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Himalayan water stress boosts sustainable agriculture

December 14, 2022
topic:Climate Change
tags:#Himalayas, #India, #glaciers, #water crisis, #food security, #Sustainable Agriculture
by:Qadri Inzamam, Haziq Qadri
As climate change and glacial retreat spawn overlapping crises in the Himalayas, including water scarcity, food insecurity and rising poverty, locals turn to community-based methods of adaptation.

On a Saturday afternoon in October, Kaza’s arid landscape wore a desolate look. The sparse households sounded quiet. The shadows of the surrounding mountains grew darker as the evening inched closer and the temperature neared the freezing point.

In a small cafe, Nawang Dhargey, 31, sat idle as he waited in anticipation for a customer to walk in. Dhargey’s livelihood relies on the footfall of tourists. But in this season, when the mercury dips as low as minus 10 degrees Celsius, Dhargey’s cafe remains mostly empty. His other source of income used to be farming, but now that too has taken a hit, as Kaza and dozens of other villages in Spiti Valley are plagued by water scarcity. 

Kaza is one of several remote villages in Spiti Valley, which is located in India’s northern state of Himachal Pradesh. This region remains dry throughout the summer, and receives little rainfall, mostly in the form of drizzle. 

The glacial runoffs from the Hindu Kush and Himalayan mountain ranges that stretch from Afghanistan to China, also referred to as the Third Pole, feed Asia’s key rivers, which provide water for drinking, irrigation and hydroelectric energy for over four billion people. A 2019 research found that around 129 million farmers depend on meltwater from the Himalayan glaciers for their crop production and livelihoods. 

Studies, as well as glaciologists, suggest that the low-altitude glaciers in Spiti Valley are receding at a rate of one meter a year. In addition, the region has witnessed a decline in snowfall over the past few years. According to a report by the State Centre on Climate Change Shimla and the Space Application Centre of the Indian Space Research Organisation in Ahmedabad, the total area under snow cover in the entire state has declined by 18.5 percent between 2019-20 and 2020-21.

The state also received only 59 millimeters of rain in the last season, which is 69 percent less than usual, according to the Meteorological Department. According to a study conducted by the non-governmental organisation Navikarana, 23 villages in Zanskar are facing drought-like situations.

But evident changes in the ice fields could adversely impact the lives of people dependent on these water sources, with several studies indicating that a rising concentration of black carbon aerosol is causing the glaciers in this Himalayan region to melt rapidly.

Water scarcity

Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy of the state, and provides direct employment to about 70 percent of its population, according to the government.

Snow-melt from mountains and glaciers is the only major source of irrigation for farmers in the Spiti Valley, and water resources in Himachal Pradesh are primarily in the form of glaciers and rivers. The region's five major river systems are fed by around 800 glaciers in the Himalayas.

With less snowfall, receding glaciers and attendant water shortage, thousands of farmers like Dhargey are incurring heavy losses every year. "In the previous season, I incurred losses of around 2 lakh INR. My land has become barren," Dhargey told FairPlanet. "There is [less] snowfall and the irrigation channels have dried up as well." 

Unlike other regions of Himachal Pradesh, this cold desert remains dry during the Monsoon season. Even during the crop sowing season, the Valley receives scanty rainfall. According to the official data, between 1 June and 28 August this year, Lahaul and Spiti received an actual rainfall of 107 millimeters against the state’s average rainfall of 569 mm. 

As the water crisis worsens every year, farmers in Spiti Valley can only grow crops on half of their land. "We cannot irrigate the entire field. There is little water for everyone," added Dhargey.

In the past, snowfall would begin in November and by March there would be cover as high as 8 feet. This snow would melt from March - the time of sowing crops - and irrigate the lands. The region now receives heavy snowfall in late winter, the time when the temperature is higher. 

"There were no crops this year and there is no hope for the next season as well," said Chhering Angroo, a 39-year-old businessman in Spiti’s Langza village who says he incurred losses of 1 lakh INR this year because of the loss of crops.

In order to harness the snow melt and channel that to the fields, locals in Spiti Valley had Kuhls (irrigation channels) constructed alongside mountains. However, over the past several years, these irrigation channels have also begun to run dry.

"There is less snowfall, warmer winters, glaciers have disappeared, and Kuhls and springs have dried up," said Angroo. "If things continue like this, we will have to give up these lands and find some other livelihood."

A 2019 study reveals that glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, which contains the world’s third-largest glacial ice cap and is home to 10 major river basins and mountain peaks, such as Mount Everest, could lose more than a third of their volume by the end of the century even if world nations meet their most ambitious climate targets.

Three hundred miles from Spiti lies Zanskar Valley, another arid region, also referred to as the Cold Desert because of its harsh climatic conditions. People in Zanskar also face a similar crisis of water scarcity and disappearing glaciers, and its  consequences are equally as palpable.

