Why Sonam Wangchuk's climate fast is an opportunity to look at Ladakh's delicate future - Hindustan Times

Why Sonam Wangchuk's climate fast is an opportunity to look at Ladakh's delicate future

Mar 24, 2024 08:10 AM IST

Glaciers in the third pole are receding at an enhanced pace, fueled by the increasing temperatures across South Asia. Millions stand to be affected

In the desolate, arid winter desert of Leh-Ladakh, a place celebrated for its tranquil beauty and rich culture, climate change casts a foreboding shadow of its future. This high-altitude desert, characterised by its stark landscapes and extreme climate, now faces the visible and alarming manifestations of ecological upheaval.

FILE PHOTO: India's Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint along a highway leading to Ladakh, at Gagangeer in Kashmir's Ganderbal district June 17, 2020. REUTERS/Danish Ismail/File Photo (REUTERS) PREMIUM
FILE PHOTO: India's Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint along a highway leading to Ladakh, at Gagangeer in Kashmir's Ganderbal district June 17, 2020. REUTERS/Danish Ismail/File Photo (REUTERS)

Sonam Wangchuk’s 21-day climate fast may have its political reasons, but the region’s extreme weather events have been a matter of concern for climatologists for some time now. Ladakh is already witnessing the impacts of climate change, Sonam Lotus, head of the Meteorological Centre (Leh), India Meteorological Department (IMD) said.

“The overall impacts of climate change at the local level can only be understood after assessing data for at least 30 years. However, subtle changes are happening and there are four visible indicators: rising temperatures, the increased frequency of extreme weather events, receding glaciers, and the combined impact of glacial outbursts due to sudden bursts of rainfall leading to flooding threat,” Lotus said.

Ladakh is a rain shadow area but the region received 27 mm rain in 24 hours during July 2023. While this amount might be minuscule for major cities in the plains, the average monthly rainfall for July is 15 mm, and the average annual rainfall for this region is 100mm, IMD data shows.

Lotus explained that as glaciers recede, they not only reduce the water supply essential for survival but also lead to the formation of more glacial lakes. These lakes, when they suddenly burst, can cause devastating glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). “Such floods pose a significant risk to the mountainous region of Ladakh. The formation and expansion of these glacial lakes serve as ticking time bombs. Given Ladakh's topography and its reliance on glacial waters, the potential for disaster is magnified,” he said.

The Ladakh administration has developed an Emergency Operation Centre for disaster mitigation response in such cases.

Another specific indicator has been a more recent one. “In preceding years, we have never noticed a winter where snowfall did not commence from November or December. However, this winter, we did not get any snowfall till January 28, and suddenly we had very heavy to extremely heavy days of snowfall right through February and continued up till March. The heaviest phase was around February 19-20,” said Lotus.

Also read: Weather Bee | The avalanches, landslides, mudslides, and shooting stones in northern states explained

Meanwhile, the average temperature range for March and April has also shown fluctuations. “There has been a 0.5-1 degree Celsius rise in average temperatures for both months based on present assessments. However, a trend can only be understood by observing this for a much longer period,” he said.

IMD’s early warning system (EWS) at the Meteorological Centre at Leh collates data from automatic weather stations present in Drass, Zanskar, Kargil and Nubra Valley. “Owing to timely information sharing and accuracy of forecasts, no untoward incidents have happened this year. However, with increased urbanisation there is a need for a more robust policy approach towards adaptation and resilience,” said Lotus.

Wangchuk's hunger strike aims to draw focus to these environmental challenges.

“Ladakh's delicate future hangs in the balance. Our Prime Minister carved out the vision for a carbon-neutral region. It's a call to action for all of us, especially tourists, to rethink our footprint. Opting for diesel taxis to traverse high passes is a choice that weighs heavily on our fragile ecosystem. The defence forces, out of necessity, may rely on diesel due to operational demands, a reality we must accept. However, tourism, rooted in leisure, must tread a different path. This isn't about curbing exploration but about guiding it towards sustainability. Let's distinguish between necessity and leisure, and embrace shared public transport or electric vehicles across the passes,” said Wangchuk.

“Mining and hotel chains eyeing our pristine lands. Our desert ecology, so fragile that locals thrive on just 5 litres of water daily, unlike the 150 litres used in metropolitan cities, cannot withstand the influx of tourists and new residents consuming water at such rates. The introduction of such large numbers threatens to deplete resources, leaving both locals and visitors bereft, and will turn our homeland barren,” he said.

Receding glaciers pose a real threat

Studies and observations by professors from Kashmir University provide evidence of the rapid receding of glaciers in the region. These glaciers, often referred to as the "Third Pole," are crucial water reserves for millions in Asia.

“In recent years, we've observed an unsettling trend: glaciers are receding at an enhanced pace, fueled by the increasing temperatures and heat waves across South Asia,” said Professor Shakil Ahmad Ramshoo, expert glaciologist and earth scientist, the University of Kashmir. “This phenomenon is an indicator of the escalating crisis, mirroring the need for climate action.”

Ramshoo explained that each year, the glaciers lose about one metre in thickness, a measure termed as 'one-metre water equivalent.' This concept helps quantify the water produced by melting glaciers. “Imagine melting ice to fill a cube with sides of one metre each; the volume of water from this melted ice equates to one cubic metre,” he said.

Also read: View from the Himalayas | The ‘Third Pole’ is drying up

Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh regions have a vast expanse of about 18,000 glaciers, among which some are notably large, such as the Siachen Glacier, stretching approximately 65 kilometres in length. These glaciers, significant in volume and some reaching depths between 500 to 600 metres, serve as vital freshwater reservoirs.

The other impact to these glaciers is black carbon, fine particulate matter formed through the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass. In the Drass region of Ladakh, research by the University of Kashmir indicates a notable acceleration in glacier melt due to rising temperatures and the deposition of black carbon. “This particulate matter, arising from incomplete combustion, significantly increases glacier heat absorption, speeding up their melting. We studied this across 17 glaciers in the Drass area and found that glaciers which are close to the highway were melting faster,” said Prof Ramshoo.

And the downstream impact

The accelerated melting and receding glaciers signals catastrophic impact for downstream regions reliant on these water sources. The implications of these environmental changes extend far beyond Ladakh with states like Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and even the National Capital Region that depend significantly on rivers originating in the Himalayas.

Dr Anjal Prakash, IPCC author and research director, Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business said, “Global warming is fundamentally altering river ecologies, significantly reducing the base flow from Himalayan glaciers. This retreat leads to drier rivers, a shift we're already witnessing. Moreover, monsoon patterns are drastically changing, extending the growing season for certain crops—a short-term advantage overshadowed by long-term agricultural challenges. Additionally, the risk of GLOFs in the eastern Himalayas, intensified by seismic activities, poses a significant threat, underscoring the need for immediate action in these vulnerable regions.”

Disruption of the seasonal flow patterns of these rivers impact agriculture, hydroelectric power generation, and water availability. “The potential for decreased water supply in the dry season, coupled with increased flooding during the monsoons, poses significant risks to food security, livelihoods, and infrastructure for states in north India as well as the Indo-Gangetic Plain,” said Prakash.

Glacier melt extends beyond mere water level changes, influencing water security and management across borders. “As these glaciers diminish, the intricate balance of water sharing under treaties like the Indus Water Treaty faces new challenges, underscoring the necessity for climate-adaptive governance. The Indus Water Treaty, however, does not factor in climate change anywhere in its text,” said Ramshoo.

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