The much-demonised climate change is working wonders for farmers in the higher altitudes of the Himalayas at Leh in the Indian-administered Kashmir. Where there was only ice in winter and a veritable desert during the rest of the year, there now blossoms greenery bringing along with it a mind-boggling variety of vegetables and fruits.
If the farmers are thrilled, climate scientists strike a somber note. They say the eruption of vegetables and fruits at an altitude of 11,000 feet is a clear indication that global warming is catching up in the Himalayas, its long-term consequences unclear but one which could spell trouble for the region.
The farmers are however, having none of it. As far as they are concerned, it is a boon and are determined to make hay, while the sun shines literally. They have started cultivating vegetables and fruits in earnest including cucumber, pumpkin, watermelon, bottle gourd, tomato and capsicum.
“Vegetable cultivation depends on multiple factors and one among these is temperature. Over the years there has been a gradual rise in temperature and this has helped cultivation of vegetables which earlier could only be grown in low altitude areas,” says OP Chaurasia, a senior scientist with the government’s Defence Institute for High Altitude Research (DIHAR) at Leh.
According to a study by the non-profit organisation, Geres, at Leh, which works on Climate Change, winters and summers are becoming warmer in the region, and according to meteorological data compiled by the organisation, in the past 35 years the minimum winter temperature has gone up by 1 degree Celsius and the summer maximum by 0.5 degree.
According to the agriculture department, Leh has 10,184 hectares of land under cultivation. Over the years, this has expanded but officials are yet to map the increased area under cultivation. About 28,071 hectares in the district are not under cultivation. Besides, 5,504 hectares are under permanent pastures for grazing while 260 hectares lie fallow.
“Earlier vegetables and fruits had to be brought from areas lower in altitude but now they are available in the higher altitudes,” said Nisa Khatoon, a researcher and environmental activist at Leh.
According to farmers in the region, this has lowered the price of vegetables, and boosted the income of farmers.
“Some locally produced vegetables are used by the families of the farmers while the rest come into the local markets,” said Khatoon. There are two types of vegetables in the market – locally produced and those brought from areas of lower altitude.
Until about two decades back, farmers at Leh could only grow barley, beet and turnips. But now we grow brinjals, capsicums and tomatoes
Cultivation of wheat too is now possible in Leh, in places like Aksho and Ating in the Zanskar valley.
“Earlier, it was not possible for farmers in high altitude areas to grow wheat, but now they are able to do that,” said Tundup Angmo, a Geres official.
Scientists say the reason why vegetables are now growing here applies to the wheat crop as well. Similar is the case with apples which now thrive in higher altitudes, at around 12,000 feet.
According to 59-year-old Kunzes Dolma, who is with the non-profit Women’s Alliance of Ladakh, vegetables grown in Leh are more varied now than they used to be.
“Until about two decades back, farmers at Leh could only grow barley, beet and turnips. But now we grow brinjals, capsicums and tomatoes,” said Dolma.
Since the locally cultivated vegetables do not attract transportation charges, these are cheaper by about Rs 10 (16 cents) per kilogram than the ones from other places, said Khatoon.
Since farmers at Leh grow their own vegetables, their living expenses have come down substantially.
Stanzin Thaishi, 48, saves about Rs 5,000 ($82) annually. “Besides, I supply vegetables to the market,” he said.
Farmers in villages higher than Leh beyond 12,000 feet are yet to experience any substantial change except that cultivation of traditional crops like carrots and radish has gone up, said Khatoon.
Besides climate change, scientists say there could be other factors at play. “Climate change is certainly one reason, but another reason could be because of the introduction of newer varieties of vegetables,” said Chaurasia.
Though the farmers are happy, environmental activists warn that the happiness may be short-lived given that there are other adverse consequences of climate change.