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Ladakh's Farmers Forced to Adapt to Changing Climate

A devastating flood in August destroyed 70% of irrigation network vital to agriculture in dry mountain region

by Athar Parvaiz,

Nov 21, 2010

The that struck the normally arid desert of , north-west India, in August has multiplied the worries of local farmers, already struggling with water shortages and harsh climatic conditions. Flashfloods and mudslides killed 233 people and damaged 14.2 square kilometres of agricultural land. 

Tucked high up in the western Himalayas, Ladakh is a sparsely populated, rugged desert where people struggle to turn barren and parched soil into cultivable land. The soil of Ladakh is not fertile and absorbs little water. Average rainfall is only 50 to 70 millimetres a year.

In these adverse conditions, farming is an unenviable task, but diligent farmers, with support from NGOs, have created an irrigation network covering 50 square kilometres of agricultural land in Ladakh. This allows them to live off the land, against the odds.

But nothing prepared farmers for August’s weather events.  

Unprecedented cloudbursts triggered flash floods, which in turn deposited thick layers of debris on the agricultural land and destroyed over 70% of the irrigation network built up by the farmers over years of hard work.

“Crops can only be cultivated on this land after the flood debris is cleared and the top soil is exposed,” said Lobzang Tsultim, director of local NGO . “Obviously, the farmers can’t clear this debris manually, they need JCB machines, which the government and NGOs need to provide to them.”

According to Tsultim, the government and non-profit groups are making no effort to restore the damaged land, on which the farmers’ livelihoods depend, to its original state. Apart from tourism, farming is the main occupation of people in district. An average farmer makes up to US$1000 (6,680 yuan) every year by selling crops like barley, potatoes, wheat and other products to the Indian army. 

Shifting Climate

The recent floods have intensified local people’s fears about the shifting climate. They are unable to decipher or explain the erratic weather patterns, but have no doubts that conditions are changing.

“Glaciers are receding rapidly and the winters are getting shorter and warmer. The snowfall which we do get, melts quickly,” said Tashi Namgiyal, a farmer. He added that the popular “”, a crossing local Tibetans have made for generations during winter, when the surface – part of the Indus watershed – freezes solid, is now possible only for two months. It was previously possible from December to March.

“We are now seeing pests in upper villages that used to be found only in villages lying lower,” he added, pointing out other signs of changing conditions. “We are also witnessing shifts in sowing and harvesting of barley.

Surviving Earth

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