Water security and climate adaptation in the Himalaya – exploring ecologies of water-care in Changthang, Ladakh.

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by Michael Buser…..

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been researching some of the relationships between climate change, water security, and culture in the Changthang region of Ladakh, India.  Changthang is located at the western edge of the Tibetan Plateau with an average altitude of 4,800 metres (15,748 feet) above sea level. It is a rural area consisting of small villages and settlements. It is also home to nomadic pastoralists who migrate with their livestock (sheep, pashmina goats, and yaks) across the highland grazing ecosystem.

During the past two millennia, a general warming and a wetter climate have been reported in this region (UNEP, 2022). One impact has been increasing glacial retreat – a recent study found that glaciers in the Ladakh Range had decreased by over 12% between 1991 and 2014 (Chudley et al. 2017). Warming trends are leading to significant ecological change and projections show the potential for more extreme consequences caused by a warmer and wetter climate in the future. People living in Changthang have substantiated these findings, noting significant climate volatility, increased severity of winters, and higher precipitation in summers. 

Participant drawing of the village and its water resources

In my research, I’m studying the way climate change is contributing to water insecurity and impacting traditional ways of life. The majority of this effort has been developed through a collaboration with the Ladakh Media and Arts Organisation (LAMO), an NGO based in the city of Leh. As part of our collaboration and scoping, LAMO has conducted a series of workshops in Ladakhi villages, asking people to speak about their experiences with water and climate.  This has involved working with young people who have been asked to express themselves through drawing, paintings, and photography. The team has also engaged community elders to explore cultural knowledge around water through oral history, stories, and songs. 

The most recent workshop, led by LAMO, took place over five days in the village of Chumathang, Ladakh. The village is located along the Indus River and is well known for its hot water springs.  Indeed, people come from over the region to experience the healing properties of the springs. The team was told that the village name – Chumathang – is likely derived from ‘chu’ (water), ‘maan’ (medicine) and ‘thang’ (plain) which means the plain where medicinal waters are found.  The workshop, held in the spring of 2022, explored the role of water in the village with young participants and village elders.  The team also organised excursions around the area to look water resources and infrastructure that support life.  

Young participants at our recent workshop

Now, with our scoping efforts largely complete, the next phase of research will involve deeper explorations into the relations between environmental change, culture, and daily life in Ladakh. Our framework for understanding these processes is based in the concept of ‘ecologies of care’ (Buser et al 2020; Buser and Boyer 2021).  For my part, this framework helps draw attention to the ways in which water is an interdependent and entangled part of life. With care as a central organising theme, we will look to draw out multiple forms of managing and adapting to water security challenges and how life is made possible in this dynamic and fascinating landscape at the leading edge of climate change.

Special thanks to Monisha Ahmed, Tashi Morup, Sonam Landol and the rest of the team at LAMO, the community of Chumathang, and all of the others involved in these activities. Your dedication is an inspiration.

Buser, M. and Boyer, K. (2021) Care goes underground: thinking through relations of care in the maintenance and repair of urban water infrastructures. Cultural Geographies. 28(1), 73–90.

Buser, M. et al. (2020) Care and blue space: water and the cultivation of care in social and environmental practice. Social and Cultural Geography. 21(8), 1039-1059.

Chudley,T., Miles, E., and, Willis, I. (2017) Glacier characteristics and retreat between 1991 and 2014 in the Ladakh Range, Jammu and Kashmir, Remote Sensing Letters, 8:6, 518-527,

United Nations Environment Programme (2022). A Scientific Assessment of the Third Pole Environment. Nairobi.

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