By Jigmat Norboo Leh, Mar 20, 2014
Leh :
Climate change has become one of the important global issues of debate in the world today. Moreover, it is now widely recognised and accepted by the scientific community that there are various forms of climate change in different parts of the world. Though looking at the geological evidence of the history of the Earth, we can say, any change is a law of nature which means earth’s climate is a complex system that is constantly changing. But over the last few decades especially since, late 20th century, different studies have found that global warming is more pronounced, and can be mostly attributed to anthropogenic activities. There is an unprecedented increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen oxide) in the atmosphere due to an increase in fossil fuel burning and land use changes.  The rise in these gases has caused a rise in the amount of heat from the sun withheld in the Earth’s atmosphere, heat that would normally be radiated back into space. This increase in heat has led to the greenhouse effect, resulting in climate change. Increase in average global temperature, changes in precipitation patterns and changes in the frequency of extreme weather events are the main characteristics of climate change.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the years have become warmer over the last few decades. As per UK Meteorological Office, the global average temperature has been rising by 0.15˚ C every decade. It has been observed from these studies that the geographical areas are more likely to be adversely impacted by climate changes because these areas are already ecologically fragile, where inhabitant communities rely exclusively on scarce natural resources.

A consensus has emerged that the mountain regions are more vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change due to its fragile environment. Ladakh, often referred to as ‘cold-desert’ due to its high altitude and cold arid climate is one such region where changes have been observed in the trends of some extreme weather and climatic events. Recent research and data on climate also indicated rapid changes in the climate of Ladakh. Patterns of rainfalls and snowfalls have been changing, glaciers and permanent snowfields are receding affecting water runoff in the rivers/streams, and rise in temperature and humidity causing favourable conditions for the intrusion of insects and pests. A survey conducted by an NGO, GERES-India indicates that between 1973 and 2008, there was a rising trend in mean temperatures by 1˚ C in winter and 0.5˚ C during summer”. These trends raise several concerns for the region, particularly for the agricultural sector.

Impact on Agriculture

Agriculture is one of the most sensitive sectors to impacts of climate change due to its high dependence on climate and weather. Over centuries, farmers in Ladakh have evolved self-sustained farming systems notwithstanding scarce resources, amidst a climatically challenging environment. In fact, it has been the mainstay of the economy and provides food and livelihood security for the people of Ladakh. However, recent climate changes are damaging this fabric of Ladakhi’s sustainability. The impact of climate change over the last few years has immense potential adversely affecting agriculture in this region in different ways.

About 90 per cent of farmers in Ladakh depend on irrigation by snow and glacial water, the productivity of agriculture depends on the supply of glacial meltwater. Agriculture will be adversely affected due to continuously retreating glaciers of the region. Any change in the supply of glacial-melt water poses a serious threat to agriculture, and therefore to the economy and food security.

It is believed that a rise in temperature could alter crop yields, which mean in either positive or negative. The effects on agriculture and its consequences on the society are likely to differ locally depending on the type of climate change that has taken place in that area and the options available to farmers. It could bring down the yield of wheat. However, a higher temperature may improve the wheat in the higher altitude area. Warmer temperatures may make many crops grow more quickly, but warmer temperatures could also reduce yields. Crops tend to grow faster in warmer conditions. However, for some crops (such as grains), faster growth reduces the amount of time that seeds have to grow and mature (Karl et al. 2009). According to Eshey, Leh Nutrition Project (LNP), “Apricot trees grow more than they used to thirty years ago. Over the years, farmers have introduced plants into their farmlands.” Thinley, who works at the irrigation department of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), pointed out that the floods in 2010 ravaged many irrigation canals and reservoirs.

If we look at the brighter side of the impact of climate change, it is worth mentioning that farmers in Ladakh have benefited from the recent global warming as they are able to grow a number of new vegetable crops. "Earlier vegetables and fruits had to be brought from areas lower in altitude but now they are available in the higher altitudes," said Nisa Khatoon, a researcher and environmental activist at Leh. But this could spell trouble for the region in the long term.

Climate change is also associated with increasing extreme climatic events such as drought, cloudburst and floods. As Ladakh witnessed a heavy and untimely rainfall, followed by the hellacious flash floods resulted from a cloudburst in August 2010, inundated agricultural fields with rock and sand (mudslides), rendering them unsuitable for further cultivation. Further, many agricultural lands were washed away due to continuously occurring floods over the last few years.  In addition, livestock is also vulnerable to the impact of climate change in the region. In Changthang region, nomadic people are known as the Changpas, acutely feel climate change. These people are dependent on the rearing of livestock, the pashmina goats for their wool. In recent years, the migration routes of the Changpas have changed due to a decrease in pasture land. Further, uncertain snowfall has led to the loss of many livestock in the region.

In future, climate change in Ladakh is likely to affect agriculture and increase the risk of water for irrigation. The villagers could face severe water scarcity which is attributed to heavy runoff of from faster snowmelt. Furthermore, an increase in the incidence of pest attacks and weeds could also create havoc in the region.

It can be concluded from the above discussion that climate change may have serious consequences in the region. If not addressed on time it could be a catastrophe. Therefore, more research should be carried out, mainly focussing on agro-climatic components, including simplified approaches to simulating adaptation responses, i.e. changes in agro-technology that enables farmers to minimise risks and/ or maximise profits under changing climates.  

The author is a Research Scholar in Centre for Study of Regional Development, Jawaharalal Nehru University and has completed a study on agriculture in Ladakh in 2013-14. He can be reached at