Scorched earth: Why Lahaul is on the precipice of a climate crisis

Scorched earth: Why Lahaul is on the precipice of a climate crisis

The Lahaul region in Himachal Pradesh is witnessing soaring temperatures this year, and this threatens to jeopardise its agriculture and traditional way of life

As the plains of north India are witnessing scorching summer this year, even the mountains are feeling the heat, quite literally. The mountainous region of Lahaul, in Himachal Pradesh, about 700 km from Delhi, which in the past would provide people refuge from sweltering heat, is seeing mercury soaring quite abnormally.

Scorched earth Why Lahaul is on the precipice of a climate crisis

Annually, the Lahaul region exports over 100-150 crore worth of agriculture products, and its farmers have the one of the highest per capita income in the country. But a few degrees here and there could potentially devastate the water resources and agriculture.

To find out how bad things really were, I headed to the snow-clad land of Lahaul. It was midnight and a full moon when my car crossed the Atal Tunnel towards Lahaul. The silvery Chandra river, gigantic snow-covered mountains and starry nights kept us company as we drove past sleepy Sissu and reached Keylong.

Scorched earth Why Lahaul is on the precipice of a climate crisis

From potatoes, peas to cauliflower and even exotic crops like lettuce, iceberg, etc, can be found in Lahaul, and that too ‘off-season’. Their profits come from ‘off-season’ supply of vegetables to the plains. But traditionally they grew buckwheat, rajma, wild local apple and apricot, and local vegetables (turnip, beetroot, etc).

Scorched earth Why Lahaul is on the precipice of a climate crisis

One of the early agrarian influences came from the missionaries who set up camp during the British era. Some credit potatoes, a few varieties of fruits (i.e peaches, apples, etc) and newer barley seeds to them. But major changes came after the 1970s, with the introduction of disease-resistant potatoes and other horticulture crops like peas, cauliflower, etc. This high-altitude region was also a seed breeding centre given it had good greyish-brown soil and pest-free environment.

Scorched earth Why Lahaul is on the precipice of a climate crisis

Farm Hopping with Dorje

At over 12,000-ft, I was literally breathless, but the day began early. Amidst apple trees and cow manure, I met with Dorje Angrup, Kunga and Devi Singh, middle-aged Keylong farmers. Devi Singh was tending cauliflower saplings. His poly-house had over one lakh saplings of broccoli, cauliflower and other exotic vegetables like lettuce. The saplings looked ready and I asked why they were in the fields.

“Our region is facing water scarcity, due to less snowfall. People began agricultural work from late February this year, because we have been under a dry spell for a few years. Keylong and other areas had snow until April but now all that is changing very fast,” Kunga said.

But snow and agriculture? I wanted him to elaborate. “Without snow on the fields there is no moisture in the soil. We depend on the glaciers for irrigation water, due to lack of snowfall they are all drying up. They have at least shrunk 40 percent since I was a child,” he added.

Scorched earth Why Lahaul is on the precipice of a climate crisis

Dorje, associated with a local young farmers’ organisation, decided to accompany me. It was a quiet sunny day, farmers were busy tilling, getting fields ready for potato sowing. Sweating under the noon sun, we followed the pea saplings and took refuge under dried willow trees. Fifteen-odd women were sitting there, enjoying their break. We got them talking.

“I am over 65-year-old now. Since I was a child I helped out in agriculture. Lahaul was a different place then, we had over 20-30 ft of snow in the winter and the growing season was also shorter. Now there is too much heat and water is drying up. If things go on like this, Lahaul’s agriculture will change forever,” Yangdum said.

Lahaul’s diet has also changed. Due to the Atal Tunnel rations come easy. Rice and wheat are the new staples of the area, replacing buckwheat.

After a quick meal, Dorje and I headed to meet Charan Das, 65-year-old farmer from Goushal, about 5-8 km from Keylong. We sat at a tea store, drank sugary tea, and talked about agriculture and changing times.

“Snowfall has drastically decreased in our lifetimes. Global warming is affecting all places. Right now we should have been under 2-ft snow. Look at plants, they are flowering faster too,” Das said.

“None of the things on your thali are from here. Even the buttermilk is now from Jersey cows. Indigenous cows are gone. Everything has changed around here,” he said.

Dorje, who finished his cup of tea, added: “Now there are also newer diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart problems. People are also changing with the climate it seems.”

Further into Goushal village, we found Arun Rana, also a farmer. He said, “Each year 70 lakh vehicles cross the Atal Tunnel. The cars and tourists increase the pollution in the area.”

We spent a few days travelling from Darcha and Keylong, going village to village, asking about agriculture and climate. Apart from people, the fallow fields narrated their own story. Soil moisture was low as glaciers were in retreat and many places including Darcha, Sunam village, Tandi village, etc, reported water shortages. Some farmers reported 50 per cent less water this year for farming. So, to corroborate their claim, we drove past the confluence of the Chandra-Bhaga river past Tandi toward Mouling village. There, we met Vrish, a middle-aged farmer who was slowly transitioning into organic farming. Why?

Scorched earth Why Lahaul is on the precipice of a climate crisis

“The agri-chemicals are deteriorating the soil and adding to the climate problem. Our crops yields are going down as the soil doesn’t have any strength left. The water retention capacity is also lesser each year. Water is scarce and exotic vegetables need a lot more water than traditional varieties. Plus, our limited water is also getting contaminated with pesticides, etc. With organic farming we can save the soil and also our micro-climate,” Vrish explained.

It was refreshing to hear Vrish, but we had to go to our next stop — the local agri-input and seed shop in Keylong. Prem Singh, the owner, was wearing a mauve shirt. I asked him about the connections between climate change and emission from industrial agriculture. First, he was sceptical, and after thinking replied: “We know the chemicals are bad for our environment. This area must use about 1,500 litres of pesticides, but we ourselves tell buyers to reduce usage. Most farmers also prefer organic manure.”

Dorje had driven me over 200 km in a few days. Before I headed for home, we stopped at Kiyor and met Chetan Singh, a veteran farmer. As the tea came, I asked him about the future of the area: Will Lahual be another victim of the climate crisis? Singh replied, “If we don’t pay attention now, first our water will finish and then that day may not be far when people of our areas will have to leave and find work in other areas. We all need to wake up, or else Lahaul will be devoured.”

Scorched earth Why Lahaul is on the precipice of a climate crisis

As we finished our tea, it started to drizzle. I prayed for rain, and left with Dorje for Keylong. On the way back, it became clear Lahaul stands on the precipice of climate disaster. If water dries up, this paradise will be lost forever.

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