Climate change: The villagers building 100ft ice towers

Environmental photographer and writer Arati Kumar-Rao travels across South Asia in all seasons to chronicle the subcontinent’s changing landscape. Here, in photos and in her own words, she captures the increasing threat climate change poses to the lives and livelihoods of the Ladakhi people, who face an uncertain future below the melting glaciers of the Himalayan mountains. Kumar-Rao is one of this year’s Climate Pioneers on the BBC 100 Women list.

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Snowfall is becoming increasingly erratic in the Ladakh region, disrupting farming and agricultural patterns

The night of 5 August 2010 is still fresh in the memory of the people of Ladakh, in northern India, when it felt like a cloud had burst over the area surrounding the capital, Leh.

One year’s worth of rain fell on the cold desert in just two apocalyptic hours. Massive walls of sludge swallowed up everything in their path. Scrambling people were buried mid-stride under a thick brown-grey mass.

Several hundred people were never found after that fateful night.

The Ladakh region, the northernmost plateau of India, sits more than 3,000m (9,850ft) above sea level. The Greater Himalayan Range shields the region from the annual monsoon that much of the rest of India relies on.

Until recently, Ladakh has been bathed by the sun for 300 days per year, while barely four inches of rain have fallen on the vast landscape of rock and mountains. Floods were virtually unheard of.

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Animal rearing is one of the most important and major livelihoods of Ladakhi people

The destructive flood of 2010 was followed in quick succession by further floods in 2012, 2015, and most recently, in 2018.

Something that had not happened in seven decades, occurred four times in fewer than 10 years. Such freak weather events are a result of climate change, experts say.

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June 2018: Meltwater from winter snow sustained wetlands in spring that livestock and wildlife depended upon. Unpredictable snowfall means they are now unreliable.

A decade and a half ago there used to be a regular rhythm to the Ladakhi land, which provided villagers with a steady water supply. Winter snow melted to feed streams, just as meltwater from the glaciers trickled down and provided water for farming and agriculture in springtime.

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Increasing numbers of goatherds are giving up the profession in response to the changing landscape
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Spring and summer is traditionally a time of plenty in Ladakh

However, climate change has seen average winter temperatures in Ladakh rise by about 1C over the last 40 years.

Snowfall has become increasingly unpredictable and glaciers have retreated farther up towards the peaks, or disappeared altogether.

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Spring 2023 (left) compared to Spring 2019 (right) in the village of Stok

I first visited Ladakh in 2018. I returned in 2019, and again in spring this year – kept away in the interim by the coronavirus pandemic. The difference was startling.

The snow now melts faster, leaving villagers with little to no water by spring. Glaciers are now so high up in the mountains that they melt later in the year. Ladakhi springtime – once lush and fertile – was dry and silent this year.

A lack of water has led to a decrease in meadows – keeping large flocks of pashmina goats is becoming unviable. The Changpa herders are giving up their traditional livelihoods and migrating to other parts of India or to Leh looking for non-pastoral work.

Farmers, unable to find water for their barley and apricots, are leaving in droves.

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Apricot farmers are forced to work in an increasingly dry environment
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Many Ladahki people have relied on apricot farming for decades

Despite the destruction caused by climate change, there is hope for this isolated region.

On my second visit to Ladakh in March 2019, I met engineer Sonam Wangchuk. He told me that on a drive through the valleys in 2013 he noticed a large mound of unmelted ice under a bridge, sheltered from the sun. The sight of that small tower of ice triggered an idea.

“High school maths tells us that a cone is the simple answer,” he grinned at me.

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Sonam Wangchuk was determined to find a solution for his community
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Workers assemble pipes to bring water down to the valley from the mountain peaks

Wangchuk wanted to help villagers freeze water in winter which could be saved for use in spring. Freezing it in the shape of a cone would maximise the volume of ice per square metre of surface area exposed to the sun and lengthen the amount of time it would take to melt.

The engineer assembled a team of local people and began experimenting, looking for the best way of creating cones of ice. Eventually, they found the right formula.

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Ice stupas now decorate the landscape

After piping water from a mountain stream down into the valley, the group forced water to flow up a vertical pipe with a fine nozzle attached to its end. The water went up the pipe and exited via the nozzle as a fine spray.

In night-time temperatures of -30C, the spray froze as it exited the pipe. Gradually, as more and more water emerged as spray and turned to ice, the edifice began to resemble a cone.

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Children from the local school help to build Ladakh’s ice stupas

Now named ice stupas, after Buddhist places of meditation, they have gained popularity all across Ladakh. The structures, some of which tower over 100ft (30m), provide a water supply for a community that has seen climate change disrupt its natural resources.

They also provide a surprising source of entertainment – hotly contested competitions for the tallest stupa take place annually.

But the injustice of the situation is not lost on either Wangchuk or his stupa-building friends. Ladakhi people are paying the price for carbon emissions made elsewhere.

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Ladakhis continue to try and survive on the front line of climate change

“It is not enough that we keep coming up with technical innovations, keep adapting, keep solving problems,” Wangchuk tells me.

“I want to use ice stupas as much to sensitise the world about the need for a change in behaviour, as I want to use it to provide water for us.”

As a photographer who has travelled across vast spaces of South Asia, I know Ladakh is not alone in its fight.

For the first time in history India and its neighbouring countries, China and Pakistan, face a common enemy – climate change. It has the potential to destroy river basins and threaten the most populated regions of the world. It may be time to come together to shore up resilience against this threat to survival.

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