Eyes half-shut, he sits cross-legged on the cold earthen floor, thumbing a string of prayer beads. Occasionally, a gust of wind lashes his weather-beaten face. But Nawang Tandup displays no unease, as he continues mumbling the text from his sacred Buddhist book and, in the same breath, declares: “Ab toh sab bhagwan bharose hai (it’s all up to the almighty now).”
The 56-year-old is a farmer from Komic in Himachal Pradesh’s Spiti Valley. At 4,587 metres (15,050 feet) above sea level, this remote Buddhist hamlet is touted as the world’s highest village with a motorable road. That distinction isn’t something Tandup is, however, terribly excited about. Komic, like other villages in the upper belt of Spiti Valley, is experiencing a severe water crisis from retreating glaciers and inadequate snowfall during peak winter. Streams, ponds and lakes that helped irrigate the fields are, hence, now drying up fast.
“Water isn’t an issue so long as we receive snowfall in peak winter. But that is not happening and our glaciers, too, are melting faster than before,” says Tandup, pointing to a barren mountain about 10 km from Komic that is also the village’s primary water source.
Very skeptical of their future, Tandup seemed only too eager to talk fearing the long silence that would settle once all the inquiries about their villages were over. “We are now hoping for some divine intervention.”
The above effects of climate change aren’t pronounced just in Komic, but also in the Spiti Valley’s other upper catchment villages: Chicham, Kibber, Tashigang, Gette, Langza, Hikkim and Demul. All of them are highly dependent on snowfall for water.
Spiti, a cold trans-Himalayan desert valley, is cut off from the rest of India for at least six months of the year. As snowfall leads to blockage of roads and mountain passes, the villagers here need to stock up enough supplies before the winter sets in. At the same time, being in a rain-shadow area, the valley receives very little monsoon rains.
In July, Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh – Himachal Pradesh voted for its next government in state elections only last week – said at a public function in Kaza, the headquarters of the Lahaul & Spiti district, that he “was aware of the water crisis”. He also promised to launch a ‘Green Spiti’ mission for increasing the forest cover in the valley that would mitigate water shortage.
The upper reaches of the Himalayas have, over the years, witnessed changes in snowfall pattern. “Much of snowfall now takes place not in the peak winter, but during the second half of February and March. This snow is high in water content. So, it does not stay at the source for long and, instead, simply flows down the valley, causing soil erosion,” notes Surjeet Singh Randhawa, senior scientific officer at the Himachal Pradesh State Centre on Climate Change in Shimla.
The District Agriculture Office at Kaza wears a deserted look, with empty rooms and broken windowpanes. After several visits to their office, one official casually said the situation in these villages is grim and snowfall has had a significant impact on farm produce.“There has been a roughly 30 per cent drop in the yields of jau (barley) and matar (green peas) in these villages over the last five years”, estimates Anil Kumar, agriculture extension officer. He links it to irregular snowfall: “Snow should ideally stay at the source from December to February. Also, there should be sufficient snow on the fields during March-April, without which sowing gets delayed.”
After pausing briefly, he added: “Everything is dependent on snowfall.”
Snowfall during the peak winter from December to February is most crucial, as the ice stays for longer at its source, releasing water slowly to the fields through kuhls (navigation channels) over time. Snowfall during March-April, on the other hand, is mostly water-laden. The water from it flows down quickly, damaging roads and fields.
Water apart, the villages in the upper reaches of Spiti have to contend with paucity of arable land and a short growing season. While there are two farming seasons in breadbasket states like Punjab and Haryana, Spiti has only one. There is tremendous pressure on farmers, then, in the event of the crop failure. Moreover, these are people with average landholding of 0.25 hectares. Rather than risk losses, many choose to leave a large part of their fields barren.
Kaza’s sub-divisional magistrate Arun Sharma agrees that the upper catchment villages suffer from an acute water crisis. He blames this mainly on glacier retreat: “Due to global warming, the ice is not forming properly and the water sources aren’t getting replenished”.
But villagers maintain that the local administration has not yet grasped the urgency of the situation. “Last year, government officials had surveyed our land because of drought, and we sent them our assistance requirement. But nothing has come to us till now,” alleges 46-year-old Angchuk from Langza village.
Tenzin Andak, a farmer from Komic, echoes similar sentiments. A badge of The Dalai Lama embedded into his shirt, Andak flicked out his sunglasses and settled himself on a pile of dried grass on his terrace before pointing towards the horizon. The government, he states, built a kuhl from their water source three years ago, but since the construction quality was poor, it didn’t last even for two years. The kuhls are basically diversion channels carrying water from glaciers to villages. They account for more than 80 per cent of the Spiti Valley’s area under irrigation. These structures are prone to damage from snowfall and seldom repaired.
