FEATURE: The invisible disaster for the Changpas tribe in Ladakh, India
Vijayalakshmi Viswanathan of SEEDS / Saferworld Communications reports from an emergency situation where a freezing winter is putting lives and livelihoods at risk.
“Over these 3 winter months, we have lived through extreme difficulties, no less than a nightmare. At times we feared for our own lives and there was little we could do for our livestock. There was little fuel wood and dung, as most of it had got wet… I have never witnessed such a harsh winter in all my life.” – Meme Urgain Tuktsa, 73 years old and herder in Korzok
The high altitude plains of Changthang, Eastern Ladakh, are home to a nomadic tribe called the Changpas. For generations, they have lived in harmony with the land. Their intricate multi-dimensional pastoral system is centered around livestock. The Changpas rear yaks, horses and sheep, in addition to their famous changra ‘pashmina’ goats. The region produces around 40,000 kgs of pashmina every year. It also supplies butter, meat and wool for the Ladakh region.
Over the three months between mid-December and mid-March, there were four major heavy snow falls; a record for the region. In fact, it snowed consecutively between January 18th and February 3rd. The winter pastures were totally covered with blankets of snow. Usually, the wind would blow away enough snow that parts of the pastures could be accessed within 5-6 days. Livestock could survive this amount of time without food. However, this winter, the snow was packed down so heavily that there was no access to the pastures at all. The plummeting temperatures only added to the crisis.
January and February are the key months both for pashmina hair growth and birthing. Both goats and sheep require extra food at this time. Unfortunately, starvation meant that almost 90% of the young were stillborn or died. Around 40,000 livestock (goats and sheep) have perished, as well as several hundred horses, yaks and other wild mammals.
The Changthang region encompasses two blocks of Leh district – Nyoma and Durbuk. Twenty villages across the region were affected. The greatest impact was on places like Tegajung, Samad and Kharnak.
SEEDS together with local partners have been working with these communities as part of a pilot study for a CDKN research study looking at how to integrate climate change within Disaster Risk Management (DRM) approaches. The research has had to take a back-seat as the communities focus on survival. As some of the community members explain:
“I was back in Tegajung on school vacation. It was the first time I ever seen such a big snow. We never used to sleep, but just kept cleaning the snow from the corrals. Yet, in the end we had no food to give them and around 50-60 of our sheep and goats died.” – Chimit Tolkar, 16 years old and student at the Nomadic Residential School, Puga.
“Until you have some snow, you cannot expect any greenery or a beautiful summer. So some snow is a must. But we never dreamed it would come like this. It got to the point where we couldn’t feed our animals or ourselves. We lost around 15% of our flock this year.” – Lundup Gyatso, Sarpanch, Samad Rockchan.
Discussions with affected communities across the region revealed a variety of needs:
- Fodder and feed banks containing pre-stocked fodder around every wintering pasture
- Canvas/ tarpaulin cover for their corrals. This should be wind and water proof, yet light enough to be carried with them on the move. This will help avoid the freezing and loss of livestock in harsh winters
- Solar-oriented human shelters for all wintering herder camps, where they spend up to four months
- Good quality windproof and waterproof tents
- Gum boots, goggles, thick jackets, heavy sleeping bags, solar lanterns and torches
These priorities were echoed by both the Executive Councilor of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council and the District Sheep Husbandry Office.
A consortium of humanitarian and development organisations working in Leh met on May 10th, 2013, in Leh to assess the situation. This was based on preliminary field assessments in Changthang carried out by RDY, Live to Love and local volunteers. SEEDS and RDY (supported by CDKN-START) carried out a further field assessment in the second week of May.
Based on the findings and the joint assessment of local needs, the consortium appeals to the humanitarian sector agencies active in India to come forward and support the people of Changthang in this time of need.
We appeal for immediate action on the following areas:
- Providing light, water-resistant and windproof tarpaulins to cover their corrals
- Building fodder banks and feed banks in the most vulnerable winter pasture locations
We also appeal for sustainable medium – term assistance in the following areas:
- Building solar-oriented human shelters in the most cut-off winter pasturelands
- Providing support for efficient solar-powered water hand pumps and other devices
- Working with the government for long-term policy change in this area
Stanzin Dorjai Gya of Himalayan Film House and Saferworld Communications (with the support of Live to Love, SEEDS and RDY) have documented the local impact of the disaster in this short video.
For more information, contact: Padma Tashi, Convener, Changthang Emergency Response Group and Director, Rural Development and You (RDY), firstname.lastname@example.org, +919419178114, +919622979114
Photos courtesy of Changthang Emergency Response Group
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 These figures are based on discussions with government officials and local leaders. An official census is still pending and will be done in June –July 2013.