Melting of Glacier Raises Fears of Water Woes in Ladakh

by Jayashree on Sep 21 2007 12:02 PM

Rinchen Wangchuck remembers slipsliding his way down a glacier that stretched far down the mountains toward his village in the Nubra Valley, in India's far north, after school ended for the summer.

Today, Wangchuck says that glacier is all but gone.

Like him, many who live in the trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh where glaciers are a part of daily life are reporting similar disquieting changes.

"As a young boy I remember the road wouldn't be open. We used to trek across the glacier. You slid a lot of the way," recalled Wangchuck, 37, now head of the environmental organisation Snow Leopard Conservancy.

Wangchuck often travels the 40 kilometres (26 miles) from Ladakh's capital Leh to the Khardung-La pass that lets into the valley and says he has watched the glacier on the north face of the Karakoram mountains shrink before his eyes.

"Twenty years ago the road opened into a wall of ice. Today that wall of ice is barely there," he said.

In a region where annual rainfall is around 50 millimetres (two inches) and glaciers provide 90 percent of the water, Ladakhis worry they may be among the first to feel the effects of global warming.

Trekking guide Sonam Chosgial, who leads climbing groups once or twice a year up to Stok peak, visible from Leh, says the glacier he passes on the way to the summit has shrunk too.

"Since the last five to six years it has been decreasing in size," he said. "You used to need to cross it in a more technical way. Now it is not very risky to do."

Others report weather fluctuations -- snow and rain at odd times -- and a snowline that appears to be steadily creeping upwards.

In Ladakh, sandwiched between India's rivals Pakistan and China, weather data is closely guarded by the army and air force which have a heavy presence.

In any case, just a handful of the thousands of Himalayan glaciers are studied using a field method that provides a first-hand gauge of their retreat well before it becomes visible by satellite.

But what little information is available confirms what Ladakhis are seeing.

Measurements of one Ladakh glacier taken from 2001 to 2003 with a global positioning system (GPS) receiver show an estimated annual retreat of 15 to 20 metres (49 to 66 feet).

"This rate is chaos. That should not happen," said paleoclimatologist Bahadur Kotlia, who took the measurements of a glacier on the south face of the Karakoram mountains out of curiosity on his way to the Nubra valley for research.

A satellite-based study of 466 Himalayan glaciers published in January by scientists with the Indian Space Research Organisation estimated their area had reduced by 21 percent since the 1960s.

"I knew things are changing very dramatically but I never had a clue (of the) extent they are retreating," the study's lead author Anil Kulkarni, who has been studying Indian glaciers for 20 years, told AFP.

China last month reported a similar decrease over the same time span in glacier area in its northwest.

"This is half a percent per year so it's quite a fast shrinking," said Wilfried Haeberli, director of the Swiss-based World Glacier Monitoring Service coordinating body.

Scientists say temperatures in the region have increased by between 0.15 and 0.6 degrees Celsius (0.27 and 1.08 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade for the last 30 years.

Himalayan glaciers are the headwaters for Asia's nine largest rivers, vital for the 1.3 billion people who live downstream.

The melting of the glaciers bodes particularly ill for rain-scarce Ladakh where water demand has risen in recent years, spurred by tourism.

In the old part of Leh, residents still get water from hand pumps using only as much as they can carry back up the alleys in buckets.

But in the new town, hotels and guesthouses with flushes and showers to supply are pumping up groundwater. Officials acknowledge that water use is uneven and unplanned.

"Very recently we started boring water,"said Chering Dorjay, head of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. "People are pumping too much water and water levels are going down."

Farmers, though, are reporting plenty of water in glacier-fed streams.

"In the last 20 years we have hardly had any drought. Without good snowfall there is still good water in the streams," said a concerned Dorjay. "That means whatever reserves we have are melting."

Scientists say that a period of water "luxury" -- as glaciers release water reserves built over thousands of years -- will precede the water woes to come.

"What is happening is a lot of snow is melting in winter itself," said glaciologist Kulkarni. "There may be a time when we do not feel the pinch, but this luxury aspect will not last that long."

The scientist's research showed that winter snowmelt in one Indian river basin had increased by 75 percent in the last 40 years.

Councillor Dorjay said officials are considering ways to hoard water, including reservoirs and artificial glaciers -- made by channeling winter streams into a depression to slow the water flow, which allows it to freeze.

Ladakh's "artificial glacier" man, who brought the technique to several villages more than a decade ago, said underground streams will also be affected by rising temperatures and declining snowfall.

"There used to be heavy snowfall even in Leh in winter -- two to three feet. Now there's hardly one foot," said Chewang Norphel, head of the Leh Nutrition Project. "The underground streams are also fed by snowfall."

But Norphel, as he visited the farming village of Nang where the fields were green with barley, peas and potatoes, tries to remain upbeat about Ladakh's changing climate.

"Perhaps it will rain more," he said.