Leh, Ladakh – Tsering Jorgay, a 40-year-old from the village of Kuri in Indian-administered Kashmir’s Ladakh region, was deep in conversation with Jigmet Norphel, a young engineer from a neighbouring village, and a few other locals. Their debate was over whether to dredge a portion of the Siachen river near their villages or to build more bunds (stone walls held together by fencing) to contain it.
The Siachen river flows through Nubra Valley, where Kuri is located, originating from the Siachen glacier in the north of the valley. Locals say the river has not been itself for the past 20 years.
Every summer, it rages and floods its banks, threatening the villages in its path. According to the latest manual by the District Statistic and Evaluation office in Ladakh, there are 28 villages in Nubra Valley, 23 are on the banks of Siachen river.
“Our surveys show that 20 of these villages with more than 20,000 people are at risk of inundation and their grazing fields being washed away. Ten of them are at extreme risk and have seen instances of flooding,” said the director of Ladakh Ecological Development and Environmental Group (Ledeg), Nordan Otzer. Ledeg is an NGO based in Leh, working on sustainable development of the region.
The Buddhist-dominated Ladakh, with an area of 45,100 sq kms, is the largest district in Indian-administered Kashmir, bordering Pakistan-administered Kashmir to the west and China to the north and east.
Unpredictable Siachen river
Zangpo, one of the residents of Kuri, agrees that the Siachen river has become unpredictable.
“During the summer, it grows wider and wider and takes away our cattle. If we take them to higher altitudes, we lose them to snow leopards. We now don’t have land left for them to graze,” he says.
“We used to have at least 300 cattle ten years ago. Right now, we have only 130,” said 42-year-old Rinchin Norbu, another villager.
Locals have several theories on why the river’s character has changed. “It is surely because of the army camping on the Siachen glacier. So many people out there, no wonder it is melting so fast and causing the river to overflow,” said Jorgay.
However, no independent study has corroborated the belief that army’s presence has influenced the Siachen river.
The Siachen glacier is considered the highest battlefield in the world, with the Indian army and their Pakistani counterparts stationed there throughout the year in freezing conditions. Most locals are hired as porters in the army.
Researchers and experts attribute these changes to climate change, saying that the problems faced by villagers like Zangpo illustrate the far-reaching consequences of the global climate crisis. As temperatures increase, the Siachen glacier melts faster, causing the river downstream to widen.
Temperature rising in Himalayas
Data collected by the India Meteorology Department and analysed by SN Mishra, a researcher from the Indian Air Force, revealed that for the past 35 years, minimum temperatures have been rising by nearly 1 degree C in Ladakh during the winter months and 0.5 degrees C during the summer. The mean minimum temperature during November, December and January – peak winter months – is -7.8C, -12C and -14.2C, respectively.
“Data from 1973 to 2008 shows that there is a clear declining trend in precipitation amount from November to March,” said Mishra. Less precipitation and snowfall closer to summer cause avalanches. Sudden cloud bursts or melting of glaciers add to the Siachen floods.
After much debate with the Kuri administration, a stone flood wall was built in 2014 to contain the river. “But this will not hold for much longer. The river will soon breach. The bunds will simply collapse if the river gets any wider,” says Jigmet, the engineer who works with Ledeg.
“We need to dig to deepen the river bed by at least six feet to contain the water. But this could be expensive,” he added.
The effects of climate change are becoming increasingly apparent in this pristine area, where the slightest variation in weather can cause havoc.
And it is not just the river. Lately, Jorgay says, their village doesn’t get as much snowfall as it once did. “I used to skate to school on wooden planks nailed to plastic pipes. Too bad that my kids can’t even dream of doing that,” he added.
Being on the leeward side of the trans-Himalayan range, Ladakh is cut off from the south-west monsoon. The desert district receives just about 102 mm of precipitation annually. Not only is the total amount of precipitation showing a declining trend, but the timing of it is also changing and scaring locals. November and January receive most snowfall.
Tsering Phunchok, a farmer from Murgi village, which is less than 20km from Kuri, says any snow that falls after January is unstable as it does not have time to freeze before summer sets in. “I am seeing a lot of snow in February and the entire village is scared of avalanches. It can hit us anytime,” the 57-year-old said.
Experts say that unseasonal snow, closer to summer, does not have time to freeze and set in. “Summer sets in by March. Any new snow is at the risk of causing avalanches or flooding,” said Lotus Sonam, the director of the India Meteorological Department in Srinagar, the main city in Indian-administered Kashmir. He is working on techniques for predicting avalanches and flash floods.
Villages like Kuri in Nubra Valley are perhaps some of the most remote parts of the country. To reach them, one has to cross the Khardungla Pass, one of the world’s highest motorable roads – built and maintained by the Indian army.
From dry brown mountains, the landscape changes dramatically with the rising altitude. Slush gives way to sheets of ice encasing the steep road. In the winter, only army vehicles and the rare tourist dare to go on these treacherous roads, all with chains on their tyres for extra traction. The sun reflecting off the white snow can be blinding.
Holistic approach missing
The local administration, while acknowledging changing weather patterns, does not have a holistic approach to climate mitigation and adaptation in the region. Plans to build contour bunds to contain rivers or build artificial glaciers to fight water scarcity are taken up after a disaster or specific complaints from those affected.
“We have started a few water conservation schemes in villages in the northern regions of Ladakh by building ponds that collect and freeze water during winter. During summers, they melt and provide water when there is a shortage,” Sonam Dawa, a top official of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), told Al Jazeera in December.
The Jammu and Kashmir State Action Plan on Climate Change acknowledges the increasing threat of climate change on food security, livestock, life, and infrastructure. “The impacts of extreme climate-induced events (such as cloudburst, enhanced glacial flow, untimely dry and wet days) could result in loss of life, livelihoods, assets, and infrastructure and affect the state’s economic growth and pro-poor initiatives,” the report reads.
The surface area of the Siachen glacier has shrunk from 994.99sq km in 1969 to 932.90sq km in 1989. Between 1989 and 2001, it was reduced by another 2 sq km. Overall, there has been a 21 percent decrease in glacial area in the western Himalayas, according to the state action plan.
Floods raise alarm
“The year 2010 was a landmark year for Ladakh because of the floods. It was a wake-up call for the locals and nature was not viewed in the same light after that,” said the additional deputy commissioner for the LAHDC Moses Kunzang.
In August 2010, a cloudburst saw the Ladakh region receive more than 350 mm of rain, three and a half times its annual rain – in just two days. Rivers overflowed, villages and towns were inundated.
Reports said 234 people died and 800 others went missing, perhaps washed away by raging rivers and waterways.
Four years later, in the summer of 2014, another spell of heavy rainfall affected more than half a million people – most of them in Srinagar. Several media reports said this was perhaps the worst disaster recorded in over 50 years, leaving 280 dead. More than half a million people were trapped in their houses as the city was submerged under 18 feet of water for more than three weeks.
“The government… woke up only after Srinagar was also hit. The state saw the 2010 cloudburst as just a one-off phenomenon and did not put any thought into it after that. However, since 2014, there were several meetings held for better response and handling of natural disasters were put in place. There are still no long-term plans to mitigate the impacts of climate change,” Kunzang added.
In the absence of a government plan, there appears to be no end in sight for the debate in Ladakh over saving the Siachen river, which, for its people, defines their way of life.