Fifty-year-old Thukjay Peldan from Zanskar’s Kumik village told FairPlanet he has seen his village suffer from water shortage since his childhood. Kumik is one of the villages hit worst by climate change and glacial retreat

Most of the agricultural land in Kumik remains barren. Peldan says he and his neighbours sowed crops in fewer portions of their fields this year because of water scarcity triggered by disappearing glaciers. 

Kumik lies on the foothills of Sultan La mountain, which used to be under snow cover perennially. "Now it lies naked. The temperature has risen and snowfall is less than before," Peldan said.

The agricultural land in Kumik feeds from the snowmelt from mountain Sultan La. Erratic and infrequent snowfall coupled with shorter winters has caused the glacier to recede. Consequently, the water that used to trickle down the mountain to moist the lands has become scarce.

Climate adaptation

Many villagers from the region are now migrating to other areas with better accessibility to water. 

Half of the Kumik village has been abandoned. After water sources dried up in the village, the villagers shifted to a plain area, around 2 miles downhill, and settled there. This new village was named Lower Kumik; there, the government has allocated each Kumik villager a portion of land to build houses and cultivate crops on. 

The villagers, with some assistance from the administration, dug a six mile-long canal from the Zanskar river in order to divert water to their newly-habited village. The efforts that took them over seven years have resulted in the possibility of growing crops.

But not all the villages have an alternative. In the neighbouring Pishu village, the situation is worse, as water sources have vanished and agricultural lands have become barren. Dust swirls around Pishu and the whole village seems desolate.

Lobzang Wangtak, a Ladakh-based glacier and water conservationist, told FairPlanet that in villages like Pishu solar energy can be tapped to harness water from the river.

"The scenario in Pishu is apocalyptic. In the context of Zanskar, more than 90 villages are along the river," said Wangtak. "There is an abundance of solar energy that can be used to lift water from rivers to irrigate lands."

Wangtak said that adaptation is the way to deal with the harsh reality of changing climatic conditions, and pointed out that some communities in Zanskar are coming up with homegrown solutions to tackle the water crisis.

Most of the villages in Zanskar face water scarcity in the initial period of sowing and cultivation because there is not enough snowfall. "So if the village has a water source, whether it's a stream or a spring, there's little water that actually flows and seeps into the ground or flows down to the river during the winters," Wangtak added.

Wangtak and his team came up with the idea of creating artificial glaciers by building check-dams at a higher altitude from the village but lower than the glaciers in order to break the velocity of the water that flows from the mountains. This helps water spread across more surface area to make it freeze quickly in autumn and winter.

The water is stocked in the form of ice during autumn and winter. During the early spring, when the temperature begins to rise, the water melts and fulfils the needs of the farmers during the first irrigation period. 

"This was a very proven and successful project that was carried on in some villages in Zanskar like Stongde," Wangtak said. "But then it was not replicable to other villages, because not every terrain is similar."

Another approach is to make ice stupas by freezing the stream water vertically in the form of tall ice cones.

But Wangtak is concerned about the sustainability of these solutions, saying that villages in the Himalayas are not dependent on large masses of glaciers but are rather fed by traditional glaciers, which are much smaller in size. 

"I see both these techniques - ice stupas and artificial glaciers -  as cosmetic measures," he said. "Most of these villages will not have a water source in another four or five years at the current rate of glacier depletion. So if you don't have a glacier, then you won't have the stream to build an ice stupa or artificial glacier. Next generation climate adaptation should be more farsighted."

In Spiti, the government has introduced a new scheme titled PM-KUSUM "with a view to provide assured irrigation to crops [and] enhance the production and productivity where electricity accessibility in remote areas is costly in comparison to solar power vehicle pumps."

Officials stated that under this scheme over 80 percent of farmers will be offered assistance in installing solar pumping. 

Rohin Kumar, a senior agriculture campaigner at Greenpeace India, told FairPlanet that the solution to agricultural challenges in Ladakh lies in decentralising the agricultural practices.

"That means growing not only for commercial needs, but also growing for the people itself," he added. "Community-driven agriculture practices must be encouraged in Ladakh, and also the indigenous practices and the traditional ways of conserving water need to be revived."

Qadri Inzamam reported from Ladakh’s Zanskar region and Haziq Qadri reported from Spiti, Himachal Pradesh with the support of the Environmental Reporting Collective (ERC). 

Image by Qadri Inzamam and Haziq Qadri. 

Article written by:
Qadri Inzamam
Haziq Qadri
Kaza is one of the remote villages in Spiti Valley, located in India’s northern state of Himachal Pradesh.
© Qadri Inzamam and Haziq Qadri
Kaza is one of the remote villages in Spiti Valley, located in India’s northern state of Himachal Pradesh.
Nawang Dhargey´s, 31.
© Qadri Inzamam and Haziq Qadri
Nawang Dhargey´s, 31.
Wangtak and his team came up with the idea of artificial glaciers.
© Lobzang Wangtak
Wangtak and his team came up with the idea of artificial glaciers.
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