A lesson on science and adaptation from Ladakh

The most successful adaptation measures are the ones that are deeply interlinked with the societies and cultures that they seek to preserve.

Drang Drung glacier [image by: Poonam Agarwal]

In 2005 I had the good fortune of meeting Chewang Norphel, one of the heroes in the fight of climate adaptation. The issue of receding glaciers in the Himalayas was just beginning to gain some traction, as this fortnight’s interview with Professor Shakil Ahmad Romshoo illustrates. But for people like Norphel the crisis was already there. Ladakh, where he lives, is a cold desert.

Agriculture, which is the mainstay of the economy for most people, is almost completely dependent on glacier and snow melt. In the summer, as temperatures rise, the water from these rivers of ice flows into villages and fields. These habitations have been built over centuries on the stable flow of water that helped water their fields. But, as the glaciers receded, the water was coming late, and was not reaching these villages in the quantity needed any more.

In many ways this is the true crisis that climate change has brought us. Old systems of living – adapted to a stable pattern – are being upended. The people that are affected have few options. They can get up and move, but they do so at the cost of all they have known, by abandoning their means of livelihood, and are forced to become climate refugees through the force of both disaster and failing economies.

Norphel, a retired engineer, came up with a simple innovation – that of ‘artificial glaciers’. The name belies what he was pioneering, which was to create storehouses of water in the form of ice in the winters, to melt it when it was needed. Basically, as water flowed in the summer months, Norphel, and villagers where he helped create these reserves, diverted and slowed water over terraced areas in the shade of mountains. As the thin stream of water ran and settled over the terraces in the shade, it froze in layers and sheets, until – over a period of weeks if not months – the villagers had frozen water nearer their doorstep, which could be thawed when they needed it.

The ingenuity of the solution has many aspects. Firstly, it used materials at hand. To divert and slow the water required hard work, and basic agricultural tools like shovels and picks. Low walls of stone were created as barriers on the terraces to slow the water further. All the input material could be sourced from the villages themselves. While it meant that the amount of labour for the same amount of agricultural produce had increased, the people did not have to buy expensive equipment, they were self-sufficient and could continue their lives largely as they used to. Lastly, and most importantly, they did not have to lose their beloved villages and their fields.

The solution has its limits. As glaciers recede, this adaptation measure will become harder and harder, as the amount of melt will come from further off. Nevertheless, for a few decades at least, the village economy had been rescued.

The question here, though, is about what needs to be done for adaptation. Norphel had retired as an engineer during most of this time. And it was not even his engineering background that provided the initial clue as to what to do. Instead, he told me, the idea had come to him when he had seen a shallow puddle freeze on the street. Of course, his technical skills and social standing helped him bring about the change, but the key here was that he was living in the area he was observing and where the solution was needed.

His understanding of the challenges, and how it could be addressed, was deeply, inextricably interlinked with the land where the solution had to be implemented.

In fact, to a degree it reflects older cultural tradition, such as the “glacier marriages” in neighbouring Gilgit-Baltistan.

This becomes clearer when we realise that indigenous communities across the world preserve most of the biodiversity we enjoy. And they do it because they are able to see a certain need and balance for things, because it is the warp and weft of their lives – social, cultural and economic. As Professor Romshoo emphasises in his interview, it is this cross-cutting view that we desperately need. Science is great, innovation is beautiful, but for it to become relevant, for it to be adopted and nurtured, we need to involve communities that are affected, to listen. Science, trapped in a silo, cannot be a solution by itself, it must be in constant communication with the people it seeks to serve.

The Interview

Professor Shakil Ahmad Romshoo is the Vice-Chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology, Kashmir. He has a multidisciplinary academic background and is engaged in research on hydrology, glaciology and climate change with the geographical focus on the Himalaya. Professor Romshoo is an elected fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences, Indian Society of Remote Sensing and the Indian Society of Geomatics. He is the recipient of about a dozen of national and international awards for his outstanding academic achievements.

Q. What are you working on right now?

A. For the last 33 years I have been working on glaciers and water resources, since 2003-4, at Kashmir University. Much of my work received a boost after 2007, when the big controversy on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report erupted. They had included a citation that Himalayan glaciers will disappear by 2035. Although this was later retracted, it did receive the attention of Indian policymakers.

The National Action Plan on Climate Change – launched in 2008 – included as one of its 8 missions, the National Mission for Sustaining Himalayan Ecosystem (NMSHE). This led to a lot of changes. Before 2010 or so, I was only able to secure small research grants from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), despite the strategic importance of glaciers for irrigation, drinking water and transboundary relations.

In 2010/11, I pitched a project for about 2 crores to the Department of Science and Technology, Govt. of India and while they were sympathetic, they said they could only sanction 40-50 lakhs. After a year, the same agency sanctioned us a project for 18.5 crores on glacier research in the Himalaya, coordinated with Kashmir University, the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jammu University and Sikkim University.

With this we were able to establish the first national ice core laboratory for Himalayan glaciers at Kashmir University (they are only two in India, the other one at the National Centre for Polar and Oceanic Research in Goa is for studying Antarctic glaciers).  After successful completion of the project, we got the Centre for Excellence in Glacial Research in the Western Himalayas. In Kashmir we have meteorological data from 1886, but European countries and north America have far longer time series of data. Ice core studies allow us to reconstruct climate data stretching back 10,000 years, though.

