The villagers of Nang, a tiny hamlet in the hinterland of Ladakh in Kashmir, struggle to make life meaningful. Situated at a height of 12,400 feet above sea level, the rarefied air is distressing to the oxygen-starved lungs for both human beings as well as domestic animals. Braving harsh icy conditions, the villagers live off the land through agriculture during a short window in the summer months when rivulets provide precious water from melting glaciers that percolates downstream.

Located 40 km from the town of Leh, the Nang hamlet is spread over 300 acres between high hills. Wind-sculpted rock-scapes are magical for the short-stint tourists, but for the villagers it is a livelihood of adversity. The 74 households with a population of less than 400 hold their ancestral farming tradition in high esteem. However, meagre snowfall in the past 20 years has resulted in receding glaciers leading to severe water shortage. This has hampered the health of crops.

Water problems

As Ladakh lies in the northern tip of the country, in the western end of the Tibetan plateau, virtually all of Ladakh is above 10,000 feet and the towering hills block most rainfall, creating a rain shadow. Cut-off by four mountain ranges, the great Himalayas, Karakoram, Zaskar and the Ladakh range, it is wildly beautiful with an aura of the arid desert. And because it is tree-less and barren, only the fertile narrow valleys are suitable for farming in the four months of summer, explains Tsewang Rigzin, a prominent resident of Leh.

The extreme weather also hinders cropping intensity, which results in low agricultural productivity. In recent years, the spectre of climate change along with increased tourism and transportation has disturbed the fragile ecology of the region, resulting in diminishing ice belts.

Till now, water from the glacier as it melts has been the only source of irrigation for 80 per cent of the farmers. In recent times, however, snowfall has been erratic. “The creation of man-made glaciers has now become the norm,” says 82-year-old Chewang Norphel who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2015 for his pioneering work in creating artificial glaciers.

As it is said that inspiration is often born of desperation, Norphel has created a glacier in the upper reaches of Nang village and the villagers are now solely dependent on this melting ice basin.

Vegetables preservation

Crops in the area are typically harvested in September-October after cultivation in April. Surplus vegetables are amassed in underground pits. But it was found that the vegetables, particularly potatoes, shrivel and become unfit for consumption. To solve the problem of preservation, unique zero-energy based, technology-driven vegetable cellars were developed by the Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR). This innovation for storage of potatoes has increased the income of the villagers.

The villagers of Nang are now able to prevent potatoes and farm produce from decaying due to extreme temperatures. Root crops such as carrot, radish, turnip, cabbages, and onions are also stored in these environment-friendly subterranean vaults.

Senior citizen Samstan Zangpo in Nang explains that the community vegetable cellars are perfect “hibernation hubs”. The half-buried room-like structures, of which six feet is below and two feet above ground, are made of environment-friendly materials like sticks, mud and hay. The last is a layer on the top that serves as insulating material to control humidity inside the cellars.

Sacks of vegetables, particularly potatoes, are stacked on the elevated cellar floor, around which water is filled. The cellars are air-locked to delay sprouting, thereby ensuring better quality of potatoes. The added advantage is that no energy or electricity is required to sustain the life of farm produce inside these cellars and maintenance cost is negligible. Each cellar has the capacity to accommodate 100 bags. However, Zangpo feels that Nang village needs many more such cellars to cater to all the residents in times of crisis.

The writer is a photographer and wildlife enthusiast based in Noida