Elderly Wisdom and Youth Action in Ladakh

People of Indo-Aryan and Tibetan descent live in one of the highest locations in the world, the Ladakh region of northwestern India. Ladakh extends over 45,000 square miles and includes the Ladakh mountain range, which is part of the glaciated Karakoram Range of south-central Asia. Many in the Ladakh region are Buddhist and believe in good moral conduct such as generosity, righteousness and meditation. This goodwill extends to the glaciers, which they respect and value.

The Global Workshopa project that allows students to create original work that thinks critically about science and development, recently created a video in which young people from Ladakh interview their elders about climate change and its impacts on the glaciers. In the video, the grandparents remember a time during the mid-20th century when streams were full, glaciers were more robust, and snowfall was heavy. Now, farms in the agricultural areas are suffering because of a decrease in glacier meltwater for crop production.

“Himalayan Elders on Climate Change” (Source: The Global Workshop/YouTube).

In a paper titled “Glaciers and Society,” Karine Gagné, a postdoctoral associate of cultural anthropology at Yale University, and her colleagues, discuss some of the approaches used by locals to counter the impacts of receding glaciers.

Construction of a new 30-meter artificial glacier (Source: Rolex Awards).

Gagné spent a fair amount of time working in Ladakh observing everyday life and climatic changes. She told GlacierHub that in certain communities in the region, people depend on specific glaciers, have named them accordingly, and undertake specific actions to protect them.

In the paper, Gagné et al. discuss Chewang Norphel, a retired civil engineer in Ladakh who created artificial glaciers to harvest snowmelt and rainwater. Norphel’s project brought attention to the plight of farmers who use meltwater for agriculture. It has since been replicated by the younger generation.  

Still, receding glaciers have translated into water scarcity in some Ladakhi villages. Water is a pressing issue because villagers rely on snowfall in the spring to sow their crops. Elders have prayed to mountain deities that their glaciers will provide water in the spring. 

Irrigation from snowmelt in Ladakh (Source: Nevil Zaveri/Creative Commons).

Gagné explained that glaciers are “embedded in the local culture and religious views.” People believe, for example, that there is a guardian deity that inhabits the surrounding glaciers and that one’s actions can reflect in the condition of the natural environment. If one behaves unethically, it could lead to less meltwater than is necessary for growing crops that year.

Using the information provided by their elders, the youth interviewers from The Global Workshop are documenting the changes in their environment and their elder’s responses. Their interviews will help to fill gaps in environmental data extending to the 1950s in an effort to better understand changes in the local water systems and health of the glaciers. 

Many of the youth attend schools like the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) environmental school. Founded by education reformist and engineer Sonam WangchukSECMOL works on renewable energy and climate change preparedness with the youth from Ladakh. The campus is a student-run, solar-powered eco-village, where students live among staff and volunteers.

Students listen intently in class at the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh school (Source: SECMOL).

The Global Workshop’s video shows the importance of passing down generational knowledge, demonstrating how helpful it can be for youth involvement, community building, and environmental data collection.

If you are still curious about Ladakh, see GlacierHub’s recent piece on climate change adaptation to learn more about other efforts in the region.


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