Q. What is the use of this data? What is the big mystery?

A. The big question is how much water is there stored in the glaciers and how long shall it last under the changing climate. These are the knowledge gaps. While different studies will have different numbers, we know there are roughly 35,000 glaciers in the Indian Himalayas, with 15,000 in Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. What we do not know is how thick they are, and at what pace they are melting.

A lot of data is gathered from satellites but without field-based research, the thickness and pace of melting is hard to assess. Even then – with all the money and support that the government has extended – we are studying only 20 glaciers, with Kashmir University studying 8 – 4 in Kashmir, 3 in Zanskar and Kargil, and one in the Chenab. It takes at least two days to get to the glaciers, and because of security, political, topographic and other challenges, people are not enthusiastic and ready to take up the risks associated with glacier studies.

But without expanding the glacier research across the Himalaya we are lost. The problem with the 2007 study that predicted the disappearance of glaciers was that it relied on only one glacier, i.e. the Gangotri glacier, but often glaciers across the Himalaya are melting at different rates.

On the basis of data from one glacier, we can’t extrapolate to the entire range.  In the Karakorum range, the glaciers are almost stable with insignificant mass loss, in the Pir Panjal range, there is an average loss of 1.6 metres of water equivalent a year, while in the Kashmir, we have observed that the glaciers are melting 1 metre annually.

Q. You have received a lot of support and attention from the government, but why is nothing changing?

A. There has been a huge increase in attention, reflected with the amount of money allocated in research since 2008, on climate change issues since the National Missions on Climate Change were launched. Unfortunately, this is not reflected in policymaking. Heavy infrastructure projects in the mountains are ongoing. In developing countries there is single-minded focus on growth, growth, growth – that means that heavy industry is always given priority and environment is ignored. Until and unless there is a concerted effort by people to care about the environment, policymakers will neglect it, even if they consider it is important. Ultimately people have to care.

Q. What is the state of scientific cooperation on these issues in the region?

A. It is getting more and more difficult. As you recall I worked on a report on common ground in the Indus Basin, how the Indus Waters Treaty – ratified in 1960 – needed to have other mechanisms to deal with climate change and other impacts. This was possible in the environment we worked in ten years ago. A number of foreign governments – the EU, Germans and others – saw the potential of conflict from transboundary rivers and wanted to find ways to foster cooperation. The report that emerged out of the project was expanded with World Bank backing to create an Indus Basin dialogue that had people from all the Indus basin countries. It was looked upon as a positive thing by all the governments.

All this changed with the Uri attack in 2016, after which the government also reassessed the Indus Waters Treaty. Now cooperation is much more difficult and silo-ed.

Most of the research involving basin countries is to some extent happening with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Nepal. And even in this, the groups tend to be isolated. So Pakistani and Chinese nationals working together, maybe Nepali ones, but with Indian experts working less in concert with other nationals. This is a problem as the Himalayas are one large system, and patchwork science cannot help us get the fuller picture, unless with great difficulty.

Q. What do you think is the one big thing we need to talk about?

A. We need to focus on the societal importance of scientific findings. These need to be cross cutting issues that address livelihoods and involve community participation, otherwise they will operate at a distance from the concerns of citizens, and will not become important for policy. In this, European countries have been very good, in cross-sectoral partnerships. We need to develop such networks for science to become relevant for people, so that they can care. 

Critical reading

  1. The draft forest law could actually end up spurring deforestation: On October 2nd, the Union environment ministry quietly uploaded for public consultation, with a short 15-day deadline, a draft document on changes it proposes to make to the Forest (Conservation) Act. The “issues for consultation” include narrowing the scope of the Act to address concerns of private landowners and public infrastructure-creating entities controlled by the railways and roads ministries, exemption of the requirement of receiving prior forest clearance altogether for “strategic projects” or use of Extended Reach Drilling for exploring or extracting oil and natural gas from underneath forests. The amendments are facing criticism as they increase the state’s discretionary power to redefine what is considered a forest and where the law applies. 

  2. Illegal industry release turns Sabarmati into dead river, 'agree' Ahmedabad authorities: In a surprise admission, the Ahmedabad Municipal Commission (AMC) has said that “ill-treated or untreated or partly treated” industrial waste from “improperly working” effluent treatment plants (ETPs) is being “discharged into Sabarmati directly”. It added in an affidavit filed in the Gujarat High Court (HC) that “completely untreated industrial discharge” is also being “illegally discharged into the sewerage network” designed for household sewage. The AMC admission comes as one of the members of the HC-appointed task force, environmentalist Rohit Prajapati, informed the court during a recent hearing that Sabarmati for the 120 kilometre downstream stretch right up to the Arabian Sea is a “dead river.” 

