The wrong type of snow

“By mid-September, we would wake up with completely frozen

Tashi Tundop
Tashi Tundop

moustaches,” says Tashi Tundop, a 76-year-old farmer who was born in the house he still shares with his wife and six other family members. Behind us, a yak munches alfalfa and swishes its horse-like tail. Tashi wears a warm hat and pink-tinted sunglasses that were last fashionable in the 1970s (so surely due for a revival), with Buddhist prayer beads around his neck. His face, a mahogany terrain of wrinkles, is cleanish-shaven, and I find it difficult to construct a stiffened, icy moustache on his younger face.

We’re above 4000 metres (12,000ft) here in Stakmo village in the Trans-Himalaya. Nevertheless, this is not the temperature to make moustache sorbet. The sun beats down, as it does for more than 300 days of the year, and it’s burning my face.

Global warming is very evident here. In his lifetime, Tashi has seen two big glaciers vanish in this valley alone – he points their location out to me and I see only the same dry, sand-coloured rocks that fill the eye between valley and sky. Only the tippy-top peaks are white, and the only glaciers I spot are at least 5500 metres up.

The warmer climate is not his biggest concern, though, in fact, he rather likes not having to be confined to his house so early in the year.

The most painful change is in the new unpredictability in precipitation. A catastrophic pattern is developing for moisture at the wrong time of year.

This part of the Trans-Himalaya, after the Ruteng pass, is in a precipitation shadow. It is incredibly dry here, not raining for months on end – delivering a similar rainfall as the Sahara gets. The westerly winds don’t reach here and the monsoon from the east doesn’t surmount the high pass.

Rainfall now could destroy this barley
Rainfall now could destroy this barley

It used to arrive during the winter, after October, as snowfall, and remain until March, when it would begin melting, providing vital watering for the area’s barley crop sowing. With such a very brief summer, farmers here can only plant one crop a year and timing is everything – if they miss the March sowing, then there will be no harvest before the cold comes, and the villagers rely entirely on government handouts to survive.

But the past decade has seen a gradual reduction in snowfall – the past two winters have been particularly dry.

Worse, when the precipitation does come, it arrives as rain during the harvest season, ruining what few crops they have in the fields.

The changes have also reduced natural vegetation levels. Tashi used to let his livestock roam the mountains eating wild grasses. Now, he has to give over some of his valuable planting fields to grow alfalfa for the yaks and goats. And wild creatures too are feeling the pinch. Last week, he found 50 ibex in his field eating his vegetables. The ibex bring wolves down, which eat his goats. And the ibex and wild yaks are destroying his stone walls, knocking them over and so blocking the irrigation channels with boulders.

In Leh too, the rainfall is causing problems. This is a region that never experience rain before the past decade. Houses here are built from unfired mud bricks, and the roof structure is of timber sticks bound with mud and yak dung. There is a hole in the flat roof to let the fire smoke escape. These houses are built for snowfall conditions – snow covered the house in winter and insulates it from the cold.

The new rain is literally washing the houses away. Three buildings

Mud bricks are not oven-fired before construction
Mud bricks are simply sun-dried

have already crumbed this year, and more wealthy people are starting to concrete up their houses.

A little rain at the end of summer is no substitute for snowfall during winter. It is easily drained away in the rivers and there is little replenishment of the groundwater. The spring in Leh has been dry for months now, as more and more people pump out the groundwater. Wells sit dry and unused. While this is a consequence of climate change, it is also the result of a booming tourism industry here. New hotels and guesthouses are fitted with flushing toilets, 24-hour showers and washing machines. It is completely unsustainable. Our guesthouse has a traditional Ladakhi composting toilet, but how many others still do? Our guesthouse owners pump water with a generator-driven electric pump from 100ft below.

As in so many places in the developing world, tourism has brought new wealth and possibilities to the people of Leh, but without water, this fertile patch in a mountain desert will return to dust.

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