Read, Debate: Engage.

"Our life is wasted": On melting glaciers and gender roles

November 21, 2022
topic:Women's rights
tags:#Himalayas, #women's rights, #glaciers, #climate change, #gender equality, #water
by:Haziq Qadri, Qadri Inzamam
Women from across the Himalayas are speaking out against discriminatory gender-roles that place them at the centre of the region's swelling water crisis. But is anyone listening?

Mountain Sultan La towers over the ancient village of Kumik in Ladakh’s Zanskar, a cold desert in northwestern India. The mountain casts a wide shadow as the sun shifts to its other side over the course of the afternoon. In one of the village's 40-plus houses, most of which stand empty, 47-year-old Rigzin Chosdal grabs two 20-litre jerry cans, before heading out and trudging up the mountain.

Passing through a cascade of old mud-houses and a Buddhist prayer wheel, Chosdal finally reaches a monastery. She conducts the mile-long journey with short steps, breathing heavily.

In the summer, she fills the jerry cans from a small pond. In the winter, she has to climb further up the mountain and fills the cans from a different pond or a small pipe fitted beneath the rapidly-receding glacier on the mountain. The water dribbles slowly from the pipe, and it takes over 20 minutes to fill the jerry cans.

After she fills the can, Chosdal straps them onto her back and walks down the mountain, cautious of slippery stones that dot the path.

This has been Chosdal’s routine twice a day for more than two decades.

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. Over four billion people depend on glacial runoffs from these mountains.

But evident changes in the ice fields could adversely impact the lives of the 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.

Women's physical and mental health on the line 

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 ten 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

In Kumik, the impact of glacial retreat is particularly visible. Chosdal’s arduous treks are the result of melting of glaciers in the western Himalayas, which serve as a source of water for millions of people, including those living in regions like Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

But Chosdal is one of millions of women who bear the brunt of the swelling water crisis. 

According to UNICEF, women around the world spend a collective 200 million hours collecting water, and in Asia and Africa, women and girls walk an average of 3.7 miles each day gathering water. 

In a patriarchal society like India's, women are the ones responsible for the household chores, among which is fetching water. 

Chosdal told FairPlanet that her husband rarely helps her carry out this task. "It does not matter if I am sick," she said. "I have to get up every morning, strap these jerry cans and head to the mountain to fetch water."

She says she is hesitant about asking her husband to help her because "it is perceived by everyone that it’s a woman’s job."

"It gets difficult to climb up the mountain in winter because the slopes are icy and slippery," she added, "so there are chances of one falling down." She further shared that during the winter they seldom wash clothes and use "every drop of water carefully."

The women in Kumik do not only fetch water to tend to household needs, but are also responsible for taking the cattle to an artificial pond where they can drink. The villagers have dug a large pit where water from the glacier accumulates and is fed to the cattle. Walking the cattle uphill and back to the sheds is yet another back-breaking task borne solely by women. 

"The men in this village are often out to earn a living," said 30-year-old Tsering Gyalmo, a school teacher in Kumik. "So the responsibility naturally falls on the women."

Carrying jerry cans and buckets of water over long distances generates back and posture problems for women, and Chosdal shared that she is currently on medication due to persistent pain in her joints and back.

"Other women in this village and around have similar problems," she said. 

Making multiple trips up the mountain each day to fetch water also means that the region's women are deprived of an opportunity to make an income, provide quality care for their children or get an education. 

It’s not just the burden of household chores, "but this gender-specific role impacts the health, education and social life of these women," Gyalmo said, adding that women are left shouldering the responsibility of the household and they lose agency in matters where they should have a say.

Gyalmo further said that women in water-scarce areas in Zanskar get little time to engage in self-care. "With the acute crisis, women have little access to clean sanitation. It affects both their physical and mental health."

Acute water shortages increase women's burden

A 2021 study by the American Meteorological Society found that glaciers around the world have continued to recede for the 33rd consecutive year, while a University of Leeds study from the same year states that Himalayan glaciers are receding far more rapidly than glaciers in other parts of the world. 

The authors further found that glaciers in the Himalayas had lost ice 10 times faster than average since the last major glacier expansion between 400 and 700 years ago  - a rate they termed 'exceptional.' 

Three hundred miles southeast of Kumik in Himachal Pradesh, lies a picturesque valley called Spiti, which is also plagued by a water crisis caused by retreating glaciers. 

In Langza village, 26-year-old Nawang Dolma slouches as she walks down a slope, carrying a jerry can on her back. She returns after filling the can with water from a glacier run off over a mile away.

"Once the temperature begins to dip below zero [degree Celsius], the water crisis deepens and we have to walk over a mile multiple times a day to fetch water," Dolma told FairPlanet.

She added that decreased and unseasonal snowfall, warmer summers and air pollution have led to rapid depletion of glaciers. "And it is the women who are facing the real challenge," she said. "We do not get time for ourselves. All we do is fetch water and tend to household chores."

Dolma says she was not able to continue her studies because she had to look after her household. "And imagine trekking four miles every day to fetch water, in the freezing cold, and then doing other chores," she lamented. "Our life is wasted in fetching water."

In Kaza village in the Spiti valley, 50-year-old Tashi Chonszom told FairPlanet that she suffers from pain in feet, back and arms.

"Most of life has gone in climbing these hills to get water," she said. "People are abandoning their homes now because there is no water left. If it were upto me, I would sell everything and live somewhere near water."

Similar to Zanskar, Spiti is facing an acute water shortage, which affects its agriculture, tourism and life in general. And like any other water-scarce region, Spiti’s women suffer disproportionately. 

Alok Sikka, the India Representative of the International Water Management Institute, told FairPlanet that placing the burden of securing water for households on women alone is in "our culture and there is a need to change that."

"The way we treat women needs to change," Sikka emphasized, "and the culture of men doing their bit to fetch and arrange for water in water-scarce regions is the need of the hour."

Sikka said the pipe water supply in rural areas, especially to drought-hit and water-scarce regions, can change the situation for women as "they will not have to walk and climb miles to fetch water then."

“Ensuring water supply to rural areas can lessen the burden on these women," he added, "and that can happen faster than societal changes."

Back in Zanskar, Chosdal said it is difficult to maintain basic hygiene without sufficient water. "How often do you get to bathe in the winter?" FairPlanet asked. Bursting out laughing, she responded, "Who bathes in winters?"

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). 

Images by Qadri Inzamam and Haziq Qadri. 

Article written by:
Haziq Qadri
Qadri Inzamam
Chosdal is one of millions of women who bear the brunt of the swelling water crisis. 
© Qadri Inzamam
Chosdal is one of millions of women who bear the brunt of the swelling water crisis. 
In a patriarchal society like India\'s, women are solely responsible for household chores.
© Qadri Inzamam
In a patriarchal society like India's, women are solely responsible for household chores.
Over four billion people depend on the glacial runoffs from the Hindu Kush and Himalayan mountain ranges.
© Qadri Inzamam
Over four billion people depend on the glacial runoffs from the Hindu Kush and Himalayan mountain ranges.
Call to Action
Help women in India improve their habitats
Support now