Climate change forces Indian nomads to move to cities

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PA
A group of nomads rest while others work outside their homes on a bright sunny day in a remote village of Kharnak in the cold desert region of Ladakh, India on September 17.

KHARNAK, India (AP) — For decades, Konchok Dorjey has herded the world’s best cashmere-producing goats in the arid, treeless village of Kharnak in India’s Ladakh region, a cold, mountainous desert that borders China and Pakistan. But a decade ago, the 45-year-old nomad gave up his pastoral life in search of a better future for his family. He sold his animals and migrated to an urban settlement on the outskirts of a regional town called Leh.

Dorjey now lives with his wife, two daughters and son in Kharnakling, where dozens of other nomadic families from his home village have also settled over the past two decades.

“It was a tough decision,” Dorjey said recently, while sitting on the veranda of his home. “But I didn’t really have a choice.”

As this region of Asia is particularly vulnerable to climate change, changing weather patterns have already altered people’s lives through floods, landslides and droughts in Ladakh, an inhospitable but pristine landscape of high mountain passes and vast river valleys which in the past were an important part of the famous Silk Road trade route.

The frequent loss of livestock due to disease, lack of health care, border disputes and dwindling pasture – compounded by extreme climate change – has forced hundreds of people to migrate from sparsely populated villages to predominantly urban groups in the region known for its sublime mountain scenery and expensive wool.

In the remote Himalayan region, glaciers are rapidly melting while villagers still rely heavily on glacial runoff for water.

Dorjey, the nomad turned taxi driver, has seen it all.

Growing up, Dorjey said elders often talked about moving elsewhere because there was so much snow that daily life was difficult.

“Growing up, the snow fell so little that we are considering leaving the place,” Dorjey said.

He stayed there, raising some 100 cashmere goats, yaks and sheep. But an illness of her youngest daughter, Jigmet Dolma, now 18, changed the course of the family.

Dolma first suffered from pneumonia. Then she had convulsions and often fainted, sending the family about 170 kilometers north of Leh, where they spent days for her treatment. As the family had not yet come to terms with her illness, livestock losses from disease and cold were draining them of their resources, Dorjey said.


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Konchok Dorjey holds his daughter Jigmet Dolma at their home in Kharnakling near the city of Leh in the cold desert region of Ladakh, India on September 16.

“It was a cataclysmic year and the extreme cold hit the cattle hard. He just devoured a lot of baby goats,” he said. At an elevation of around 4,500 meters, temperatures in the region can drop to minus 35°C during the long winter months.

In 2011, Dorjey closed her stone house and left Kharnak for good. He painstakingly built his new life in Kharnakling and now drives a taxi for a living. Her daughter Dolma’s health has improved while the other two children are studying.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to protecting your family,” he said, taking a deep breath.

“City life has brought its own problems and almost everything runs on money,” he said of his earlier struggles with a new life. “Life was much easier there. [in Kharnak] with all its difficulties.

Dorjey’s wife, Sonam Kunkhen, said she was pleased with their escape from the old village.

“It’s better here for me and my family,” the 47-year-old said. “It took us a while to adjust, but I’m glad we moved here.”

On a recent sunny day, Dorjey traveled to his home village of Kharnak where he met his maternal uncle, Tsering Choldan. The 64-year-old nomad told him that he too was leaving soon. Other shepherds were also packing their bags.

Dorjey said the village had received considerable attention in recent years as authorities built prefabricated huts for nomads and beautified animal feeding facilities. But he said he was skeptical from experience that such facilities would stop the migration.

“There are facilities that didn’t exist when I lived here. But there are also other regressive changes that have happened,” Dorjey said.

Worst of all, he said, is the unpredictability of the weather and the scarcity of water in recent years.

Many pastures in Kharnak have become barren due to unusual weather conditions in recent years. And the multiple glaciers that covered the surrounding high peaks have shrunk dramatically over the past two decades, causing water shortages, the shepherds said.

“Few little ones that rested on the mountain tops during my years of nomadic life have now almost entirely disappeared,” Dorjey said, pointing to a barren mountain range in Kharnak.

Considered part of Asia’s water tower, Ladakh is home to thousands of glaciers, including the Siachen Glacier, the longest outside the polar region. Some of the region’s glaciers also feed the Indus Basin Irrigation System, one of the largest in the world serving India and China and considered a lifeline for farmland in Pakistan.

But they are receding at an alarming rate, threatening water supplies for millions.

In recent years, the changes on the pitch are visually striking.

Some fruits and vegetables, such as apples and broccoli, are now grown in the area due to favorable weather conditions. About a decade and a half ago, such agriculture was unknown.

Birdwatchers are now spotting winged creatures like the paradise flycatcher and the Eurasian scops owl that do not belong to the region. At the same time, some native wild species such as the Tibetan antelope or the Ladakh urial are disappearing from the region’s landscape.

The ongoing military standoff between India and China has seen the deployment of tens of thousands of additional troops to the already militarized region and led to massive infrastructure development in recent years. It in turn increased localized pollution, mostly in the form of carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels like coal and kerosene, and wood to heat shelters to keep soldiers warm by freezing weather.

Dorjey said some places in the region “still get regular snowfall, but it’s melting fast,” an indication of what experts are pointing out about Ladakh’s global warming.

A quiet flight of nearly 100 nomadic families from the village has reduced its population to just 17 families who raise some 8,000 animals. While food security, health care and education are at the heart of their migration, deteriorating climatic conditions have exacerbated their flight.

Among the former inhabitants of Kharnak, most of the old and aging people are nostalgic for their old village. But it is mostly those who have lived out their productive years of life and now sit at home or gather in prayer rooms or roadside shops to reminisce about what they have lost and gained.

Dorjey’s eldest daughter Rigzen Angmo, 21, has only visited Kharnak twice. “I would like to go there once in a while. Just that. There is not much for me there,” said Angmo, an undergraduate business student.

The other lot, mostly young, is largely apathetic. Most of them want to do something other than keep animals in the high mountains. Many of them work in government offices, run their own businesses or hold menial jobs in the Indian army.

Sitting by a stream in Kharnak, Dorjey said he couldn’t get the nomad out on his own.

“It was the hardest decision of my life to leave my village. My soul is still there,” he said. But he also admitted that he thought less and less of returning because “city life has possessed me and softened me”.

“On a practical level too, Kharnakling has better food and sanitation facilities. The weather is not as rough,” he said.

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