How communities in Ladakh survive an intense water crisis despite institutional apathy and critical climate change, by coming together through a culture’s ‘Imaginary of Hope’.
For many of us, the water crisis hasn’t arrived yet- it’s just one we hear about and know is coming some day. But can you imagine waking up every day to check if water has arrived, sleeping every night hoping there will be water tomorrow? Unfortunately for many communities living in the trans-Himalayan landscape of Zanskar, this is an everyday reality.
So, how do the most marginalised and vulnerable communities adapt to a crisis that can change their whole life? What builds their imaginaries of hope while they live amidst isolation, turbulence and neglect? And is adaptation even a possibility for communities living at the fringe of geographical marginalisation and government apathy?
Zanskar – A conflicting reality
The valley of “zangs” (copper in Ladakhi) is a semi-arid mountain desert valley located in the Union Territory of Ladakh sitting at an altitude of 12000 to 15000 feet. Ladakh is the northernmost Union Territory and administrative union of India lying north of the Great Himalayas on the trans-Himalayan range, bordering both China and Pakistan, making it one of the most strategic geographical locations for the country.
The valley is regularly cut off from the rest of the world for almost 6 months due to heavy snow with mercury dipping to almost -30 °C during peak winter. During summers too, accessing this region is in itself a challenge due to shoddy roads and high altitude complications. An extremely cold environment, the region is facing a severe climate crisis with unseasonal increasing temperatures being observed in the last few decades or so. Glaciers are the main source of water in the region, and the increase in temperatures is causing the drying of these vital resources in addition to increasingly erratic precipitation.
For many people from the mainland, this vast cold mountain valley is a place to satisfy their adventure fantasies, and charge their adrenaline thrill. An exotic land adventure to boast of, while sitting in the comfort of concrete structures with access to purified water. For tourism hungry societies, Zanskar has become an adventure activity they sell to mainlanders. For them, it’s a new land of tourism opportunities and business prosperity. It’s also a place that’s at the forefront of the government’s pan India model of infrastructure development overlooking the regional specificities of the region.
But for others, it’s their place of survival. A place that’s culturally and religiously important to them. A place their ancestors built, chiselling through the rocky landscape in a harsh and snowy ruggedmountain terrain with their own hands. A place, which they all proudly call their home.
And a place which is now facing a test of survival due to climate change.
Living amidst climate change and development
A phrase which reverberates across this vast arid mountain desert valley located deep in Ladakh is Chhu med, translated as ‘no water’ in Laddhaki. Being situated in a rain shadow region, the valley receives less than 150 mm of rainfall in a year. The winters are long and harsh with heaps of snow which is their only big source of water during the summers. The valley is cut-off from the rest of the country for about more than six months due to heavy snow, with walking on the frozen Zanskar River their only way out.
In recent years, the whole landscape has undergone a drastic change. Road construction is in full swing across the high Himalayan lands and passes to connect this exotic region with the rest of the country. This has resulted in a steady increase of tourism activities and manual labour work bringing hope of a prosperous future but with that it also brings a sense of fear among the local populace of losing their resources and identity.
Tenzing*, a resident of Padum, the administrative headquarter of Zanskar says, “It’s good that road connectivity is increasing, and tourists are coming so we earn a little, but we face water shortage. If more tourists come how will we give them water”? Another resident of Padum Newang says “I worked in a hotel in Leh. Every hotel there has western toilets. Here we still use the traditional dry toilets as we realise the value of water. We save water wherever we can. But with the increase in tourist inflow here too, people are slowly converting their traditional systems. But if there will be no water how will those western systems work?”
Climate change has become one of the biggest threats for the region and its effects are being witnessed directly by the communities. Glaciers in the valley are receding at an alarming rate; the second largest glacier of Ladakh, located in the Zanskar valley shrunk by 13.84% between 1971 and 2017 (Rashid & Majid, 2018). Snowfall is erratic, springs are drying, but developmental activities are increasing. Global warming is affecting the region also referred to as the ‘third pole’ due to its vast accumulation of snow, with year on year decrease in snowfall and increase in temperature being observed by the communities.
Snowfall is decreasing every year” says Tsondue, “4-6 feet of snow was common; now it’s hardly 2-3 feet”. The snow timeline has also decreased as observed by the village people. “Till April there used to be a lot of snow here, but now there is hardly any snow in March,” says Sonam.
