Water Woes of Ladakhi Women

Chetna Verma
Ladakh  in the scorching midday heat, Tsewang Ladol steps into the courtyard outside her house and calls out loud to her neighbours, her dusty grey goncha (traditional Buddhist robe) and colourful skiraks tied around her waist flapping in the light breeze. Her voice carries easily across the silence of the mountainous Ladakhi desert, and four elderly women working the fields in the distance look up in acknowledgement. Soon after, they’re on their way up to Ladol’s house, climbing the rugged path with practiced ease.
With wrinkles lining their weathered faces, these Ladakhi women reflect a charming attitude that compliments the breathtaking landscape of this otherwise arid snow land. In this mute corner of the world, living in a village tucked away on the border of Ladakh’s districts of Kargil and Leh, they pose a challenge to the patriarchal Indian society. On their toes all day long, the women work in the fields ensuring food security for their families and, in the process, creating a source of income in the village.
Women in this region spend the entire year with a singular focus on intense hard work. During summer, they struggle against Kargil’s cold, parched geography with little vegetative growth, producing just enough for survival during winter. And when everyone is virtually in hibernation during the six months of extreme cold weather, they keep themselves busy with various sources of income generation.
Agriculture essentially provides them with food as well as some extra cash that they use in times of contingency. In addition to the local crops, women cultivate vegetables such as onion, potatoes, peas, cucumber and mustard. Then operating collectively in Self Help Groups, they sell the surplus produce to locals, labourers working on the National Highway and middlemen who further retail it at higher rates in the Kargil market. They also make mustard oil to sell in town. The profit made is deposited in the group’s bank account.
This set pattern, however, has steadily become tougher to follow. Reveals Ladol, 35, “Earlier, we would be able to save some money by selling vegetables. But in the last few years, the production has gone down drastically with the increasing water crisis in our area. We are able to grow only as much as would suffice for our families. Selling vegetables to others isn’t an option anymore.”
While the absence of a regular source of water for irrigation has been a constant obstacle in this land, with climate change showing its effects, the problem has only escalated. Over the last six decades, there has been a considerable drop in the snowfall in the area. This has directly affected the quantity of natural water resources available for irrigation. Rigzin Dorjay, 65, remembers how as a child, he has seen three to four feet of snowfall that has now dropped to the bare minimum.
Tsering Yangzen of Darchik village, located along the mighty Indus River, hails from a small community that believes it belongs to the ‘pure’ Aryan race. He firmly believes that the drying up of water resources each year is jeopardising the very future of his people since they depend solely on agriculture for their food security. Tashi Dawa, 67, who is the wife of the village head, agrees with Yangzen’s observation. Sharing her worry, she says, “In the last 30 to 40 years, the productive area has reduced from 10 kanals to five (1kanal = 5445 sq ft). We are concerned about how our coming generations are going to manage once these resources dry up completely.”
An ancient reservoir has been their only steady source of water supply. Elaborates Ladol, “During the King’s rule, our ancestors had constructed a dam to fight our water problems. Pipes connected to the natural spring fill up the dam that acts as a reservoir. This water is directed to every field in the village. The King had decided on the method of taking turns at the irrigation – and till date everyone follows that process. It used to help us avoid the additional strain of walking long distances for water, but that’s not the case anymore.”
Although the reservoir has been renovated recently by the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, it does take longer to fill up each summer. What this means for the everyday lives of women across the region is an even bigger challenge. A report published in a regional newspaper in July 2014 reported on how many villages in Kargil, particularly in the South Region, had been badly affected by drought due to insufficient water in the streams. Farmers have lost the produce of an entire season, adversely affecting their already uncertain economic condition.
In village Haniskote, women are struggling to cultivate with less water and, worse, facing the consequences of a poor yield. “The daily grind starts early. Working in the fields for 6-8 hours ensures that we are able to provide food for the family and also keep our SHGs afloat. That simply leaves us with no time for ourselves. We suffer physical strain that affects our health and have consequently started looking older than we are,” says Tsewang Dolkar, 27, wryly, pointing towards the wrinkles on her face.
When there is low yield, women save food for their families and live on leftovers. The strenuous work in the fields, coupled with low nutritional intake, compromises their health severely. Men from the community are either labourers or jobless. Moreover, when faced with a drought-like situation they migrate to Leh town or other areas like Jammu, Srinagar, Himachal Pradesh or Chandigarh (Punjab) in search of work. Women are left behind to deal with all the crippling problems brought on by drought, poor health and extreme weather conditions.
Today, the entire Ladakh province is threatened by unsustainable tourism, overgrazing, indiscriminate resource extraction and increase in infrastructure. The repercussions of climate change are clearly visible as the Indus River, whose main catchment area – about 59,146 sq km – lies in Ladakh, has been adversely affected by the melting of its feeding glacier Naimona’nyi. According to a major study, this important glacier had shrunk by 155m within the 30 year period from 1976 to 2006, at a rate of about five metres per year.
Unfortunately, the coming years are likely to see the crisis intensifying, with increased cases of drought, cloudburst, changing snowfall pattern and unexpected rains in this cold desert. Any mitigation, if at all done, is likely to ignore the effects of this on the health of women who have considerably less access than men to critical information on weather alerts and cropping patterns, affecting their capacity to respond effectively to the vagaries of changing climatic patterns.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established by the United Nations in 1988 to gather data and develop knowledge about climate change, concludes that, ‘Climate change impacts will be differently distributed among different regions, generations, age classes, income groups, occupations, and genders’. India’s National Action Policy on Climate Change, too, mentions the need to have a gender sensitive approach towards climate change. Whether the women of Kargil, with their sun-kissed faces and tired bodies, will benefit from the policy change remains to be seen.                                (WFS)