SHRINKING GLACIERS OF LADAKH – A CLARION CALL

September 18, 2020

Ladakh is often called an “Arid desert” as it falls in “rain shadow zone”. The main sources of irrigation are perennial rivers with fairly large drainage basins and streams originating from higher contours in funnel shaped valleys with drainage basins/ catchments confined within spurs. While gravity canals taking off from rivers irrigate moderate to low lying land along river valleys, small water channels known as “khul” in revenue parlance taking off from streams irrigate land on higher contours in valley settlements.

Till recent past, Ladakh used to be pollution free and heavy to moderate snowfall through winter ensured availability of water for irrigation as also recharge aquifers and replenish glaciers. Life thus sustained through millennia till global warming due to rapid industrialization and local pollution due to emissions from fossil fuel had a profound effect on the fragile ecosystem of Ladakh leading to receding of snowline, depleting glaciers and drying up of springs. Although the effects are all round, some hard evidence of glaciers receding/ shrinking at an alarming rate would make planners sit up & take notice:

  1. World famous Nun Glacier at Parkachik in Suru valley, Kargil abutting left bank of river Suru have receded by around 500 mtrs and also shrunk in expanse, thus exposing the debris underneath as is evident from Plate -1.
  2. Drung-Drung glacier at watershed of Penzila in vicinity of Kargil-Zanaskar road have receded by at least a km and shrunk in expanse forming a glacial lake and exposing glacial debris as is evident from Plate
  1. Similarly, glaciers feeding tributaries to river Suru have also receded considerably.
  2. Situation of glacial melting in Leh is more alarming.“Stok khangri” glaciers famous among mountaineers have almost disappeared.
  3. Khardongla at around 18300ft altitude on Leh-Nubra road, where a bridge was laid over a glacier crevasse on Northern side to cross over till a decade ago, is bereft of any glacier and a dusty road at 18000ft is a sign of “coming events cast their shadow before”. At Changla on Leh-Durbuk road, at almost similar altitude to Khardongla, the road passes through glacial debris of what was once under glacier.
  4. A recent study by Kashmir University’s Geo Informatics Dept. revealed that glaciers in J&K are melting at an alarming rate. According to the study, Zanaskar range is losing thickness @ 117 cm per year followed by Ladakh range @ 46 cm per year. Evidently, over the years the snow line has receded considerably, which is a cause of alarm and hence “A Clarion call”.

Meteorological data reveal that rate & spread of snowfall have decreased over the years and average temperature have increased accelerating rate of melting, thus causing gradual depletion & shrinking of glaciers. It also had a profound effect on recharging of underground aquifers, which is noticeable from gradual decrease in flow of streams and springs.

A recent report on “Assessment of climate change over Indian region” by Union Ministry Of Earth Sciences have concluded that Hindukush Himalayas has warmed @ 0.2 degree per decade during last 70 years, leading to decline in snow cover & glaciers.

Signs of springs drying up are evident from recent social media posts by concerned citizens. A resident of Gompa village in upper Leh posted a picture of dried up “Spang” (a lush green patch fed by spring), where animals graze & wanted to know the cause. Indian Express recently published an article on village Kulum near Upshi in Leh district, where villagers, unable to carry out traditional agrarian practices due to drying up of spring, were forced to abandon village due to water scarcity in 2012. They returned only when “Ice Stupa’s” were built to conserve winter flow in shape of ice, providing much needed water at time of sowing. The Article goes on to warn that with increasing average temperature and shrinking glaciers, several villages in Ladakh have imminent danger of turning into ghost towns.

In Leh District scarcity of water for irrigation in near future are likely to be felt mainly in Leh town & villages on higher contours (Pho) located along southern foothills of Khardongla-Changla axis from village Shara to village Umla and beyond. In Kargil district, villages lying between river Indus and Wakha nallah dependent on seasonal snow including Soth area, villages in upper Phokhar-Pho nallah and upper reaches of Kargil Town, to cite a few, face frequent draught when snowfall is less as glaciers feeding these streams have almost vanished. There may be many more villages facing similar situation of water scarcity in both Districts, which may have escaped my notice.

