A Dying Glacier, a Drought-Stricken Village, and a Good View

In the course of researching my new book, “Fire and Ice: Soot, Solidarity and Survival on the Roof of the World”, I traveled to many communities living in the shadow of retreating snow and ice. I talked to Sherpa villagers who fear potential glacial lake outburst floods in Nepal’s Khumbu Valley, and with Naxi people adapting to drought conditions not far from the increasingly bare flanks of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in China’s Yunnan Province.

One of the two small, shrinking glaciers atop the mountains above Kumik.

But nowhere did I find the consequences of the Himalaya’s shrinking glaciers and snowfields as stark or sobering as in Kumik, a cluster of 39 households hugging a hillside in northwest India. Kumik is one of the oldest communities in the remote Zanskar Valley, and the first there to be abandoned due to a changing climate.

Zanskar lies in the “rain shadow” formed by the Great Himalayan Range, where the only source of water – and therefore life – is melting snow and ice. The villagers of Zanskar long ago developed a sophisticated water-sharing system, to irrigate their fields of barley, peas, wheat and fodder grasses. But physics threatens to overwhelm this cultural ingenuity.

“There are loud indicators that these glaciers are melting,” Shakeel Romshoo, a glaciologist at the University of Kashmir, told me. He has studied glaciers in Zanskar and other parts of the state of Jammu and Kashmir since the mid-1980s. “Out of 365 glaciers in the Zanskar region that were there in 1969, about 6 of these glaciers are not there.” As in, completely gone. “I would say, all the glaciers I have seen, they are showing the recession.” Ulrich Kamp, of the University of Montana, measured thirteen glaciers in Zanskar, combining field measurements of glacier topography with thermal imaging and remote sensing data. “Most of the glaciers in the Greater Himalaya Range in Zanskar are receding since at least the 1970s,” he and his colleagues concluded.

Kumik’s sole irrigation source is a single stream of meltwater.

Kumik is on the sharp edge of this troubling trend. Its sole lifeline is one small stream coursing down from the glacier-capped mountain of Sultan Largo. This lifeline is frequently severed by the double whammy of declining snowfall and earlier, warmer springs. The stream now often dries up by August, before the harvest.

Ishay Paldan, the oldest resident of Kumik, has watched as the snowfields and small glaciers on the mountains above have steadily retreated over the course of his lifetime. “When I was a child, we had no problems with water,” he told me on my first visit. The view from his window shows just how much things have changed: the snowline that once almost came down to the edge of Kumik is now several kilometers distant.

Kumik’s chronic state of drought became so acute in the summer of 2000 that the entire community gathered and made a painful decision. They would leave their ancient homes, and start over somewhere else.

The government offered them a dusty, wind-scoured patch of desert – a couple miles and almost a thousand feet below – where they could start over. So they began to dig a canal, five miles long, to bring water from the Lungnak River. They gathered stones and mixed mud bricks. They started to build a new village from scratch, hoping to green this no-man’s-land long known as Marthang, “the red place.”

A villager hacks a new canal out of the hard earth of Marthang, (the “red place”) in the shadow of the retreating glaciers of the Great Himalayan Range.

Since my first visit in 2008, I have spent many happy days with the people of Kumik, listening to their stories in the old village they are slowly leaving, and working alongside them in the new one they are slowly coaxing from the desert floor. The villagers are more prone to cracking jokes about the tough spot they’re in, and singing songs as they hack canals out of the dry earth, than to dwelling on their bad luck. “Kumik is like a small flower that grows high in the mountains, and only needs little water!” goes a folk song that I heard the villagers sing late one night.

This stoic good cheer in the face of their slow-motion catastrophe has puzzled and inspired me in equal measure – enough to spend a few years writing a book that tries to ferret out and understand the physical and other forces behind their eviction (spoiler alert: black carbon, a.k.a. soot, is a primary culprit), and that also seeks to share the profound lessons of their resilience for the rest of us living downstream.

One interpretation of “Kumik” says it is a combination of the words kun and mik in the local language, meaning “all is visible.” Every time I go back, it strikes me how apt that name is. Looking up at the ragged, beleaguered patches of snow and ice on Sultan Largo, and down at the modest village taking shape in the “red place,” it seems as though the human consequences of our planet-warming pollution are made all too plain.

And it seems as though the logical response – bold, collective, hope-infused action – is revealed with just as much clarity.

Experts in collective, cooperative action, the people of Kumik are building a new village – one they hope will be more resilient to their changing climate.

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