India: As global warming reaches the Himalayas, a village runs dry

Spiti Valley, located in Himachal Pradesh, the Himalaya Mountains. Photo credit: Nita Bhalla/Thomas Reuters Foundation

Komik, situated in the barren Spiti Valley located high in the Himalaya Mountains, is the highest village in the world with a road, standing at 4.5 kilometres above ground, and complete with an enviable view of the snow-capped Himalayas. But for all its beauty and coveted status, life for the residents of the village is harsh.

This region in the Himachal Pradesh is cut off from the rest of India for six months as the snows fall and blocks the mountain passes, and clinics and schools are a laborious and treacherous journey away on foot.

But the inhabitants of Komik and the Spiti Valley have a far more pressing issue to address: Their supply of water is slowly but surely running dry.

“We are used to be a remote place. We have our traditional ways of living,” Nawang Phunchok, a farmer, told Thomas Reuters Foundation. “But these days, the water is not coming like it used to. The seasons are changing. We see there is less water than before.”

But the fact that India is in the grip of a water crisis is not new.

Over decades, unsustainable use of groundwater, inefficient irrigation for agriculture, unceasing pollution of up to 80 per cent of the water from rivers and lakes with human waste and sewage, and decreasing water tables in wells, along with unreliable weather patterns that can be traced to climate change have all combined to leave some regions of the nation parched. Now, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI), India is considered one of the most water-stressed countries in the world.

Now, more than 63 million Indians living in rural parts of India lack access to clean water, WaterAid stated. 76 million need their water sources to be improved, and a mind-boggling 770 million need proper toilets.

And in the midst of it all, climate change is making the situation worse.

Rainfall in India over the past hundred years has been irregular, and the yearly average temperature has gone up by 0.5 degrees Celsius, according to India’s meteorological department.

“There exists a huge knowledge gap regarding the connection between water scarcity and climate change. There is an immediate need to fill this gap and make people aware about the importance of water conservation,” Puneet Srivastava, from WaterAid India, said. “The government also needs to undertake severe measures to regulate and monitor the use of groundwater resources.”

Water scarcity also poses a threat to food security, and recently, the plight of some 200 million farm workers have come to light. Over the last ten years, thousands of farmers chose to take their own lives as unpredictable and unseasonal droughts and rains slashed farm incomes.

India is predicted to take over China’s current title of most populous nation by 2050, with a population of 1.7 billion. And with rapid urbanisation and consequential growing demand for power, the changing weather patterns are set to get worse. Government data even forecasts the annual water availability in the nation to drop 25 per cent, from 1,545cbm in 2011 to 1,140cbm in 2050.

Although the relevant authorities have turned their attention to better supporting farmers and alleviating water scarcity in regions prone to drought, these campaigns – that include insurance over for crop failures and investment in irrigation efficiency, among others – are concentrated on India’s plains, where populations are higher, and leave residents in the far-flung Himalaya Mountains overlooked.

Simultaneously, the Himalaya Mountains are among the places in the world most susceptible to climate change, and the Spiti Valley is showing the adverse signs of melting glaciers, inconsistent rainfall, less snowfall, and rising temperatures.

“In 2015 and 2016, there was not enough snowfall and so when summer came, the springs – which are the main source of irrigation for people – were all dried out. There were hardly any crops,” Ishita Khanna, an employee of Ecosphere, an eco-tourism company in Spiti Valley, told Thomas Reuters Foundation. “With the climate changing, this could be disastrous for people living here if this keeps happening. There should be more support for people and a deeper understanding of their way of life here. It’s a very hard life.”

Spiti, quietly concealed in a corner of Himachal Pradesh, a northern state in India, is only accessible in summer, and even then, the passage over the rugged roads is hazardous, hugging the cliff edge. But in spite of the roads which have brought some tourism to that part of the country, time has wrought no changes, and the traditional way of life there continues unaltered.

“We thought the road would bring us more prosperity in terms of tourism and trade, but it has been disappointing,” Tenzin Andak, a farmer from Komik, said. “It is a worry for us – life is getting more difficult these days, partly because there is less water.”

Spiti’s main source of water is melted snow – it is the snow that falls during winter that later provides farms and pastures with the moisture they need, and snow melting from the glaciers replenish the streams and rivers that support the settlements.

Due to its geographical location, residents have only one farming season in which to plant and harvest their crops – a deadly trap if crops fail. And it has become warmer over the past several decades, with less snowfall, residents noted, saying that the winters have shortened and the summers, longer.

A study Jawaharlal Nehru University conducted in 2014 showed that the annual temperatures in the Himalaya Mountains of India have risen by two degrees Celsius over the past twenty years, and the glaciers there have decreased 13 per cent over fifty years.

“There is no doubt there is a big water crisis here,” the most senior government official in Spiti, Sub-Divisional Magistrate Arun Sharma, stated. “We’ve put in place a lot of projects such as providing water tanks and constructing water catchment areas, but we are limited by the weather. For six months of the year, life stops as we are snowbound and we cannot do any major work.”


Sources: Thomas Reuters Foundation, WaterAid India, Ecosphere, World Resources Institute, Jawaharlal Nehru University