Lobzang Wangtak, a water conservationist and co-founder of Navikarana trust & Zanskar Conservancy Movement, is a resident of the valley and belongs to the indigenous community. He puts his concern out through the various works he is involved in. “This year the people were happy that the roads opened up quite early in the year. Usually the snow clears in about the end of May, but this year since March the roads started opening. This is alarming; this shows how the snowfall is receding. I have seen these big glaciers recede with my own eyes whether it’s the Drang Drung or the Parkachik, they have receded a lot and the recession is visible through the naked eye”.
The communities of Zanskar are a close knit agrarian kinship who have devised indigenous systems to maximise their resource use with community members managing their usages. Along with agriculture, rearing livestock is an integral part of the community culture and livelihoods. The seasonal movement of the herders with their livestock to find greener pastures is very vital for the people as without animals they lose their food supply, their clothing and their shelter. The Zanskari people also have a grave spiritual and religious connection with nature and regard their water sources as sacred grounds and it is believed that every water stream, spring and hill has its own deity. For centuries the people here have relied on the snow melt from mountain tops and glaciers for irrigation and other domestic uses which sustains living in this harsh and remote landscape. But today climate change poses a looming threat not only for the indigeneous people but for the whole agro-pastoral culture of the region.
Various studies have also pointed out that apart from climate change the shrinking of the region’s glaciers is being augmented by black carbon pollution which originates from various industrial facilities like fossil fuel combustion and heavy vehicle pollution. These black particles form a layer over the ice and absorb more surface heat resulting in faster ice melt.
Yet, all across the valley, there are loads of trucks and heavy machinery working at full swing, blasting the rocky terrains, cutting through the rocks and building roads, many a times just a few meters from the glaciers and water bodies. “I am not saying that roads shouldn’t be constructed, but do the people constructing them do any ecosystem study, any hydro-geological assessment of the region or for that matter any scientific study to see whether such development doesn’t lead to any adversities for the communities living here? They will work and go but if the glaciers vanish, if tourists throng this region bringing with them their cars and culture, their pollution and their carbon. Who will pay the price? I fear with all this unplanned development we would become another Manali or Leh” says a concerned native of Padum.
Ironically, the region is also witnessing erratic rainfalls, a new phenomenon for the region, catalysing fear of cloud bursts in a rain shadow region as the rocky terrain does not absorb the rain water and lets it flow downwards. This damages crops, that too in a region where agriculture is already challenging due to water scarcity. For the communities whose life and livelihoods depend on agriculture, surviving the test of time itself is becoming a challenge.
Chhu Med- Surviving the test of time in this harsh landscape
Water is the biggest talking point echoing across the whole landscape. Villages rely on springs for drinking water, discharge of which depends on the snowfall which recharges it. Melting snow from the mountains is also the only source of irrigation for the farms providing water and moisture for farming and pastures for the livestock.
For a long time the community of Kumik village was facing water shortage due to declining snow on the mountain which provides water to the community. In 2018, many residents had to abandon their homes because the village finally ran out of water (Wangtak, 2021). The glacier overlooking their village, which was their only source of water for farming dried up, leaving them with no water for irrigation. The villagers tried to fight and adapt, hiking up to the mountain top to divert water from the adjoining glaciers, building many kilometres long canal on their own to channelize water from the river. Sacrificing their time, their money, their labour and even their life, but all in vain. With no water and no hope of getting water, the villagers had to migrate and settle at a lower land near the river.
Kumik is not the only village that faces serious challenges of survival amidst depleting glaciers and drying of springs. Villagers in Pishu were looking at the same fate as Kumik. In 2018, there was hardly any water for irrigation due to less snowfall and the villagers were looking at a future with no water. That year, they failed to grow any crop and were left at the mercy of the subsidised government ration to meet the food demands, travelling 20 kms to avail that too, leave alone looking at earning anything through agriculture.
As the community was moving towards a situation of no crops, no income, no fodder and in worst case no food, the government came forward after news of the grim situation reached them and gave each family Rs 1000 as a relief amount. “What happens in 1000 rupees, can we survive with this much money? The government doesn’t care for us”. The villagers refuted the relief amount saying that it was equal to one day of travel to Padum and back to get that relief amount.
