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.
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.
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