  3. Medical waste incineration plant in Bihar's Sone river bed faces public flak: Several environment organisations have urged the Bihar State Pollution Control Board (BSPCB) to stop the construction of a hazardous and medical waste incineration plant in the river bed of Sone by Hyderabad-based Ramky Enviro Engineers Ltd at Koilwar in Patna’s Bhojpur and Bihta. Waste generated from 98 industrial units across Bihar is to be transported to the proposed unit for burning. Paryawaran Bachao Jeewan Bachao Sangharsh Morcha, a local body of villagers formed to oppose the construction of the plant, demanded in its petition that the dioxins-emitting plant be shifted to an industrial area. “Officials of Ramky Enviro Ltd lied about the use of the site to buy land. The company officials had told us that iron rods would be manufactured in the plant,” Morcha leader Prabhunath Singh claimed.

  4. For Seven Hydropower Projects in Uttarakhand, Environment Ministry Twists Facts: The unprecedented floods that ravaged much of Uttarakhand in 2013 had brought into focus the adverse impacts of the rampant construction of hydropower projects in the Himalayan state. In response, driven by “pain, anguish and outrage”, the Union environment ministry filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court in December 2014, stating: “any decision on … hydropower projects should … be on very strong and sound footings with scientific back up”. Yet, in a drastic change of stance, the same ministry filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court on August 17, 2021, saying a consensus had been reached between the environment, power and Jal Shakti ministries and the Uttarakhand government to continue work on seven hydropower projects. The court is still hearing the matter, and its verdict will decide the future of hydropower projects in Uttarakhand. The Wire Science has reviewed the Supreme Court orders, affidavits, counter-affidavits and the reports of several committees filed in relation to the case and concludes that the ministry has misrepresented facts to push these seven projects, and has left out information that may call into question the ministry’s decision.

  5. Coal Expansion Will Cause 60% Jump in Premature Deaths in India's Metro Cities: Report: A new  research study by C40 Cities and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) finds that given India’s intent to further expand its coal-intensive energy plans, major Indian cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore and Chennai) would face significantly higher annual premature deaths from coal-related pollution over the next decade – as well as higher preterm births, asthma emergency hospital visits and 25.8 million days of sick-leave. As much as 55% of India’s (the second largest coal user in the world) coal-based electricity is generated within 500 km of these five megacities.

  6. Greenwashing big hydropower: Despite being linked to several disasters, the Asian Development Bank has reaffirmed its commitment to large hydro projects. Its first draft of the policy was published in May 2021, with an update released in August to reflect consultations with a variety of stakeholders. Now, many of the people who were part of such consultations or sent representations to ADB say their concerns were ignored. Environmentalists argue that these capital heavy developments are not emissions free and risk the disruption of sediment and water flow that could then impact lives and livelihood of local communities, as well as destroy the habitats of wildlife on land, and in the water. The Himalayan region has already seen several disasters exacerbated by large hydropower projects. Gary Lee, the Southeast Asia Program Director at International Rivers, has studied their impact in the Mekong River basin across South East Asia. He highlights growing evidence on their adverse consequences on the environment, on peoples’ food security and livelihoods and in exacerbating social inequalities. Civil society groups in Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan have also raised environmental and socio-economic concerns related to displacement and livelihood.

  7. Stone mining in Brahmagiri mountains chips away at the Godavari River ecosystem: The foothills of the Brahmagiri mountain range in Maharashtra, where the Godavari River originates, has emerged as a coveted destination for private developers to buy land and build farmhouses and resorts. A citizens’ collective of social and environmental organisations, has been protesting against the stone mining and extraction and exploitation of resources in the Brahmagiri and Sahyadri mountain ranges. They argue that changes to this terrain through land levelling and stone mining could increase soil erosion and destroy the ecosystem that provides water to six states.

  8. Tamil Nadu Fishermen to Intensify Protest Against Marine Fisheries Bill: The fishing community of Tamil Nadu has decided to further intensify the protest against the Marine Fisheries Bill, 2021, alleging that the Bill and the draft policy framework on the blue economy are heavily stacked against the rights of traditional fishermen while giving companies the liberty to utilise the resources of and from the ocean space to their benefit. The draft policy has defined blue economy as a subset of the national economy, comprising the entire system of ocean resources and manmade economic infrastructure in marine, maritime and the onshore coastal zones within India’s legal jurisdiction, which aid in the production of goods and services and have clear linkages with economic growth, environmental sustainability and national security. However, the fishermen have expressed fears of displacement and loss of livelihood. P Stanley, national secretary, All India Fishers and Fisheries Workers Federation (AIFFWF), said that “We strongly oppose the draft blue economy policy of the BJP government, which will only favour the corporate entities.”

  9. Villagers Oppose Embankment on Bagmati River in Bihar: The Chasbaas Jeevan Bachao Bagmati Sangharsh Samiti has staunchly opposed construction of an embankment on the Bagmati River in Bihar and has demanded cancellation of a new tender and extension of the tenure of the review committee. The villagers fear that the embankment will result in loss of land, livelihood and displacement and affect the fertile soil brought by the river. There is scientific research that backs their claims. According to a 2008 working research paper ‘From risk to resilience’, which was focussed on Lower Bagmati Basin, floods carry “micronutrients, fine silt and loam, and after the water recedes, these nutrients are deposited on fields, where they improve soil fertility and productivity”.

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