INDIA: Extreme Weather Sows Uncertainty in Farmers’ Lives

Posted on 19 October 2010 by admin

Stanzin Dolma of Choglamsar-Leh breaks down while showing the ruins of her home, wrecked by the August floods and landslides. Credit:Athar Parvaiz/IPS.

By Athar Parvaiz*

LEH, India, Oct 19, 2010 (IPS/TerraViva) – When dark clouds waft above, hearts pound in fear and nightmarish thoughts strike the minds of the inhabitants of this desert town, which lies more than 3,048 metres above sea level in the northern Indian province of Ladakh.

Located more than 1,000 kilometres from New Delhi, Ladakh is part of the western Himalaya where extreme weather conditions are common – the cold and dry kind, that is.

Usually, precipitation in Ladakh, which sits on the western part of the Tibetan plateau, does not even reach 20 centimetres in a whole year. Yet on Aug. 6, cloudbursts dumped as much as 250 cm of rain on Ladakh in just one hour, causing landslides and floods that left at least 233 people dead and thousands more homeless.

Says Pintoo Narbo, one of the many Leh residents who are still traumatised by the tragedy: “We have never heard of a disaster of this kind in Ladakh’s history.”

Still, even before record rainfall doused Ladakh in August, residents of its 241 villages were already wondering about the curious changes in weather and temperature that were wreaking havoc on the way they live.

Chewang Norphel can still vividly recall how he and his fellow villagers here would walk over the surface of the Khardungla glacier. But he says the glacier “has now completely vanished, while the glaciers like Stok Kangri are receding rapidly”.

In fact, Norphel earned the monicker ‘Iceman’ not for his exploits over frozen surfaces, but for his pioneering contribution of creating artificial glaciers for the use of farmers in the initial stage of cultivation season.

“Whether you call it climate change or attribute it to any other natural process, we are experiencing a lot of changes around us,” Lobzang Tsultim, executive director of the non-profit Leh Nutrition Project, tells IPS.

“Our region is known as an arid region and we have small glaciers, which we draw water from,” he says. “But over the last several years, many of these glaciers have receded. Not only this, we have seen some of our limited pasture lands drying up because of water scarcity.”

“The winters are getting shorter and warmer,” says farmer Tashi Namgiyal. “The snowfall… melts quickly.” He says the popular ‘Chadar Trek’, which Zanskar natives had done for generations during winter, when the Zanskar River surface would freeze solid, is now possible for a mere two months. Previously, he says, it “used to be from December to March.”

“We are now seeing pests even in upper villages while they were earlier found only in villages lying lower,” Namgiyal adds, pointing to more consequences of the changing conditions. “We are also witnessing a shift in sowing and harvesting of barley.”

For sure, the villagers are not imagining things. At the very least, S N Mishra of Indian Meteorological Department says, the mean temperature in Ladakh from the months of November to March has increased one degree Centigrade while mean maximum temperature for summer months has increased by 0.5 degree Centigrade.

Yet it did take until August’s cloudbursts before Ladakh villagers began thinking that they may be unable to continue farming as they had been doing for centuries.

Indeed, the floods washed away crops, along with huge chunks of cultivable land. According to official figures, 1,420 hectares of land were affected by the floods and 51 percent of crops, which included barley and vegetables, were damaged.

“Until last (August), we were only worried about water getting scarcer with glaciers retreating rapidly,” says Narbo. “But now we are worried about our survival as well.”

“The damage is very extensive,” confirms Robert Folkes, emergency officer of the non-government organisation Save the Children, referring to the effects of the recent floods.

“The farmers certainly need… machines and manual labour for clearing the layers of silt from their fields,” he says. “They also need help from the local government and the NGOs for repairing the damage caused to the irrigation system as agriculture mainly depends on irrigation in Ladakh.”

Those like geographer Mohammed Sultan, who teaches at Kashmir University, says that a single weather event like the cloudburst is not necessarily a sign of climate change, but agrees that “the increase in extreme weather events suggests that climatic conditions in Ladakh are changing”.

“Given that the winters are getting shorter and warmer and also the fact that many small glaciers are retreating fast and snowlines are receding, not only common people, but also climate change experts, tend to view these changes with concern,” adds Badrinath Balaji, who has worked as a forester here for many years.

Still, the August disaster has heightened the fear of farmers here that they may one day have to abandon Ladakh. Since they know the deluge has something to do with the changing weather patterns and unpredictable temperatures, many farmers here have been reminded of it – ironically enough – through their diminishing water supply.

“Farming is the only art we know and obviously our children will also be dependent on agriculture,” says Sonam Tundup, a farmer in Stakmo village. “If there is no water left, there would be no agriculture, meaning our children might have to leave this land one day in search of water.”

But Leh Nutrition Project’s Tsultim asserts that adapting to the changing climate is the better option. “You have to either adapt or become extinct,” he says. “Though I am sure that we are paying for none of our faults, we have to think about adapting to the changes, which are taking place due to the actions of the developed world (in producing greenhouse gases).”

*This IPS story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network http://www.cdkn.org.

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