Ladakh herders strive to save the future at the climate frontier

KHARNAK, India (AP) — Nomad Tsering Angchuk vows to stay in his remote village in India’s Ladakh region.

His two sons and most of his fellow citizens have migrated to a nearby urban settlement, but Angchuk is determined to keep his herd of cashmere-producing goats in the treeless village of Kharnak, a hauntingly beautiful but unforgiving and cold mountainous desert. .

The 47-year-old raises 800 sheep and goats and a herd of 50 Himalayan yaks in Kharnak. In 2013, he emigrated to Kharnakling, an urban agglomeration on the outskirts of a regional town called Leh, but returned a year later, not because his old home had improved, he said, “but because the urban centers are getting worse and there are only odd jobs for people like us.

Nestled between India, Pakistan and China, Ladakh has faced both territorial disputes and the adverse effects of climate change. The sparsely populated villages in the region have witnessed changing weather conditions that have already altered people’s lives through floods, landslides and droughts.

Thousands of Ladakh nomads, known for their unique way of life in one of the world’s most hostile landscapes, have been at the heart of these changes, compounded by border disputes and dwindling pastures. The changes have forced hundreds of people to migrate to predominantly urban settlements, while others strive to make it a more livable place.

Angchuk’s sons did not return – they do not want to be shepherds, he said – and settled in Leh. One has become a construction contractor and the other works in a travel agency, which is part of the region’s booming tourism industry.

With over 300 days of sunshine, the desert is in the rain shadow of the Himalayas and receives only about 100 millimeters of rainfall annually.

At an elevation of 15,000 feet (4,750 meters), temperatures can drop to minus 35 degrees Celsius (minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit) during the long winter months. But it’s warmer.

There is no word for mosquito in the local Ladakh language, but the region now has many of these insects, said Sonam Wangchuk, an engineer working on sustainable solutions at his Himalayan Institute of Alternative Ladakh.

“These all come with climate viability to them,” he said.

Ladakh’s thousands of glaciers, which help give the rugged region its title as the world’s water tower, are retreating at an alarming rate, threatening water supplies for millions of people.

“This year we have had unprecedented glacier melting,” said Professor Shakil Romshoo, a leading glaciologist and geologist.

Romshoo said his team had been studying seven glaciers in Kashmir and the Ladakh Himalayas for nine years, but “this year shows the maximum ablation”, referring to the amount of snow and ice that has disappeared.

Drung-Drung, the second largest glacier in Ladakh, has melted five meters (197 inches) thick this year, compared to an average of one meter (39 inches) per year in recent years.

Experts say the melting has been exacerbated by an increase in local pollution which has worsened due to the militarization of the region. Black carbon or soot from burning fossil fuels on glaciers absorbs sunlight and contaminates waterways, threatening food, water and energy security in the region.

Pollution is “a huge environmental attack,” said engineer Wangchuk. “Most are due to shelter heating which can be easily replaced with carbon-free heating systems.”

He added that Ladakh today is “probably the densest militarized area where the civilian-soldier ratio is 1:2”.

The ongoing standoff between India and China has seen the deployment of tens of thousands of additional troops to the already militarized region.

“Climate change is global mismanagement while pollution is local mismanagement. We are witnessing the devastating effects of mixing in Ladakh,” Wangchuk said.

“It’s not just any small conflict, it’s much more than that and whoever wins, we all lose.”

Herders say that with access to usual breeding and calving grounds blocked off by the military on either side, newborn goats and sheep are perishing in the extreme cold of the high altitudes.

Shepherds have roamed these pastures atop the roof of the world along the unmarked borders with China for centuries where high winds sprout goats with their super soft wool.

Cashmere takes its name from the contested Kashmir, where artisans weave the wool into fine yarn and exquisite garments that cost up to thousands apiece in a major handicraft export industry.

“None of the other products generate as much income as what they produce and they are the real generators of wealth in Ladakh,” Wangchuk said of the Kharnak nomads. “They are the most precious but they are the most neglected.”

The nomads lead grueling lives and follow a strict round-the-clock routine. They milk and shear their animals twice a day, maintain stone-walled enclosures, weave mats, collect and sun-dry manure for the fire and are cooking. Shepherds also transport their animals from place to place more often than usual in search of greener grazing areas.

But there is almost no health care, school or adequate irrigation system.

“It’s a whole year of work here, no holidays. Even if you are sick, you have to take care of the animals,” said Angchuk, the nomad. “In about ten years, I think there will be no nomads from Kharnak, even if our people will be there. We will be history.

Authorities say they are doing everything they can to stop the nomads from fleeing. Today, the village has solar panels for electricity, government-built prefabricated huts and water taps. Some parts have telecommunication coverage.

But breeders say that’s not enough.

Tundup Namgail, the head of the Leh district sheep department, said that despite all the facilities, the nomads should be “attracted practically, not by romanticizing their lives”.

The “only way to keep them there is to improve their profitability. Make them rich somehow,” he said.

Other solutions are emerging. Ice stupas, an artificial glacier created by villagers and named after a type of sacred Buddhist structure, become an alternative water source.

In winter, villagers store water in the form of cone-shaped piles of ice that sink as the temperature warms.

In the region’s Kulum village, this method partially worked.

Some eight of the 11 families in the farming village migrated to other areas after a catastrophic drought followed deadly floods in 2010 and dried up Kulum’s water.

A decade later, villagers and a team of environmental activists, including Wangchuk, formed an ice stupa in the nearby mountain. Last year, some families returned as a trickle of water from the man-made glacier irrigated some plots of the village field.

Yet experts say flash floods and droughts induced by climate change have disrupted the hydrological system of many villages.

“It’s kind of a blessing in disguise that fewer people are cultivating now,” Wangchuk said. “People who don’t cultivate somehow help those who cultivate by making available the little water that comes now.”

Kharnak shepherd Paljor Tundup, however, fears he is the last generation of herders in the region.

“Our children don’t want this life,” he said, picking up a skein of yarn to pass to his daughter who was weaving a rug nearby. “Honestly, we also don’t have much to argue with them in favor of this kind of life.”

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Follow Aijaz Hussain on Twitter at twitter.com/hussain_aijaz

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The Associated Press’s climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. Learn more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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