The picturesque traditional Ladakhi houses made of stones, mud and wood are increasingly finding it difficult to sustain themselves. Wooden roofs that were originally designed to stand amid snow now leak through heavy summer rainfalls. Not just the old houses, traditional farming practices are also facing the heat of climatic uncertainty.

“Our villages had never seen this kind of rainfall,” said Yangchan Dolma, a resident of Phyang village in Ladakh region of Kashmir. “The crops that used to grow in abundance like the black pea are endangered while people are growing tomatoes, watermelons.”

A school teacher, Dolma also provides accommodation to travellers at her heritage home-turned-farm-stay, in the hope that the visitors understand the true way of Ladakhi living.

“When I got married and came to this village almost two decades ago, there used to be heavy snowfall every winter,” she said. “Ghutne tak barf hota tha [There used to be snow till knees.] But now, there’s hardly one inch of snow during winters.”

Her complaints are not unfounded.

According to World Weather Online, average rainfall in Ladakh during summers has gone from 30 mm in 2009 to over 140 mm in 2019, while the average number of rainy days has gone up from 8 to 20 in just a decade. Earlier this year, a study on heritage conservation in Ladakh by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works explained how the significant increase in rainfall over the last decade has affected different kinds of heritage structures in the area.

Despite the downpour, the region is battling water scarcity. Last year, Phyang faced its worst drought. “The Phyang glaciers – both Phyang and Leh glaciers are part of the same system, two sides of a mountain – are receding very fast,” explains Manish Adlakha who is leading ground operations at the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives Ladakh as part of its larger environmental conservation drive and is also a part of Himalayan Farm-stays.

“That has created a lot of problems,” he said. “Another thing that is happening all across the Ladakh is evident signs of climate change. Snowfall, the winter precipitation has been decreasing and it has drastically gone down in Ladakh over the last few years. And you have these bouts of heavy rainfall every now and then.”

The gradual surge in summer precipitation was made it imperative to green the upper parts of the mountain to deal with heavy gush of rainwater, Adlakha added. The Himalayan Institute of Alternatives Ladakh has been mobilising locals on sustainable environmental practices through community dialogues as well as leading forestation drives.

Climate change

In any other landscape, rainfall comes as a boon where water will eventually be soaked by the soil making it rich and fertile as well as enriching the water table. Ladakh’s rocky terrain, however, shows no natural mechanism to ingest the rainwater, hence pushes it downwards in the form of a flood.

Despite a comparatively healthy vegetation cover, Phyang has been at the receiving end of floods. “In the last 10 years, the village has [on an average] faced one flood every three year,” said Adlakha.

There are several villages in the region facing erratic weather and subsequent difficulties arising because of them but Phyang’s proximity to Leh city, sudden cases of water scarcity and a drought-like situation make it an ideal choice to showcase water conservation efforts.

The changing temperature has left the villagers – who relied on farming for their personal needs as well as commercial -confused. Rattled, they started using subsidised chemical fertilisers to mitigate the situation. “Our family never relied on chemicals for pest control, primarily because we never had to battle pests,” explained Padma, a resident of Phyang village who runs a farm-stay. But things have changed lately, with changing temperature, there are more insects and pests. She recalled how chemical fertilisers were first introduced in her farms exactly eight summers ago.

The sole source of water, Phyang river stream that joins mighty Indus at Phey, is increasingly being exposed to chemicals due to excessive use of fertilisers in the nearby farms. “When new crops come in, they bring with them their own set of insects and then come chemicals to fight them,” adds Adlakha. The Western toilets here use a septic tank like those in the cities. The problem, however, is that that these structures are rarely leak-proof. Hence, they seep through the land and contaminating the water stream.

Model village Phyang

The traditional practices were conscious of the environment; used dry toilets to keep water usage at bay. But the rising demand due to tourists visiting the village has aggravated water woes. “People here always relied on natural manure which is available in abundance since traditional Ladakhi dry toilets also provide compost. Now, they are building solutions to cater to the need of tourists,” said Chirag Mahajan of Himalayan Farm-stays, a sustainable tourism initiative supported by Himalayan Institute of Alternatives Ladakh.