“There are also seepage losses from transporting water through kuhls over long distances. It results in further shrinkage of water supply,” adds the 58-year-old Andak. “The kuhls are a lifeline for these villages. There is a problem of budgetary funds to restore them whenever they suffer damage due to snow,” concedes Manoj Negi, assistant executive engineer at the Irrigation and Public Health Department, Lahaul & Spiti.
As these villages seem to be turning a dark corner, their current state holds portentous implications for the entire Himalayan region. Experts warn that it’s not going to get any better from here on. Water availability is likely going to change drastically for communities that live way above river and streams.
The Himalayas are not for nothing considered as the ‘Water Tower of Asia’. The water emanating from its glaciers and snow feed some of the largest river systems in the continent, including the Ganges, the Indus and the Brahmaputra. Rising temperatures and climate change that’s ongoing is threatening the livelihoods and food security of millions, both in the upstream and downstream. The picture is particularly gloomy for people like Nawang Tandup and Angchuk, living in the higher altitude areas.
“The Himalayas are experiencing a phenomenon called elevation-dependent warming. Basically, it means high altitude areas warming up more than the lower plains, which is also hastening glacier retreat,” explains Arun Bhakta Shrestha, senior climate change specialist at the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, which focuses on the Hindu Kush Himalayan region. “Indigenous mountain communities are becoming vulnerable to water-related natural disasters. Climate change will increase variability in water supply, resulting in more frequent and more intense floods and droughts,” projects Shrestha.
The Spiti Valley’s glaciers are melting at a worryingly fast rate. The reason for it, according to Randhawa, is that most of the basin’s glaciers are small. Also, these are clean glaciers having no debris cover, making them more exposed to solar radiation, promoting faster melting. Irregular snowfall has made things worse. 2015-16 was an especially bad year for Spiti’s farmers, with the valley receiving just around 2.5 feet of snowfall. 2016-17 was relatively better at almost 4 feet, but well below the average annual snowfall of about 7 feet for the region.
Surinder Sharma, scientist-in-charge at the Mountain Agriculture Research and Extension Centre in Sangla (Kinnaur district), believes the situation can be partially retrieved through employing drip irrigation, as opposed to the prevalent flow irrigation system that requires more water and causes soil erosion. Most farmers in these villages also tend to grow the same crop in their fields year after year. “In monoculture farming, there is always the possibility of soil-borne diseases such as root rot, which we are seeing here. With crop rotation, you get better quality of produce and also conserve soil,” he advises.
The water crisis in Spiti is a clear and present danger. But one out of the eight villages in the upper catchment area has already experimented with artificial glaciers to solve its problems.
Kibber has experimented with artificial glaciers to tackle its water problem. But it has turned out to be only a limited success, though. The idea to build an artificial glacier crystallised after an engineer by the name of Sonam Wangchuk – whose life inspired the character of Phunsukh Wangdu in the Aamir Khan-starrer 3 Idiots – set out to solve the water woes of Jammu and Kashmir’s Ladakh region by building a 20-feet tall prototype conical ‘ice stupa’ in 2014. The structure lasted from winter to mid-May, the crucial time when water is required for irrigation.
In 2015, a six-member team from Spiti travelled to Ladakh to emulate the model. The team took samples from the site and built two artificial glaciers nearly 1.5 metres tall each, one at Ninbi Nala and the other at Bandang Nala near Kibber. “We wanted to make it a 6-metre tall glacier and also make check dams, as was done in Ladakh. But there were no funds. Nor did the government release the money it promised,” Phunchok Chhering, a member of the team tells The Indian Express. The 44-year-old, however, claims that at least 60 per cent of households in Kibber got some relief from the two artificial glaciers.
Meanwhile, the district authorities have proposed artificial glaciers for the upper belt villages, with a total budget of Rs 55 lakh that does not include building irrigation canals. Negi informs that a team would be sent to Ladakh for testing the practicality of the model. The Himachal Pradesh State Centre on Climate Change, too, has undertaken a pilot study in Kinnaur’s Pooh village for the past three years, as part of a Rs 90-lakh Ministry of Science and Technology-funded programme. “We have identified some spots upstream of the village at more than 4,000-metres altitude, where ice can be conserved. The water from it can be utilised in peak summers for irrigation and other needs. And these results could be replicated for the Spiti Valley as well,” observes Randhawa.
While the government may have all the right intentions, for people in this picturesque cold desert mountain valley, nothing concrete is visible on the ground. They are still left with a last resort: Fleeing their homes. “We can go on like this, maybe for a generation. But what happens after that? And does anyone care?” asks Andak, the farmer from Komic.
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