Ladakh's cashmere goats and herders could be lost to climate change

Nomads in India’s high mountain deserts forced to give up centuries-old way of life

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For decades, Konchok Dorjey grazed the world’s finest cashmere-producing goats in the arid, treeless Kharnak village in India’s Ladakh region, a high mountainous cold desert that borders China and Pakistan.

But a decade ago, Mr Dorjey, 45, gave up his pastoral life in search of a better future for his family. He sold off his animals and migrated to an urban settlement on the outskirts of a regional town called Leh.

He now lives with his wife, two daughters and a son in Kharnakling, where scores of other nomadic families from his native village have also settled in the last two decades.

“It was a tough decision,” Mr Dorjey said. “But I did not have much choice.”

Shifting weather patterns have already altered people’s lives through floods, landslides and droughts in Ladakh, an inhospitable yet pristine landscape of high mountain passes and vast river valleys that in the past was an important part of the Silk Road trade route.

Frequent loss of livestock due to diseases, lack of health care, border conflict and shrinking grazing land — worsened by extreme climatic changes — has forced hundreds to migrate from sparsely populated villages to urban clusters.

In the remote Himalayan region, glaciers are melting fast, a worry for villagers who largely depend on glacial run-off for water.

Mr Dorjey, who swapped herding for cab driving, has seen it all. He said that in his youth elders would often talk about moving somewhere else because there was so much snow that daily life was difficult.

“As I grew up, snow fell so little that we would contemplate leaving the place,” Dorjey said.

He herded 100 cashmere goats, yak and sheep. But his younger daughter, Jigmet Dolma, now 18, fell ill, changing the family’s course.

Jigmet initially suffered from pneumonia. Then she had seizures and would often faint, sending the family 170 kilometres north to Leh, where they would spend days for her treatment. As the family was yet to come to terms with her ailment, incurring losses to their livestock due to diseases and cold was draining them of their resources, Mr Dorjey said.

“It was a cataclysmic year and extreme cold badly hit livestock. It just devoured large number of baby goats,” he said. At about 15,000 feet altitude, the temperatures in the region can fall to minus 35°C during long winter months.

In 2011, Mr Dorjey locked his stone house and left Kharnak for good. He painstakingly built his new life in Kharnakling and now drives a taxi for a living. The health of his daughter has improved, while his two other children are studying.

“Ultimately, it boils down to safeguarding your family,” he said.

“Urban life has brought its own issues and almost everything runs on money,” he said as he explained his earlier predicaments of new life. “Life was much easier there (in Kharnak) with all its hardships.”

Mr Dorjey’s wife, Sonam Kunkhen, was happy to leave the old village.

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

On a recent sunny day, Mr Dorjey drove to his native village Kharnak where he met his uncle, Tsering Choldan. He said the nomad, 64, told him that he too was leaving soon. Other shepherds were also packing up their bags.

Mr Dorjey said in recent years the village had received considerable attention as authorities built prefabricated huts for nomads and spruced up animal feed facilities. But he doubted that would stop migration.

“There are some facilities that were not there when I was living here. But there are also some other regressive changes that have occurred,” Mr Dorjey said.

The worst, he said, was unpredictability of the weather and shortage of water in recent years.

Many of Kharnak’s pastures have become barren owing to unusual weather in recent years. And the glaciers that covered the surrounding high peaks have shrunk drastically in last two decades causing water shortages, the shepherds said.

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

Known as a part of the water tower of Asia, Ladakh has to thousands of glaciers, including Siachen glacier that is the longest outside the Polar region. Some of the region’s glaciers also feed the Indus Basin Irrigation System, one of the world’s largest, that provides water to India and China and is considered a lifeline for agricultural land in Pakistan.

But they are receding at an alarming rate, threatening the water supply of millions of people.

In recent years, the changes on the ground are stark.

There are some fruit and vegetables, like apple and broccoli, now grown in the region due to favourable weather. About a decade and a half ago such farming was unheard of.

Bird watchers now spot paradise flycatcher and Eurasian scops owl that don’t belong to the region. At the same time some native wildlife like Tibetan antelope or Ladakh urial are disappearing from the region’s landscape.

A military stand-off between India and China has led to the deployment of tens of thousands more soldiers to an already militarised region and has led to massive infrastructure development in recent years. It has in turn increased localised pollution, mainly in the form of carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels like coal and kerosene, and wood for heating shelters to keep soldiers warm in freezing temperatures.

Mr Dorjey said some places in the region “still receive a regular snowfall, but it melts fast”.

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

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

Most young people would rather do anything but shepherd animals high in the mountains. Many of them are working in government offices, run their own businesses or do menial jobs with the Indian military.

But Mr Dorjey said he cannot take the nomad out of himself.

“It was the hardest decision in my life to leave my village. My soul is still here,” he said.

Updated: November 02, 2022, 8:24 AM