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An ancient Himalayan village empties as glaciers vanish

March 17, 2022
topics: Climate Change
by: Inzamam ul Ahad
located in: India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Nepal, Myanmar, Pakistan
tags: climate migration, glaciers, global-warming, Himalayas, India, kumik, water security, World Water Day

In India's ancient villages at the foot of the Hindu-Kush Himalayas, people are abandoning their ancestral homes as water scarcity, caused by disappearing glaciers, poses a question on their survival.

At noon, it is difficult to see without squinting one’s eyes as the sun shines over the snowy landscape of Kumik, one of the oldest and most remote villages in northern India. Located in the Zanskar region of the newly-crafted Union Territory of Ladakh, the village sits on the hem of glaciers that are now gradually receding, revealing the bare dusky surface.

Tsering Dorjey, in his mid-80s, sits in a chair outside of his whitewashed mudhouse, humming hymns, almost inaudibly. Dorjey's home is one of the 40 houses that cascade down a hill. Those houses have been abandoned and deserted for years. Atop of the hill, one can see the barren fields, dried-up canals and sparse vegetation, signalling the decline of life in Kumik.

The elders of the village, like Dorjey, say that Kumik used to be surrounded by thick, ice-coated mountains. In springtime, the snowmelt flowed through Kumikthu, a stream slithering through the Kumik, irrigating its fields and tending to the sparse households. 

But for many years, the village of Kumik has been struggling due to an increasing water scarcity as the glaciers have begun to recede. The region used to witness snowfall as deep as three metres, which offered sufficient moisture for soil to grow barley and acted as the main source of water. However, since the glaciers started retreating, snowfall fell to less than a metre, which in turn led to a reduction in the supply of irrigation water.

This water scarcity has forced many inhabitants to migrate to the new village of Lower Kumik. Over 20 families - half of the village’s population - have already relocated, leaving behind their ancestral land and homes. A 2019 report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development stated that at least a third of the huge ice fields in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya mountains could melt due to climate change by the end of this century, potentially bringing massive floods to countries nearby. 

The Hindu Kush-Himalaya sprawls over 3,500 kilometres, spanning through eight countries - Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, Myanmar and Pakistan. These mountain ranges are sources for 10 major rivers in Asia that tend to the needs of over 4 billion people. Changes in the ice fields could have an impact on many households.

The problem is getting worse. A study published by the American Meteorological Society in August 2021 stated that the glaciers around the world have continued to recede for the 33rd consecutive year. Another study, led by the University of Leeds, stated that the Himalayan glaciers are receding far more rapidly than glaciers in other parts of the world. They termed the rate of loss of glaciers as “exceptional.” The study also revealed that, over the last few decades, the Himalayan glaciers have lost ice 10 times faster than on average since the Little Ice Age - the last major glacier expansion between 400 and 700 years ago.

Rapid warming

Kumik is on the frontline witnessing the drastic impacts of climate change.

Dorjey tells FairPlanet that less snowfall and warm springs have led to the rapid recession of glaciers, causing acute water shortages and forcing many out of the village. 

"I have lived all my life here. As a child, I have seen these mountains glistening with snow and these fields lush green in spring. I remember the bustle this village once witnessed," Dorjey says.

What once used to be green has turned barren and brown, the stream has dried up and there are fewer places where cattle can graze. 

Like many other families, Dorjey says, he is also planning on migrating to the Lower Kumik. "In old age, it is tormenting to leave behind the home where I grew up in - but what choices do we have?" Dorjey says.

In winters, Kumik records temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius. The snowfall also shuts down the road linking the village to the rest of the world. Dorjey and many others are waiting for summer to come so that, as the temperature rises, they can pack their belongings and shift to another place where they can grow vegetables and crops and have access to water. 

Lack of government support

Villagers are restarting their lives from scratch in Lower Kumik on government-allocated land. Lower Kumik is close to the Zanskar river. In the early 2000s, the villagers dug a seven kilometre-long canal from the Lugnak river, channelling water to Lower Kumik to irrigate their lands: it took them six years. The villagers said they carved the canal themselves without any help from the government. 

50 year-old Tashi Stobdan, who migrated to the Lower Kumik over a decade ago, tells FairPlanet that for many winters, Kumik witnessed less snowfall and warmer summers, causing the rapid retreat of snowline on glaciers.  

"When Kumikthu dried up, some people from our village went up to the mountains to see what had happened. They saw the snow cover had vanished from the mountain, leaving the hard rock surface bare. The water that trickled from the remnant glacier flowed in another direction," Stobdan says.

He says they could not divert the water towards their village. "It is at a very high altitude and this mission requires a lot of money and manpower. We could not do it on our own without the government's help," he adds.

As a result, the villagers stopped growing any vegetables and the cattle died because they had no vegetation to graze. Dorjey said he and many others tried to dig a canal from the glaciers to channel the water to their village. "But it did not help. I injured my spinal cord instead. But the water did not come," he says.

Kumik is not the only village that faces serious challenges of survival. Almost 25 other villages in Zanskar, hemming the mountain slopes, rely on the torrent that dribbles from the glaciers. The entire region of Ladakh is a cold desert, receiving an annual rainfall of 10 cm. As such, growing crops is a challenge in areas hit by water scarcity. Those who have migrated are hopeful that they will not have to suffer again. Stobdan says they are adjusting to the changes in nature and learning to adapt to climate change. 

Poverty limits geographical mobility

Almost half of Kumik’s population has stayed in the village. While Dorjey and other households are waiting for the advent of the summer to migrate - even if that would cost them abandoning their ancestral village and an ancient way of life - many families cannot afford to migrate. 

52 year-old Tsering Motup sits by the window of his mudhouse, overlooking his neighbourhood that cascades down a hill. Some of his neighbours have left and others will soon abandon their homes too. "I cannot migrate. It takes a lot of effort and money to rebuild everything from scratch," Motup says.

Motup says he too would have migrated and built a house in Lower Kumik or elsewhere, but his financial condition restrains him. "It is a lot of money. This village is one of the poorest in Zanskar. Unless someone else helps us out, we will not migrate," he says.

Image by Black Zero via Wikimedia Commons

Article written by:
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Inzamam ul Ahad
Author
India Afghanistan Bangladesh Bhutan China Nepal Myanmar Pakistan
For many years, the village of Kumik has been struggling due to an increasing water scarcity as the glaciers have begun to recede.
© Tonnaja via GettyImages
Snow cover is shrinking, glaciers are melting, the monsoon season changing and permafrost is at risk, all with drastic consequences for a region whose ice fields hold the largest freshwater reserves outside the poles.
© Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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