Though Leh has adapted the city-ways there is still scope in villages that give a true insight into the ecologically low-footprint lifestyle. Credit: Sonam Dorjay, Himalayan Farm-stays

The initiative has been mobilising communities to adapt to ecologically viable practices to mitigate the situation and to promote the true cultural heritage of the region. It also aims at educating the locals on sustainable farming practices and engaging the people travelling in the region to adapt the local culture and traditions. The idea, he elaborates, is to generate alternative livelihood and minimising unskilled migration from traditional villages that have been sustainable for centuries. To become a farm-stay, it is imperative that the villagers stop using chemical fertilisers.

“We offered them a way to be engaged in earning a little bit extra apart from their usual earnings,” added Adlakha. “Also, we said that once you stop using fertiliser in the farms, your farm income will go down initially and we showed them how it can be compensated through tourism.”

Boosting local economy

An octogenarian Ama-ley or mother figure had come to attend a community meeting on the Ice stupa project or water conservation initiative from one of the uppermost mohallas called Murbok, said Adlakha recalling the birth of farm-stays. “It was around three years ago,” he said. “This woman lived alone and had no kin in the village. So when we told her about various conservation techniques, she asked hard-hitting questions – how she was supposed to do it all alone and for whom, given her living family had decided to migrate to cities due to lack of opportunities back home.”

The villages, that already have a thin population, are gradually becoming thinner. Lack of business opportunities, dearth of educational institutions and changing lifestyle are major reasons why people move out and rarely opt to come back. “I do not think that anybody after our generation will take care of our farms, house and animals here,” said Dolma. “There is hardly any incentive.”

Local farm-stays are adapting to organic farming practices to keep the Phyang Nala – the only source of water – clean. Credit: Rama Dwivedi/Mongabay

Leh city has adapted the city-ways but there is still scope in villages that give a true insight into the ecologically low-footprint lifestyle – they don’t take too much from outside and agricultural practices are self-sustainable. “Ladakhis make big houses and they are empty now,” said Adlakha. “So we thought why not convert these houses into accommodation units where tourists can come, live and see how the real Ladakh lives.”

50-year-old Tashi Yangdol said that depending on the income from farm-stays is a risky affair. “There are offseasons and there are down-sides of the business too,” she said. “But there is absolutely no investment.” The initiative also aims at empowering women by giving them a source of income by sharing experiences. The model introduces farm-stay hosts as Ama-leys.

Phyang village, home to 300 odd houses, is inhabited mostly by Buddhists. Their resolve to get an organic village tag is also driven by the gonpa or monastery’s will. In 2016, His Holiness Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche endorsed the charter by Ama-leys to adopt sustainable ways and conserve the environment. The charter urged the farm-stay community to strive to be ambassadors of Ladakhi culture and hospitality for the guests who visit the village.

Fear of ecosystem collapse

The Central government recently did away with the special status awarded to Jammu and Kashmir by abrogating certain provisions of Article 370 of the Indian constitution and bifurcating the State into two Union Territories – Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. By repealing Article 35A, the government also scrapped the special land rights granted to the residents of the region, allowing anybody from outside the territory to purchase land. This was an electoral promise that the Bharatiya Janata Party had made before the 2019 national elections.

Living in an ecologically sensitive area, the people of Ladakh are finding it difficult to reconcile with the new situation

“If outsiders come and settle here in Ladakh, say if some renowned hotel chain comes and starts their business here; they will have to retreat within five years due to critical problem of water scarcity,” said Lobzang Tsewang, a librarian at the Leh’s district library. He emphasised that people coming from outside of Ladakh will have no regards towards environmental conservation and if allowed to buy a piece of land, they will certainly hamper the fragile ecosystem and hence lead to its collapse.

Though people are happy with their new status as they always wanted to distance themselves from Jammu and Kashmir state but their happiness is now shadowed by apprehensions of an uncertain future. They feel that now they have an identity to associate with, however, the tradition, values and natural resources could be jeopardised.

The move to do away with the protection of land ownership is not faring well with the people who strongly feel that the leadership of the region should resist and take moves to safeguard the rights of indigenous people. Earlier, land in Ladakh could not be owned by people from outside the state.

The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, an autonomous Hill Council, administers the Leh district and still has control over the land distribution and buying rights. But experts fear that, under pressure from big businesses and the centre, it might not be able to protect the land rights of its people.

