Climate change stripping Ladakh of its very identity

Traditionally, houses in Ladakh have had a wooden roof, built to withstand heavy snowfall. However, the receding glacial snow, unusually heavy rainfall, floods and changing weather patterns have significantly changed the lifestyle of the residents of the arid desert of Ladakh
Representational Photo
Representational Photo

Blame global warming, and Ladakh is one of those placeswhere its more evident than elsewhere. Extending from the Siachen glacier tothe Himalayas, the picturesque region evokes mental imagery of Buddhistarchitecture and snow-laden surroundings. Now, both have begun to disappear.

Climate change is costing the region its identity in moreways than one. Wooden roofing of buildings is increasingly making way forconcrete ones to cope with heavy rainfall. Downpours, which used to be alien tothe area, have been destroying Buddhist paintings and carvings in monasteries.Add to that the standard casualty of climate change: dwindling water resourcesand agriculture.

Traditionally, houses in Ladakh have had a wooden roof,built to withstand heavy snowfall. However, the receding glacial snow,unusually heavy rainfall, floods and changing weather patterns havesignificantly changed the lifestyle of the residents of the arid desert ofLadakh, the north Indian city bordering Pakistan and China.

To accommodate severe weather conditions, the conventionalstructures are now being renovated and modified into concrete spaces. The oldwooden structures are unable to withstand the heavy rainfall Ladakh has beenwitnessing over the last few years.

Earlier, roofs in Ladakh were made of wood, stone and clayto withstand extreme snowfall. Such roofs are inadequate to protect in case ofheavy rain. Residents are now forced to use the more expensive tin or concreteto cover their homes.

Owing to the rapid climate change, the region's culture isalso under siege. Paintings and carvings in Buddhist monasteries that dot thecold region have been ruined because of seepage of incessant rains during thelast few years.

A study on heritage conservation in Ladakh by the AmericanInstitute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works explained how thissignificant increase in rainfall over the last decade has affected differentkinds of heritage structures. "The region is now experiencing short butheavy downpours that the traditional mud structures are not equipped towithstand," the report noted.

The paper also discussed how old structures are facingextreme water seepage, which has caused both internal and external damage. Thestudy also added that in the long run, melting glaciers from the Himalayan andKarakoram mountain ranges threaten these heritage structures.

Fear of floods:

Several theories have been put forward regarding the suddenclimate change in Ladakh; locals, however, believe the government's green drivein the 90s-where thousands of trees were planted across the region-could bebehind the unusually high rainfall. Since the late 90s, the Army and othergovernment agencies spent lakhs on the desert development programme forafforestation in Ladakh, planting trees like willow and other fruit-bearingplants to increase the green cover in the arid desert. However, there are noscientific studies to prove this claim.

Less snowfall and heavy rainfall is a major cause of concernfor locals who say they have never witnessed such erratic climatic conditions.In 2010, flash floods shook the city of Leh where more than 200 people died andthousands lost their valuables and homes.

Rinchen Dorje, 62, a government teacher from Leh, changedhis traditional wooden structure to concrete a couple of years after retirementto escape from the damage that rains cause almost every year. His house waspartially destroyed in 2010 flash floods. "Fear of rain and floods isstill fresh in our minds," he said.

Iqbal Bijal, President of Society for KnowledgeImprovisation Through Promoting Opportunities, an NGO working for the uplift ofthe poor in Ladakh, said there were times when the region would witness norainfall throughout the year. "This is a phenomenon we started witnessingafter 2002," he added.

Farmers have been significantly affected by climate change.Fruit farmers in Ladakh usually grow apricot while the others principally growbarley, wheat and paddy. They claim their crop and fruits now taste differentas the increase in temperature reduces the time they take to ripen.

Tsering Nobru, a farmer from Choglamsar village in Leh,informed that apricots would ripen by mid-August in Ladakh earlier but nowripening happens much earlier in the month. "While early ripening of fruitis better for farmers, the problem arises when trees bear fewer fruits,"he said.

Bijal said the traditional forms of food storage have beenaffected by the rain as well. Ladakhis originally stored cheese and other fooditems in wooden basements for preservation during the five months of harshwinter. However, with rainwater seeping in, they've had to shift to moreexpensive forms of storage. Tin or concrete roofs are also now a necessity forfarmers, as compared to the traditional wood or clay ones that are unable towithstand heavy rain. After harvest, apricots are put out to shrivel, and theseroofs help keep fruit dry during the rainy season.

While heavy rainfall brings its own set of problems, lessersnowfall in the region has also affected residents in Ladakh. Farmers facesevere water scarcity, and residents including hotel and guesthouse owners havebeen forced to consider alternative methods. They now drill their own borewellsto procure groundwater for the large number of tourists who visit the regionevery year from around the world.

Slowly but surely, Ladakh is changing.

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