Ladakh is often called an “Arid desert” as it falls in “rain shadow zone”. The main sources of irrigation are perennial rivers with fairly large drainage basins and streams originating from higher contours in funnel shaped valleys with drainage basins/ catchments confined within spurs. While gravity canals taking off from rivers irrigate moderate to low lying land along river valleys, small water channels known as “khul” in revenue parlance taking off from streams irrigate land on higher contours in valley settlements.
Till recent past, Ladakh used to be pollution free and heavy to moderate snowfall through winter ensured availability of water for irrigation as also recharge aquifers and replenish glaciers. Life thus sustained through millennia till global warming due to rapid industrialization and local pollution due to emissions from fossil fuel had a profound effect on the fragile ecosystem of Ladakh leading to receding of snowline, depleting glaciers and drying up of springs. Although the effects are all round, some hard evidence of glaciers receding/ shrinking at an alarming rate would make planners sit up & take notice:
Meteorological data reveal that rate & spread of snowfall have decreased over the years and average temperature have increased accelerating rate of melting, thus causing gradual depletion & shrinking of glaciers. It also had a profound effect on recharging of underground aquifers, which is noticeable from gradual decrease in flow of streams and springs.
A recent report on “Assessment of climate change over Indian region” by Union Ministry Of Earth Sciences have concluded that Hindukush Himalayas has warmed @ 0.2 degree per decade during last 70 years, leading to decline in snow cover & glaciers.
Signs of springs drying up are evident from recent social media posts by concerned citizens. A resident of Gompa village in upper Leh posted a picture of dried up “Spang” (a lush green patch fed by spring), where animals graze & wanted to know the cause. Indian Express recently published an article on village Kulum near Upshi in Leh district, where villagers, unable to carry out traditional agrarian practices due to drying up of spring, were forced to abandon village due to water scarcity in 2012. They returned only when “Ice Stupa’s” were built to conserve winter flow in shape of ice, providing much needed water at time of sowing. The Article goes on to warn that with increasing average temperature and shrinking glaciers, several villages in Ladakh have imminent danger of turning into ghost towns.
In Leh District scarcity of water for irrigation in near future are likely to be felt mainly in Leh town & villages on higher contours (Pho) located along southern foothills of Khardongla-Changla axis from village Shara to village Umla and beyond. In Kargil district, villages lying between river Indus and Wakha nallah dependent on seasonal snow including Soth area, villages in upper Phokhar-Pho nallah and upper reaches of Kargil Town, to cite a few, face frequent draught when snowfall is less as glaciers feeding these streams have almost vanished. There may be many more villages facing similar situation of water scarcity in both Districts, which may have escaped my notice.
Though there are many brilliant minds in Ladakh, who can suggest better solutions/ alternatives to mitigate adverse effect of global warming & climate change on the fragile ecology of Ladakh, yet I thought it my bounden duty to put forth some suggestions from an Engineers point of view for further discussion amongst all stake holders:-
History is replete with instances where civilizations have thrived on dependable irrigation system and also of civilizations, which perished only because of failed irrigation systems – be it natural or manmade. It is an irony that although Ladakh & particularly Leh District have vast tracks of barren land on either side of river Indus, yet only a fraction of this natural resource has been utilized for irrigation. One of the reasons for this could be economic prosperity, which tourism brought to the region in last three decades. However, the recent pandemic has proved how fragile this economic prosperity is. Also, with a large number of educated youth competing for a limited number of jobs, the prospect of employment to all appears bleak. Here, I’m reminded of an ancient Ladakhi proverb, “Mee boubs na saa hRthan”; roughly meaning – “draw sustenance from land, when other means is beyond endurance.” It is therefore incumbent on all stake holders to reflect and strive to harness sustainable livelihood from natural resources of “Water, land & sun”.
The upside of rise in temperature has increased the prospects of diversification in cultivation by way of organic cash crops like variety of vegetables & fruits. Coupled with mechanised farming & introduction of Atmospheric Controlled Storage, farming as a profession can be economically viable and is likely to attract educated youth. It is high time that UT administration, LAHDC’s Leh & Kargil, planners and civil society come together to make tangible efforts to address the long term effect of climate change on irrigation prospects and think of out of box solutions to not only protect the existing irrigated land, but also create additional potential of irrigable land. The additional resources made available to UT are best utilized to harness natural resources of Ladakh for sustainable development.
Er. Nazir Ahmad is Member (Hon) J&K Environment Impact Assessment Authority,
(Formerly State Information Commissioner/ Chief Engineer (Rtd) PWD J&K)