it would be.”  Ladakh’s agriculture relies on a combination of snow and glacial melt, particularly during the sowing season of March to May. If the snow is too light or melts too soon or too late, crops can fail. “We used to grow seven different crops, but now we can only grow four.” Later in the season, the crops rely mainly on irrigation from glacier-fed streams that have often slowed to trickles or dried up altogether by the end of summer.

Kunzes poured us both more tea and sat back down next to me. I chopped distractedly and asked: “So have you thought of trying some new crops?” She looked at me and was silent. Thinking that she hadn’t heard me, I asked again: “Could you try adding some different crops?” The silence grew and became awkward and I felt confused and embarrassed that my question had inadvertently brought her such apparent discomfort. We sat in our separate self-consciousnesses, the pause widening.  And then it closed again as she changed the subject and the conversation moved on.

Now here I am, back behind a computer, much enriched by the many and varied experiences of my trip, both personally and scientifically. Yet still, the awkwardness of that conversation with Kunzes weighs on my mind. I recognise how inexperienced I am in interview techniques and understand that interviewees often try to please interviewers and provide them with the answers they think are wanted. I imagine that the deeply generous Ladakhis may be susceptible to this. In retrospect, I suspect that Kunzes’ unease arose because her family and village hadn’t tried to diversify their crops. After all, what crops would they try?  What methods would be needed to grow them? Where would they buy the seed or seedlings from? What would they do in the interim before new trees produced fruit? Which recipes would they use to cook the new foods?  And even if she’d wanted to, could she have convinced the senior members of her family to take the bold and risky decision to potentially sacrifice the scant fertile ground to make the change?

Following investigation, I now know that various reputable government and non-governmental organisations currently work with villagers in Ladakh to help diversify their crops, and that they are likely to reach Kunzes’ remote village in the course of the coming year or two. Such crop changes are certainly evident in other parts of the region. The essence of the realization I am left with, however, is how challenging it is for anyone to make the bold changes needed to prepare for a very different future. How difficult it is for each of us to plan for something unprecedented and of uncertain nature and magnitude. And particularly so when the steps to do so may risk or decrease current standards of living.  Yet this is precisely the point at which each of us stands, with the need to do so painfully and terrifyingly clear. I wonder too which actions we’ve simply not thought to try.