Farming high in a Himalayan desert

By Surabhi Pudasaini 30 March 2010
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With artificial glaciers and other innovative technologies, a Himalayan region is regaining food self-sufficiency.

This story complements the blog of AG’s editor, who has recently trekked through the Himalayas. Read Ian’s blog here.

GROWING ENOUGH FOOD is not easy in Ladakh, a desert region high in the mountains of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s most northern state. With farming possible only from April to August, this bare and cold Himalayan area struggles to feed its 300,000 people.

In the winter, temperatures drop to minus 45°C and most local residents, save the few who migrate to the lowlands, remain indoors, drinking copious cups of steaming, salty yak butter tea.

Until the 1960s, Ladakhis were self-sufficient, relying on a diet of barley, wheat and potatoes. But today there are more Indian army personnel deployed in the region, which lies on the India-China border. Ladakh’s youth, meanwhile, are increasingly switching from backbreaking agriculture in the harsh terrain to more profitable jobs in the booming tourism industry.

Now almost three-quarters of the population depend on government-subsidised food for survival, as Ladakh’s food production falls far short of local demand.

Projects now underway in Ladakh could reverse this negative trend. Spearheading the effort for sustainable food production are an unlikely mix of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), India’s Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR), and the local administration, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC).

But although their approaches differ, they illustrate how simple agricultural innovations may help overcome the gap between demand and supply in an inhospitable terrain.

Artificial glaciers provide water

The most popular of the innovations is the ‘artificial glacier’ designed by civil engineer Chewang Norphel for the Leh Nutrition Project, which was set up in 1978, initially with the aim of providing water to farmers during the sowing season in April.

Irrigation in Ladakh depends on snow and glacial melt from the Himalayas, but the peak times for water availability do not coincide with farmers’ needs. Norphel created an ingenious embankment system that collects and stores glacial melt on the sides of hills that are shadowed from the sun. By the time the ice starts to melt in April, when it is planting time, the water is released to villages through a network of canals.

As Norphel adds: “Availability of irrigation water in early spring enables farmers to harvest two crops in a year, which was not possible earlier.”Today, nine artificial glaciers are in place, with four more scheduled for mid-2011.

But water and food security concerns are further complicated by the impact of climate change on glaciers. “Eighty per cent of the farmers in Ladakh depend on snow and glacier melt water for irrigation,” says Norphel. “The glaciers are receding rapidly and winters are getting shorter and warmer. Whatever little snowfall there is melts away quickly.”

Simple machines in play

For most of the NGOs active in the region, the key to self-sufficiency lies in keeping traditional knowledge alive and maintaining established structures of cooperative farming among widely scattered settlements. But they are also providing simple technologies such as mechanised threshers and hydraulic pumps.

The Ladakh Development Foundation, for example, focuses on providing mechanised, diesel-powered threshers to families that have traditionally used animals for the job, cutting the average post-harvest threshing time from 14 days to two.

Similarly, another NGO, the Ladakh Ecological Development Group, has installed 62 hydraulic ram pumps to lift water to higher slopes in the parched terrain.

In addition to technology, organisations such as the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh conduct information and training sessions and foster networks among communities, encouraging organic, cooperative farming methods.

High-end research

Meanwhile, the Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR), as its name suggests, is engaged in more sophisticated and costly research and development at its labs housed in a sprawling complex near Leh, the region’s largest town.

DIHAR is researching a range of agriculture and animal husbandry technologies, including studying the genetic diversity of fruits and vegetables, changing breeding practices for sheep and goats and applying the abundant medicinal plants of the Himalayas for commercial use.

One simple but valuable output from DIHAR is a technique to store vegetables underground during the winter, giving them a much longer ‘shelf life’.

Army comes first

DIHAR engages with local communities to some extent — holding training sessions, running festivals to provide information and working with LAHDC in some areas.

But its first priority is to feed the army — although there can also be considerable benefits for local people. For instance, greenhouse technologies have been given to local people so they can provide army personnel with fresh vegetables. As DIHAR scientist, Om Prakash Chaurasia, says: “We have been able to supply 50 per cent of soldiers’ vegetables by working with local cooperatives and farmers.”

The benefits to Ladakh’s farmers are not DIHAR’s chief concern, but local communities now have improvements to traditional makeshift greenhouses that grow fresh vegetables during the winter.

DIHAR’s greenhouses have three side walls built with mud bricks, a roof made of native willow and poplar logs, and the front covered by ultraviolet stabilised films that absorb large amounts of sunlight. During the night, thick straw mats are placed over the structure to retain heat.

 But other DIHAR technologies have brought limited benefits to local communities.

Take commercial packaging of products such as juices and jams from the seabuckthorn berry that grows widely in Ladakh. Today, a variety of seabuckthorn products are found in Indian cities. But local communities are involved only in the initial labour-intensive and least-profitable packaging operations.

And local farmers do not receive any money from the sale of the products, although Chaurasia points out that DIHAR generates local employment and “local cooperatives set the price which farmers are to receive per kilogram of seabuckthorn pulp”.   

Ladakh Council shows leadership

Besides DIHAR and the NGOs, leadership and commitment from Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) is essential to promoting self-sufficiency, and the organisation is also helping to roll out low-cost technologies to extend the growing season and increase yields.

For example, it is now giving a 50 per cent subsidy to help farmers cover the $US2,000 cost of building community greenhouses that can grow plants all year. There are now 20 such greenhouses in Ladakh, with 20 more planned for this year.

LAHDC’s agriculture and animal husbandry departments have extensive programmes to distribute high-yield seedlings and assist in the selective mating of cattle to improve breeds.

And LAHDC has also designated 8,000 hectares of land in Igophey — an uncultivated expanse on the banks of the Indus river, near Leh — for agricultural use. An irrigation canal with a web of sub-channels is in place to supply water to the fields and the plan today is to provide plots of about half-a-hectare to families to farm, although bureaucratic obstacles still need to be overcome.

It is unclear whether such land division will result in sufficient yields. As Tsering Phuntsog, a district sheep husbandry officer at LAHDC, points out: “It is very labour-intensive work and finding labour is a big problem in Leh.”

Instead, leasing the area to local entrepreneurs to set up mechanised, commercial-scale operations may make the biggest dent in reducing Ladakh’s massive food dependency.

“Mechanised agriculture must come with other improvements, such as a better public transport and distribution system,” adds Phuntsog.

Today, a number of pressures are weighing heavily on Ladakh’s fragile agricultural landscape, including increasingly less glacial and snow melt, a growing lack of interest in farming among young people and the continuing loss of arable land to tourism.

Reversing the trends will be difficult. But hope lies in the determination of some individuals and organisations to provide more sustainable and innovative agrarian approaches.

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Blog: AG editor’s Himalayan trek