“We would have been happier 10 years ago,” Tsewang Rigzin, a senior journalist from Leh, told Mongabay. “Right now, we have no constitutional safeguard. Anybody from anywhere can buy land here. Just imagine we may end up handing over our cultivable land to some five-star hotels.”

Banners in Leh Bazaar celebrating the Union Territory status for Ladakh. Credit: Rama Dwivedi/Mongabay

Locals fear that with bigger players in the picture, natives will lose their existing business and will not be a part of the region’s thriving travel economy. “People will not just lose their business but they also run the chance of losing their cultivable land,” said Rigzin as he fears indigenous people’s land runs the risk of encroachment in the name of developmental activities.

Unsustainable tourism

Water consumption, especially in Leh, has been on an upswing in recent years due to the soaring number of tourists during summers. There has been a steep rise in the number of big hotels in the region.

“Who would have imagined?” said Lobzang Tsewang. “Ladakhis would never depend on groundwater resources for their everyday chores. But rising demands from tourists along with uncertainty in glacial water supply has pushed people to dig borewells.”

He highlighted that tourists outnumber locals by a huge margin during the summer months and over the past few years the average ratio has been three tourists per local. Depletion of groundwater is already a major issue across India and in water-stressed regions like Ladakh, the stakes are high.

“Leh valley is now barren because of the hoteliers,” said Tsewang while stating that small guest houses, homestays are still sustainable but the bigger ones have stopped caring about the environment. “For example, they exclude small traditional water conservation techniques we have – like dry toilets.”

Further elaborating on the region’s water issue, he said although there has been an evident decrease in glaciers but there is no substantial data to support the loss. “My first posting was in Nubra valley near Khardung La pass in the year 1991-’92,” Tsewang said. “Both sides of the mountain were covered with ice. There used to be a hanging ice bridge, not a feeble one, so thick that people used to get on it. The glacier kept receding through the 1990s and now the bridge is gone. As if it never existed! Instead, there is a huge pile of plastic garbage dump created by the visitors.”

Water is a scarce resource in the area and thus the indigenous communities have developed elaborate social, cultural systems to manage it and ensure its optimal and rightful use.

Sonam Wangchok, the founder and secretary of the Himalayan Cultural Heritage Foundation believes that the move allowing people from outside to settle in Ladakh will indirectly affect the already fragile ecology as well as the traditional values conserving it.

“We are already facing a severe water crunch,” said Wangchok while discussing the churpon system where water distribution in every village is overseen by one person. During their duty period, it is the responsibility of those water captains to ensure that all the fields receive water and that all minor repair and maintenance works are carried out. “I would not say that the region was water-abundant ever but we have had an efficient community system in place. I do believe that practices like such would be hampered if people come from outside, who do not understand these values, are allowed to settle in Ladakh and hence disturbing the environment.”

Loss of identity

The fear amongst locals of losing their identity is precisely the reason why the parliamentarian from Ladakh Jamyang Tsering Namgyal wrote to Indian government’s Minister of Tribal Affairs Arjun Munda urging him to declare Ladakh as a tribal area. Based on Articles 244(2) and 275(1), the sixth schedule (of the Indian constitution) provides for the administration of tribal areas in the states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram after setting up of autonomous district and regional councils.

A traditional old Ladakhi house made of stone, mud and poplar wood in Phyang village. Credit: Rama Dwivedi/Mongabay

“After the Centre announced its decision to make Ladakh a Union Territory, the biggest concern of the tribal population here is to protect their identity, culture, land and economy,” he said at the launch of a nine-day Aadi Mahotsav tribal craft festival in Leh on August 17.

The Indian government at the centre, however, has a different development agenda for the region. Prime Minister Modi, earlier in August, urged big players to invest in Ladakh with an aim to increase employment opportunities for locals. Industrialists like Mukesh Ambani have also indicated development initiatives.

“It is a very crucial time for Ladakhis right now,” said Wangchok while suggesting that dialogue with natives is need of the hour and the onus lies on the shoulders of locally elected representatives. “Everybody is confused about their rights, especially land rights. It is very important to rise above the politics of the state and educate people as most of them do not know what is happening.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.