Prom ICE to WATER
Last time, I told you about the water wisdom of the people of Rajasthan. Now, imagine a region that gets even lesser rainfall than the hot Thar Desert. Where the temperature does not exceed 30°C. And if the major form of precipitation is snow. Human survival seems impossible, huh? Well, not exactly.
The place is Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir. Located at the edge of the Tibetan plateau, only 0.6 per cent of its total area (or 57,716 hectares) is inhabited. And only 28.23 per cent of this is under cultivation. Moreover, Ladakh’s harsh climate has restricted the growing season to less than six months. Its annual rainfall is merely 140 mm. And the average temperature in its hottest months of July and August is around 19°C, and that of the coldest months of January and February is around –10.9°C!
The most fascinating aspect is that in spite of all these odds, they have an excellent irrigation system. Ladakh has good soils and abundant sunlight, but without water it is a barren, cold desert. The entire cultivated land depends on waters of melting snow and glaciers. The snow melts slowly through the day, and the water is diverted from streams using guiding channels. Towards the evening, the water is taken to small tanks, locally known as Zing. It is then used the following day for irrigation.
Each village has a large network of canals and zings. These canals are constructed and maintained by the villagers. They elect a water official known as a Churpun at the start of each agricultural year. He ensures that all the fields are irrigated, and each farmer gets enough water according to the area of land he owns. So, disputes over water are rare. The streams were traditionally worshipped. Because they are the streams of life for the Ladakhis. No activity that pollutes the streams, including washing of clothes, is permitted. Unfortunately, people living in the urbanised areas like Leh have become more careless about their habits.
Bounded by Tibet in the east and Ladakh in the north, lies another marvel of water harvesting, in the toughest of environment possible: the Lahaul-Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh. It is located at a mean elevation of 3,048-4,572 meters, and spread over an area of 1.22 million hectares with a population of about 33,224 (Census, 2001). It is one of the highest inhabited areas in the world with one of the lowest population densities.
Here temperatures crash down to as low as -40°C! And it is a rainshadow area. The high mountains block the low monsoon clouds, which leaves the area dry and devoid of vegetation. Thus, the area under cultivation is extremely low; merely 3,007 hectares, and only 137 hectares of this are cultivated more than once a year. Yet, agriculture is the mainstay of the area.
The only option for the people living in these rugged terrains, with scanty rainfall, is to reuse the traditional diversion channels, Kuls. They carry water from glaciers to the villages. They often span long distances. Some kuls are 10 kilometers long, and have existed for centuries. The head of a kul at the glacier is tapped. It is lined up with stones to keep it free of debris, and prevent clogging and seepage. In the village, it leads to a circular tank from which the flow of water is regulated.
Even the laws of Spiti ensure wise use of water. The eldest son inherits everything; the land, farm implements, family house, and family water rights! His siblings have to either serve in the household, or become monks or nuns in Buddhist monasteries. This interestingly, acts as a population control method! So, apart from preventing fragmentation of landholdings, the law reduces the pressure on the lands.
But, the water rights are owned exclusively by the descendants of original settlers or founders of the village. They are members of the ‘bada ghars’. This often creates a social hierarchy and sometimes generates tension, as they exercise more control over the limited water. But thanks to this excellent management system, everyone gets a share.
So, even the cold deserts are excellent water managers. Their intelligent and optimal use of water has helped them survive through the ages, and establish glorious civilisations against all odds.