There is an ancient folk story in the village of Kumik about a small magical dwarf- like man called the Balu. He asked the villagers 1000 years ago what they wanted: a stone wall around their village to protect the crops from animals or water. The people of Kumik looked behind them and saw a gigantic white glacier carving down the mountain behind the village. Why would they need water? They chose the wall.
Now, millennia later, their fabled choice may be coming back to haunt them, as their once mighty glacier has now completely retreated. The once sustainable and reliable source of water is now gone, and Zanskar’s first village may be the first to be abandoned.
“In the last 40 years, the glacier has slowly disappeared. I remember when I was a child it came right down to the village, and the stream reached the valley below,” said Tashi Stobdan, a man who has lived in Kumik his whole life. Now the village is in a perpetual state of drought and is entirely reliant on a small finite spring that is recharged by winter snowmelt.
In times past, Kumik’s water flowed bountifully from glacier melt every summer to feed its fertile soils and crops without a second thought. It was a lush and peaceful piece of land where the people had no reason to ever consider leaving. However, in recent times the spring has gone dry before summer’s end. This led to dire situations, such as the village having to sell off their livestock at below cost price, as there was not enough harvested fodder to feed them through the long cold winter.
Kumik is located deep in the remote Zanskar Valley in the Indian Himalayan region. From October to March the entire valley is cut off from the world due to heavy snows. There is no way in or out for the 300 villagers that are mostly subsistence farmers with only a handful having paid jobs. The importance of water for this village cannot be understated, and the life-giving liquid is not taken for granted. Without the water, the irrigation of their small fields of barley, wheat, peas, and fodder for the animals would not be possible. In other words, it is their lifeline.
However, the Himalayas are experiencing the fastest warming trends on the planet, not including the Arctic. This warming due to climate change is forcing and causing tremendous shifts in ways of life that have been largely untouched and unchanged for thousands of years. Kumik’s once life-giving glacier is now a statistic next to the rest of the Himalayan glaciers, which are all in a state of general retreat. “All the glaciers in Zanskar are disappearing,” said Urgain Dorjey, a lifelong local of Zaskar’s provincial centre of Padum and trekking guide. “I take tourists on treks to see the glaciers and each year they look different and smaller.”
The glacial melting is not only occurring in Zanskar but also neighbouring Nepal, and Tibet are just some examples of rapid glacial retreat. Collectively the Himalayan glaciers form the largest body of ice outside of the Arctic region and the sources to some of the largest river systems on Earth such as the Indus, Ganges, Bhamapurtra Yangtze, and the Mekong. From India to Vietnam these rivers are the lifelines for billions of people for drinking water to agriculture to industry. The Ganges basin in India alone supports over 500 million people, many of them subsistence farmers like Kumik’s people.
If rates of warming due to climate change increase further it will have enormous impacts on glaciers in the region creating issues in regards to long-term water security for people across political borders. Kumik’s glacier and water issues are potentially the canary in the coal mine.
In Kumik, as the community watched their glacier move upwards year by year they tried everything to try and tap back into the source of life. From digging higher canals to attempting to lobby their state government to dig a tunnel through the mountain to create a new stream. All failed. “After trying so many different things and with nothing working, we came together as a community and decided we must move,” said Stobdan. Stobdan, in many ways, was the pioneering thinker in regards to relocation and went to great efforts to secure land in the valley below next to the Zanskar River, known now as ‘Lower Kumik’. “It was hard work, but no water, no life,” said Stobdan.
The decision to move to Lower Kumik was initially met with positive reactions. “Many families wanted to move,” said Stobdan. The community pooled their meagre savings together to pay for a bulldozer to dig a canal next to the Zanskar River, at a cost of $3000 USD. “It was beautiful and green. We had water and began to plant crops of Barley,” said Stobdan. Over the next five years ten families relocated and some with other things than water attracting them towards lower Kumik. “When the new road connects Zanskar to the rest of India all year there will be more people. I hope to open a restaurant and homestay for tourists,” said Sonam Choral, a five-year resident of Lower Kumik. “But, it was the access to good water that made our family decide to move first,” said Choral.
During this time, further up the valley, a landslide had occurred and began, over years, to create a dangerous artificial lake. According to locals, the government had full knowledge about the lake and failed to take appropriate action. Two years ago, disaster, once again struck, the lake exploded and broke its banks. The resulting flood destroyed Lower Kumik’s life-giving river canal. The upper and lower villages simply could not afford another $3000 to build a new one. Lower and Upper Kumik began to resemble one another, both marooned with little water and little help.
The flood impacted those that had already moved the most. “We left our home in Upper Kumik, it is empty, all of our family is here now because we knew there was water here when we moved,” said Thukjay Dolma, a mother of three. “We built this new house with our savings, but now there is no water again, and if we move back we will have nothing,” she said. The canals absence is starkly evident as you walk along the parched earth and gaze into the distance and see the scattered homes with dust whipping up in all directions. A moonscape with only the hardiest plants surviving. “We do not know what to do and are confused. Do we stay or go back?” said Dolma in a final thought.
Kumik’s worries are far from over. With little to no help from the outside, the village remains at a crossroads. Do they try and find the money to reinvest in a new canal for Lower Kumik, or stay in the old village and face perpetual drought? Time will tell and perhaps another catalytic moment will mobilise the village into action once again. However, until that moment, life goes on under the pressure and constant thought of a lack of water. Will the water flow tomorrow or will it be a day where the sound of a rushing stream be nothing but a trickle? “I guess it is bad luck. But we’re here to stay, and we’ll find another way,” said Tashi Stobdan in a brave tone as the village heads into unknown territory.
Photo essay: http://www.ashleycrowther.org/waterless/