Nomad Tsering Angchuk vows to stay in his remote village in India’s Ladakh region.
His two sons and most of his villagers have moved to a nearby urban settlement, but Angchuk is determined to herd his herd of fine cashmere-producing goats in the treeless village of Kharnak, a hauntingly beautiful but unforgiving, cold mountain desert.
The 47-year-old keeps 800 sheep and goats and a flock of 50 Himalayan yaks in Kharnak.
In 2013, he moved to Kharnakling, an urban settlement on the outskirts of a regional town called Leh, but returned a year later, not because his old home had improved, he said, “but because the urban centers are deteriorating. they are just menial jobs for people like us”.
Nestled between India, Pakistan and China, Ladakh has faced both territorial disputes and the harsh effects of climate change.
Sparsely populated villages in the region have witnessed changing weather patterns that have already changed people’s lives through floods, landslides and drought.
Ladakh’s thousands of nomads, known for their unique lifestyle in one of the world’s most hostile landscapes, have been at the heart of these changes, fueled by border conflicts and shrinking pastures. The changes have forced hundreds of people to migrate to mostly urban settlements, while others are working to make them a more livable place.
Angchuk’s sons did not return—they did not want to be shepherds, he said—and settled in Leh. One became a construction contractor and the other works in a travel agency, which is part of the developing tourism industry in the region.
With more than 300 days of sunshine, the desert is in the rain shadows of the Himalayas and receives only about 100 mm of rainfall per year.
At an altitude of 15,000 feet (4,750 m), temperatures can drop as low as -35 °C during the long winter months. But it’s getting warmer.
There is no word for mosquitoes in the local language of Ladakh, but the region now has many of the insects, said Sonam Wangchuk, an engineer working on sustainability solutions at his Himalayan Institute of Alternative Ladakh.
“They all come down to climate viability,” he said.
Thousands of glaciers in Ladakh, which help give the rugged region the title of one of the world’s water towers, are retreating at an alarming rate, threatening water supplies for millions of people.
“We have had unprecedented melting of glaciers this year,” said Professor Shakil Romshoo, a leading glaciologist and earth scientist.
Romshoo said his team studied seven glaciers in the Kashmir and Ladakh Himalayas for nine years, but “this year shows maximum ablation,” referring to the amount of snow and ice that has disappeared.
Drung-Drung, Ladakh’s second largest glacier, has melted 5 m (197 in) of its thickness this year, compared to an average of 1 m (39 in) per year in the past few years.
The melting, experts say, has exacerbated a rise in local pollution that has worsened due to the militarization of the region. Black carbon, or soot from burning fossil fuels on glaciers, absorbs sunlight and contaminates waterways, threatening food, water and energy security in the region.
The pollution is a “huge blow to the environment,” said engineer Wangchuk.
“Most of this is due to heating shelters, which can easily be replaced with carbon-free heating systems.”
He added that today’s Ladakh is “probably the most densely militarized zone where the ratio of civilians to soldiers is 1:2”.
The ongoing standoff between India and China has seen the deployment of tens of thousands more troops to the already militarized region.
“Climate change is global mismanagement, while pollution is local mismanagement. We are witnessing the devastating effects of the mixture in Ladakh,” Wangchuk said.
“It’s not just a small conflict, it’s much more than that, and whoever wins, we all lose.
Herders say that with access to the usual breeding and birthing grounds blocked by armies on both sides, newborn goats and sheep are dying in the extreme cold at higher altitudes.
For centuries, shepherds have roamed these grasslands on the roof of the world along the unmarked border with China, where harsh winds cause the goats to grow their super-soft wool.
Cashmere is named after disputed Kashmir, where artisans weave wool into fine yarn and exquisite garments that fetch thousands a piece in the main export handicraft industry.
“None of the other products have as much income as what they produce, and they are the real generators of wealth in Ladakh,” Wangchuk said of the Kharnak nomads. “They are the most valuable, but the most neglected.”
Nomads live grueling lives and follow a strict round-the-clock routine. They milk and shear their animals twice a day, maintain stone-walled pens, weave carpets, collect and sun-dry dung for a fire, and cook food.
Shepherds also move their animals from place to place more often than usual in search of greener pastures.
But there is almost no health care, no school, and no proper irrigation system.
“It’s a year-round job here, no holidays. Even if you are sick, you have to take care of the animals,” said the nomad Angchuk.
“In ten years or so I think there will be no Kharnak nomads here, although our people will be around. We will be history.”
Authorities say they are doing everything they can to stop the nomads from fleeing. Today, the village has solar panels for electricity, government-built prefabricated huts and water taps. Some parts have telecom coverage.
But pastoralists say that is not enough. Tundup Namgail, district head of the sheep department in Leh, said that regardless of all the facilities, the nomads need to be “lured back practically, not by romanticizing their lives”.
“The only way to keep them is to improve their profitability. Make them rich somehow,” he said.
Other solutions are emerging. An alternative source of water is ice stupas, an artificial glacier created by villagers and named after a type of sacred Buddhist structure.
In winter, the villagers store water in the form of cone-shaped ice piles, which flow down when the temperature rises.
In the local village of Kulum, this method has partially proven itself.
About eight of the 11 families in the farming village have moved to other areas after the catastrophic drought that followed deadly floods in 2010 dried up water in Kulum.
Ten years later, villagers and a team of environmental activists, including Wangchuk, created an ice stupa on a nearby mountain. Last year, some families returned when a trickle of water from a man-made glacier irrigated some parts of the village’s field.
Still, experts say flash floods and droughts caused by climate change have disrupted the hydrological system of many villages.
“It’s kind of a blessing in disguise that fewer people are farming now,” Wangchuk said. “The people who are not growing are in a way helping those who are farming by making available the little water that is coming in now.”
Still, Kharnak herder Paljor Tundup fears he could be the last generation of herders in the region.
“Our children don’t want this life,” he said as he picked up a skein of wool to hand to his daughter, who was weaving a rug nearby.
“Honestly, we don’t have much of an argument with them in favor of this kind of life either. – AP