Climate Change in Zanskar


Our time in Stongdey Village has been an incredibly powerful experience. Our group has been living with families in the village, learning about their daily lives, their culture, and the environmental challenges they face. We have been incredibly humbled by their hospitality, kindness, and friendship. Even though we do not share a common culture or language, they have treated us like we were family.

In the alpine desert of Zanskar, water is literally life here and the communities have developed elaborate systems on how to manage this scarce resource. Intricate canals and irrigation ditches crisscross the landscape, and with the help of manure, turn the barren dirt into productive fields of barley, wheat, and peas. Even in this harsh landscape, they have been able to obtain yields similar to those in the United States and Europe.

Unfortunately, climate change is now impacting their way of life and their future in the valley. Temperatures have increased twice as fast in the Himalayas as the global average and are beginning to cause rapid melting of glaciers. For communities that rely solely on glacial melt to irrigate their crops, this is a devastating development.

Yesterday, we visited Kumik, a village almost one thousand years old and on the front lines of climate change. We had the honor of speaking with Meme Palden, Kumik's oldest living inhabitant, who spent the morning telling us about the changes he has seen. When he was a young child, he told us the glaciers covered the entire mountains and came down almost to the edges of the village. Now, there are a few slivers left on the upper ridges and the glacier does not have many years left before it completely vanishes. Recently, the village came the difficult realization that their water was quickly drying up and could not sustain the community. We asked Meme Palden what they would do. He said the younger families will leave and try to rebuild their lives closer to the Zanskar River. He, however, plans to stay and die in the village.

Stongdey, similar to Kumik, is one of the most water-scarce villages in the valley. They have a much larger glacier left than Kumik, but as it has receded further up the mountain, the water now sometimes arrives too late for the initial irrigation. This has led to their seeds drying out and widespread crop failure.

A local engineer named Tsewang Norphel has recently invented the idea of artificial glaciers in hopes of mitigating this problem and providing a more reliable source of water. Artificial glaciers are essentially large ice reservoirs, created by diverting near-freezing stream water behind rock walls. They are built at lower altitudes than natural glaciers so as the weather warms during the spring months, they melt sooner and provide crucial water for irrigation during the planting season.

We have been working with Stongdey Village for the past four years on building artificial glaciers in the stream valley above the village. This year our group has been conducting a process evaluation of the project to determine what has been working well, what could be changed, and lessons for other villages that would want to start a similar project.

The resiliency and ingenuity of the communities here have been incredibly inspiring. Faced with monumental challenges, they continue to strive for new solutions and fight to maintain their way of life.