Mitigating measures:

Though there are many brilliant minds in Ladakh, who can suggest better solutions/ alternatives to mitigate adverse effect of global warming & climate change on the fragile ecology of Ladakh, yet I thought it my bounden duty to put forth some suggestions from an Engineers point of view for further discussion amongst all stake holders:-

  1. Engage consulting Glaciologists & Hydrologists of International repute for in depth study of causes, measures to prevent further shrinkage & possible replenishment of glaciers. In Leh Town, study of effect of large number of tube wells at shallow depths drawing water from subterranean flow of Leh nallah & its effect on reduction in surface flow should be carried out through reputed hydrologists. As an interim measure, only deep tube wells drawing water below water table of Indus River should be allowed.
  2. Survey, investigation & feasibility study of potential irrigation projects from perennial sources i.e. rivers for vulnerable villages through dedicated Engineering Divisions in both Districts. In order to bring additional area within command of proposed irrigation project, a combination of gravity canal, reservoir and lift by solar/ Hydro power or vice versa can be thought of to bring additional area under command at lower level to compensate for loss of cultivable land in higher reaches.
  3. In Leh, some potential sites which come to my mind are:- a) A combination of gravity canal & lift by solar/ Hydro power taking off from Indus up steam of Igoo village upto Stakna Head works to cater to lower areas of Sakti & adjacent areas. b) A canal taking off from tail of Stakna Hydel project upto Choglamsar & beyond (This may require short tunnels, aqueducts& siphon) followed by lift across ridge to irrigate lower areas of Leh town. Similar potential sites downstream of Leh town on either side Indus River can be explored.
  4. One of the many causes of depletion of glacier at Khardongla & Changla is due to emission from large volume of traffic plying round the year. The viability of providing a highway tunnel across these passes should be explored to reduce effects of carbon emission.
  5. For villages high up in valleys- both in Leh & Kargil Districts, which remain outside command of proposed irrigation projects taking off water from rivers, the only hope apart from natural intervention would be the concept of artificial glaciers or “Ice Stupas”(Plate-3) conceptualized by SECMOL led by Magsaysay awardee Sh.Sonam Wangchuk, which have given hope to villages facing acute scarcity of water in both Leh & Kargil Districts. However, for this to succeed, UT Administration & LAHDC’s should approve it as “Water conservation project” in water deficit villages to be fully financed by Govt. under MGNREGS or any other scheme.
  1. In water deficit areas of Kargil Snow check dams built in narrow portion of valley in past proved effective to retain snow avalanches, thus increasing the period of melting. These are gravity structures of dry stone masonry in crate wire mesh, which are flexible and easy to maintain. Such avalanche retaining structures can be thought of in valleys where moderate snowfall triggers avalanches.
  2. In Kargil & Zanaskar, there are huge potential of new irrigation schemes on rivers zanaskar, Suru, Drass and its tributaries. All such potential sites should be surveyed for feasibility and a shelf of DPR’s is prepared for taking up as per priority. To bring land on higher contours under irrigation, a combination of gravity canal & lift irrigation by solar/ hydro power pumps can be explored.

Conclusion

History is replete with instances where civilizations have thrived on dependable irrigation system and also of civilizations, which perished only because of failed irrigation systems – be it natural or manmade. It is an irony that although Ladakh & particularly Leh District have vast tracks of barren land on either side of river Indus, yet only a fraction of this natural resource has been utilized for irrigation. One of the reasons for this could be economic prosperity, which tourism brought to the region in last three decades. However, the recent pandemic has proved how fragile this economic prosperity is. Also, with a large number of educated youth competing for a limited number of jobs, the prospect of employment to all appears bleak. Here, I’m reminded of an ancient Ladakhi proverb, “Mee boubs na saa hRthan”; roughly meaning – “draw sustenance from land, when other means is beyond endurance.” It is therefore incumbent on all stake holders to reflect and strive to harness sustainable livelihood from natural resources of “Water, land & sun”.

The upside of rise in temperature has increased the prospects of diversification in cultivation by way of organic cash crops like variety of vegetables & fruits. Coupled with mechanised farming & introduction of Atmospheric Controlled Storage, farming as a profession can be economically viable and is likely to attract educated youth. It is high time that UT administration, LAHDC’s Leh & Kargil, planners and civil society come together to make tangible efforts to address the long term effect of climate change on irrigation prospects and think of out of box solutions to not only protect the existing irrigated land, but also create additional potential of irrigable land. The additional resources made available to UT are best utilized to harness natural resources of Ladakh for sustainable development.

Er. Nazir Ahmad is Member (Hon) J&K Environment Impact Assessment Authority,
(Formerly State Information Commissioner/ Chief Engineer (Rtd) PWD J&K)

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