Potholed and broken, the approach road to the small village of Beema in Ladakh often remains flooded as the adjoining Indus river spills over. On the other side, concrete structures, tops of terraces and tips of electric poles jut out of water.

“That was my three-storied house,” Phunso, a village local points to the concrete terrace visible above the water.

“We had just built the third floor. I didn’t even get a chance to sleep on that floor,” he said with a short laugh. Phunso and his family have since moved into a new house up in the mountain. He also has a camp in the area that houses tourists from May till September.

2015 cloudburst

The famous Dardic Brokpa village was flooded in 2015 following torrential rains and a landslide that sent large boulders into the Indus, causing it to spill over. The water never drained out, making the houses unliveable and destroying the fertile land on which the villagers had plantations of apricot etc.

While Phunso’s family, which is relatively well-off, could afford to move to a safer location, many others could not. Chankan Sirin, for example, had to move to a rented place. Sirin, who works on others’ farms as a daily wage worker, has found the going tough. Having not been recognised as climate refugees, the people who lost their lands and properties never got any compensation.

The families that suffered losses in the cloudburst were given some provisions by the government, along with building materials, such as asbestos sheets, for rebuilding their homes. Some received small amounts of money, about ₹50,000, as well, but nothing could really compensate the damage to the land and livelihood.

Constant threat

Two years on, the villagers continue to live under the threat of the Indus flooding the only access road to cities such as Leh, used by many to go to work, buying provisions and accessing medical care. Sudden heat, which melts glaciers at a faster rate, and rains pose a threat to villages such as Beema and Hanu.

“Things have become very uncertain for us. We have been living here for years. My ancestors also lived in this village. Something like this never happened all those years. But, now, every summer and monsoon instils fear in our hearts,” said Rigzin Dorjee, a septuagenarian whose house also went underwater. Dorjee and his family have also moved to a higher place in Beema.

Changing climate

A research paper, Influence Of Climate Change On Traditional Agriculture Of Cold Desert Region – Ladakh, in the Global Journal of Bio-Science and Biotechnology, noted: “Recent research and data on climate also indicated rapid changes in climate of Ladakh. Patterns of rainfalls and snowfalls have been changing, glaciers and permanent snow fields are receding, affecting water runoff in the rivers/streams, and rise in temperature and humidity causing favourable conditions for intrusion of insects and pests.” The study further noted that a survey conducted by an NGO, GERES-India, indicated that the mean temperatures in Ladakh were seen to be rising by 1˚C in winter and 0.5˚ C during summer. Over 90 per cent of agriculture in Ladakh is dependent on glacier-fed rivers and streams. The sudden increase in glacial melt that cause flooding of farms (as in Beema and Hanu in 2015) can be a problem in the area which has a short growing season, as is the decrease in water flow due to retreating glaciers.

Mixed results

Paradoxically, warmer temperatures help Ladakhis diversify their crops and introduce new vegetables, where earlier only barley and wheat were grown. But, any sudden increase in temperature decreases the productivity of grain crops. Uncertain rains and retreating glaciers are a further challenge in this harsh terrain. In Skiu village, Tchetan Wangyal, 66, says: “Warm temperatures are giving better growth to vegetables that were not available here earlier. But sudden increase in heat in summers sometimes damages wheat and barley. Also, there are new pests to deal with.” Peas, carrots, turnips and potatoes are some vegetables that have become common in the region, as also strawberries.

Wangyal feels that earlier the onset of different seasons – summer, monsoon, and winter – used to be more gradual, reducing crop damage. “Now we sometimes get sudden rain that destroys our farms. That is a big problem.”

Rapid changes

The limited amount of research conducted in Ladakh corroborates the anecdotal experiences of locals. A research paper Climate Change Over Leh (Ladakh) suggests there is evidence of “increasing temperature trends over Leh for the period of 1901-1989, with a greater increase noted after the 1960s. Precipitation trends show a decreasing trend during winter and summer periods with a significant impact seen after the 1990s.”

The paper also notes trends of increase in short-duration high-intensity precipitation events over hilly regions.