Livestock were lost due to lack of fodder to feed them for the winter, erasing another income source. Villagers feared that they might have to leave their homeland soon, but the most important loss according to many people would be losing hope. “We don’t want to have the same fate as Kumik,” says Tashi, a resident of Pishu village. “We don’t want to migrate from our homeland that our forefathers built, where we spent our childhood, where I have raised my family. The spirits of our ancestors won’t be happy if we leave. I hope something works out soon, but if there is no water how could we survive?” “Rearing livestock is part of our culture but due to water shortage we have to abandon our animals. This is the gravest sin that we have to commit. We can somehow manage with less water but what about the animals, how can they survive?”
Tshering from Pishu says they are adjusting to the changes in nature and learning to adapt to climate change “but how much can we adapt without any support, how long can we survive without water?”.
“This year the snow melted early so we tilled the land and planted the seeds. Look at the land it’s so green already with moisture and dews but look at the field it’s all dry. We are waiting for the water to come from that mountain top. But there isn’t enough snow there; there isn’t enough water, and if there is no water in the next 10-15 days all our seeds will get dry. There will be no food this year”.
The ‘zing’, a reservoir where the glacier-melt water is collected through the canal that the villagers made up to the ridge of the mountain, is all dried and the earth is breaking. “Without snow there will be no water and without water there will be no food. We will depend on government rations for which we have to travel to Padum or ask our friends and relatives from other villages for help. Even when we have our own farms we have to beg for food”.
The government sanctioned a canal to be made to bring in water from the river back in 2008. It’s been 14 years but it’s yet to be constructed fully. “It’s been damaged more than it’s been constructed. The contractors have made money, the government did the photo-op and since then has neglected us but we are still waiting” says Tshering. “The most important thing is water but the government is busy making roads. The priority of the government should be constructing the canal but it seems that our problem is not their priority. If the canal is made and we have enough water then our elders can die peacefully knowing that their grandchildren wouldn’t suffer as they have” says Choden.
As the climate change augmented water crisis increases experts fear that the smaller villages and communities will be the ones suffering first. Communities like Kumik and Pishu which depend on smaller glaciers would be affected more severely and without any institutional support and no other alternative they will eventually have to migrate or perish. For many villages in the Zanskar valley this is a future reality that’s knocking on their doors. What will then remain – a deserted valley, a lost culture and echoes of despair- chhu med!
Imaginary of Hope
With the climate reality changing so fast, and the institutional neglect of the communities by the people in power, the question then is, how much can communities adapt on their own, and to what scale? More than 25 other villages in Zanskar, nestled on the mountain slopes and valleys rely on the streams that run down from the glaciers. And with the glaciers vanishing, their future doesn’t look promising. Those who have migrated are hopeful that they will not have to suffer again, but, is migration the only possible adaptation for the communities? The situation is grim and living without enough water is a stark reality the communities are living with.
Still, the communities like Pishu cling on to their hope, and surviving in such harsh landscape is what has made them so resilient over the years. They don’t want to lose their belief of a better water future. They don’t want to become another village that was abandoned because nature couldn’t feed them and the democratic structure failed them. They don’t want to become migrants or refugees because of a crisis that they didn’t even play a part in. But, all in all, they don’t want to lose their faith in their ‘imaginary of hope’.
An imaginary where there is enough water for them to irrigate their land, to plant trees, to tend to their kitchen garden, and enough water for them to drink and for their cattle. “We won’t leave the village” says Tenzing, “We would do rituals, make the water spirits happy but we won’t leave the village. This village has faced water issues for a long time, but generations have survived, with people’s hope and efforts”.
Any effort which builds on their faith, firms their belief and gives them hope that things will change, that they just don’t need to survive but live, makes them resilient and strong.
Lobzang is one such person, and his efforts to bring water to the people is what is sustaining the communities’ ‘imaginary of hope’. Belonging to the indigenous community, he sees the changes first hand, and he understands it’s just not human life but a whole indigenous culture which gets affected by any adversity. He feels the pain of his people, understands the importance of indigenous knowledge and knows that hope is something which can make people live. He sees how the changing landscape, rampant construction and unplanned tourism can put serious pressure on the region’s resources, especially water which is scarce, and augment climate change. He knows that to play with the region’s ecosystem is like playing with their lives and livelihoods. But most importantly he knows that if a determined group of community people come together, they can work on solutions for the community’s problems and make people believe in a better future.
