Season of water conflict in Ladakh

Samina Rehman
Summer arrives and people of Ladakh get occupied with events and economic activities that appear active, effervescent and meticulous after spending long and dull winter with less works at hands. Majority of the people in the region sustains on agriculture while others are absorbed in tourism and small related business. Agriculture is practised in the short period of summer of three to four months that has enhanced with tourism and presence of military. Expanded opportunities in summer also bring with them problems and issues some of  which have been long in existence but some of which are new and precarious. One major issue that people of Ladakh are facing is the scarcity of water which though is not discussed on larger political level but an inherent problem among the people who practice agriculture. Unequivocally evident from the barren and uncultivated lands; drying springs; low level of water in rivers and excessive digging of bore wells Ladakhi people face threat to their economic existence- the agriculture. Well, when demand exceeds its supply the conflict is inevitable to avoid hence for scarce water resource summer becomes the season of ‘water conflict’ in Ladakh.
Conflict for water among the farmers or between the families is a recurrent theme in Ladakh in summer even though people forget these minor conflicts as next season arrives. What is interesting to discern here is the connection of larger impact of globalisation and climate change on small region like Ladakh? The drought in hundreds of districts in India has devastated people especially farmers who have reached at the edge of their existence. The heat wave which has trapped almost whole of India finds it hard to withstand the excessive shortage of water and dried up agricultural land. Ladakh does not remain unaffected to the climate change that has hit the fragile climate and landscape of the region. Major impact can be seen in the frequent floods in summer and less snowfall in the winter that has not only disrupted the irrigation system but also the whole agriculture.
Increasing Water Conflict in Ladakh
The shortage of water in Ladakh especially in urban Leh is due to factors like climate change and over exploitation of water. Development of market economy becomes the foundation for the social, economic and ecological level changes that has impacted Ladakh in a considerable way. The burgeoning hotels, degradation of sustainable traditional technology and unchecked digging of bore wells are the few instances that are depleting the scarce water resource and summons community level conflict in the region for water. Although what is past is not always gold and glorious but few like the traditional Ladakhi toilet system (dry composting toilets) was far better than what is more preferred today- ‘flush toilets’. Not water but soil which is available  in Ladakh is used for dry toilets that do not produce any waste since the excrete is used as organic manure for agriculture. With the expansion of tourism, hundreds of hostels and guest houses in Ladakh use a water-intensive sewage system with septic tanks and in many cases the outfalls are discharged into the streams polluting the surface water.
In traditional Ladakhi society water was sufficient as people took conscious care not to pollute the scarce water resource. These values have eroded now. People are more concerned for their individual needs rather than the needs of the community as a whole. Ladakhi use spring and melted snow water with the help of another traditional technology which is the backbone of agriculture- the irrigation system a skilfully constructed water channels carrying water from its source to the cultivated fields. The water is collected in the reservoirs/zing at night built by community to irrigate the fields during day time. The canals to carry water from the zing to fields are built with local skills with sand, rocks etc. and it required very little maintenance which though when required are done by community collectively. Of late modern irrigation technology like cement and stone masonry are being used in construction of big canals for irrigation.
Nearly all the water used for irrigation is from melting snow and glaciers therefore is abundant in spring and early summer. However, with the rise in temperature and depending upon the source of water, precipitation, types of soil and crops grown the distribution of water is rationed from mid-June. Otherwise known for a very peaceful society where community life is the way of existence in the harsh semi-arid region, shortage of water from mid-summer often lead to disputes between the families or between a farmer and churpon (elected water officials who ensure equitable water distribution for the farmers). Although churpon system is absent in some villages like Skara which lie at the end of the water allocation system that starts from the northern ward of Gangles where the main river called Gangles Tokpo (river) descends throughout Leh town. This exemplifies that water from the tokpos is less  for fields situated in Skara as significant amounts have already been diverted to the upper fields. Therefore, Zings in the Skara wards are additionally sourced by the various springs found in that area which are also drying up with the change in climate. The absence of churpon puts the responsibility of discharge of water on the respective families through rotation system. Every family irrigate their fields on rotational basis both in the evening and morning times although the practice is not as simple as they give the impression. The theft of water at night from the zing or the diversion of water by the families other than the family whose turn for irrigation often turn the volatile situation into conflicts between the families. Crisis of water become so acute in summer that cases of water conflict appear frequently which are resolved either by the families themselves or by the goba (village headman). Community life of Ladakhi society along with the peaceful and cooperative co-existence is well developed and appreciated across the country but the conflict for water unlike other conflicts does not merely become an issue of a basic need but a need for survival and existence. The over utilization of water in water scarce region is nonetheless is a critical issue which does not receive the required attention from the government.
Need for Holistic Approach for Water Conservation
Little discussion in the political spectrum, lack of awareness among the local population, the perpetuation of unsustainable economic development and lack of inclusive account of water management points to the trifling nature of government and the people to implement holistic climate-centric strategies for adaptation to water scarcity. However, few have strived to conserve water and the name Chhewang Norphel comes  first- known as Glacier man who built an artificial glacier to irrigate the fields in the beginning of summer months. Water is not utilised in Ladakh in winter since there is no agricultural activity therefore the unused water is collected that freezes in a shallow layer in small pools. The process is repeated until the stacked layers of ice are several feet thick. Although it was quite a success in the beginning but with the change in climate the artificial glacier melts at a very fast pace in the beginning itself and hence couldn’t adhere to the desired requirements at later stage.
Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC)  is trying to tackle the situation of water crisis in the region and has already completed a study to determine future courses of action in the management of its water resources, which accounts for water needs up to the year 2040 (Sudhalkar, 2010). However, lack of funds for various projects for water management and inadequate study on the available water, amount of precipitation and snowfall etc. clearly exemplifies the negligence and nonchalant attitude of the government. Various NGO’s are also working hard to conserve water through various techniques like snow wall, artificial ponds, water shed projects etc. Evidently, the efforts of various stakeholders to the discourse of water scarcity in Ladakh are appreciable but still serious efforts are required from the government whose primary concern remains of supplying water with little focus on water conservation. Though following the model of development and modern lifestyle is not unscrupulous entirely but what is required at the moment is to continue some old traditional practices that are not only sustainable but also an adequate way to handle the water crisis.  Likewise, civic society should be more alert and aware about the water issues in the region so that timely preventive checks can be carried out to shield Ladakh from drought like situation that has enveloped almost our entire country.
(The author is a Research Scholar Department of Sociology, JNU)