© 2019 by Cameron James Mackay

Farming Sustainability in the Himalaya

Updated: Sep 9, 2018

It is clear that climate change is having a negative impact in Ladakh through increasing temperatures, loss of glaciers and water scarcity and the future looks very uncertain. On one hand, more temperature increase is predicted and, in a desert environment, this could cause water availability to become unsustainable. On the other hand, fantastic local ingenuity has been shown through developing artificial glaciers. If these can be successfully implemented and sustained in Ladakh, this could offer a much-needed lifeline to farmers which would allow their farming practices to continue and sustain the cultural identity and livelihood of the Ladakhi people.

Indus Valley from Shanti Stuppa, Leh

As the issue of climate change has increasingly severe impacts around the world, many communities will be adversely affected. Perhaps on of the most severely affected will be remote subsistence communities that rely on glacial meltwater for irrigation. Many of these communities can be found in Ladakh: a high altitude desert region nestled in the centre of the Indian Himalayas.

Here in Ladakh, farming is the traditional way of life for local people. Despite a recent influx of jobs created by the military and tourism industry, farming still remains a backbone of cultural identity and livelihood for Ladakhi people. As Ladakh is a high altitude desert, the only source of water for agriculture comes from the meltwater of glaciers. This flows from the glacier snouts high in the mountains of each village’s catchment area and is diverted into irrigation channels used by farmers. As this is such a precious resource, each household in each village will share this water on a rotational basis through damming and diverting irrigation channels to different farms.

The average yearly temperature in Ladakh has increased by over 2oC since 1980 and this has had huge impacts on the local environment. In 2016 an interview survey of local people showed that this increase in temperature was felt throughout the region and that it has caused an increase in pests and made conditions more difficult when working in fields. However, the biggest impact was the loss of glaciers. It has been shown that, since 1969, over 14% of the glaciated area in Ladakh has been lost meaning that glaciers are much smaller and in some areas have disappeared altogether.

This loss of glaciers has had severe impacts on the irrigation of farms in Ladakh. The glacier and snowfall decrease has meant that much less water is available each year and water shortages are being felt across the region. This has caused severe decreases in the time crops can be irrigated for and has ultimately reduced crop yields severely. Because of this water shortage, some farms and villages in the region have had to be abandoned altogether.

One lifeline comes by means of artificial glaciers, an engineering project set up by Ladakhi engineer Chewang Norphel, which dams water in autumn so it freezes over winter and is then allowed to melt in spring to provide irrigation water. Local villagers hoped that these will allow them to farm well into the future. However, with temperatures predicted to increase over coming years, it is uncertain how long these will be effective for.

It became evident through working in Ladakh how severe the impacts of climate change on subsistence communities can be. With all the best technology and investments into mitigation projects such as artificial glaciers, a couple of degrees of temperature increase could pose much greater challenges. To ensure people in these areas are protected going forward, the question remains: do we, as an international community, have the correct perspectives of local cultures and adequate resources to offer the support that people in places like Ladakh might need over the next decade?