Building the imaginary of Hope: Wangtak’s Water and the community
Lobzang Wangtak has been working on climate adaptation techniques since 2014, making artificial glaciers and ice stupas and realises the gravity of the situation unfolding in the region. After working on various adaptive techniques, learning and researching about them, he came up with a unique solution to free the people of Pishu from their water woes.
Wangtak and his friends, through his organisation, Navikarana Trust, worked on lifting the water from the nearby spring in a sustainable way through solar water pumping. Lobzang knows that the most sustainable way is using the resource available and making full use of it. “We have lots of sunlight here; it’s a rain shadow region meaning it has a lot of sunny days. That’s the best source of energy we can tap into”. He says that out of all the adaptive techniques used by the communities, solar pumping is the best solution for this region. “Most of the villages are near to the river, if I have funds we can lift water to the farthest village of the region too”.
In 2021, the village of Pishu finally got water lifted to their village through Wangtak’s intervention and community collaboration. Wangtak’s water is what the village people very happily refer to it as. “Wangtak has done a splendid job” says the nuns at the village nunnery. “If it wasn’t for Wangtak’s water we would have to travel a kilometre to get water even for washing the vegetables”. “It’s because of Wangtak’s water that we can at least grow some vegetables in the kitchen garden,” says Tashi.
Although Lobzang pioneered the whole project with his Trust’s co-founders and friends, Sushant and Kunga, the villagers played their part equally. It was an entire community effort to adapt to a crisis and at least secure their future for the time being. The community carried pipes from the spring to the ‘zing’ (reservoir) that they made, fixed solar panels, and learnt the technique of solar pumping. The water committee, composed of the villagers, still manages the pump and looks after it. “Even though we worked on providing the technology, it was the village people and their determination to fight for their hardships that motivated us and it was only possible because of the community’s grit to adapt to a crisis they are facing” says Lobzang.
Lobzang’s effort and his commitment to fight for the community’s hardships gave people hope. Hope that they can fight to adapt to the crisis, hope that they can work for a better future. It is through people like Lobzang that the communities build up their ‘imaginary of hope’, and as one of the resident of Pishu said, “Wangtak is the yogi who has come to free us of our hardship, if he gets fund we can lift so much water that we can irrigate the whole region”. Around 11 villages of the valley have already contacted Lobzang to work on the water solution for their village. After news of his work reached government agencies, they are now planning to use the same technique to lift water for the villages in the valley. The question still remains – by when?
In Zanskar, no matter how beautiful and surreal the landscape is, no matter how challenging navigating the region is, no matter how back breaking the journey is and no matter how cold, chilly, windy & dusty the weather is, the thing that stands tall is the community. Their life, daily struggles, their resilience and in the midst of all the challenges, it is their “imaginary of hope” which drives these communities to hold out in the face of a looming crisis.
Lobzang knows that the work the communities are doing to adapt is not a permanent solution. People are doing the best that they can do to adapt. But without support and a holistic sustainable approach towards the development of the region, every adaptive effort will just sustain the communities for a limited time. “People have to see that the crisis is real, the signs are so clearly visible. We need to re-imagine the developmental approach for these places, bringing in the local voices, the stakeholders and the communities together to think of a sustainable future or else in no time we will witness the magnitude of the crisis in hand”.
A community to policy approach rather than policy to community approach is what is needed for planning activities in this remote and marginalised region. Voices from the ground need to get the platform where they can most impact decision making. Equal community participation in planning, organising and executing any developmental activity in this region is crucial.
The communities are ready to adapt; they have done so in the past and will do so in the future, all they want is to believe in an imaginary of hope. One thing we all can do is to provide voices and platforms to the communities and people like Lobzang Wangtak and support the work they are doing in any way we can. Their voices need to be heard, their work needed to be shared. They too need an ‘imaginary of hope’ just like they are the community’s ‘imaginary of hope’. Some day these voices will make a difference.
*All names of the respondents have been changed to protect their identity
This article was authored as part of the Grounded Imaginaries project, an Indo-Australian initiative to amplify stories of transformative responses to the climate crisis.