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Protecting the Sacred Rooftop of the World

Climate change, development and water diversions threaten Himalayan communities and way of life By Cheryl Nenn Flying into Leh, the former capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh, feels more like landing on the moon than landing in India. Its harsh, mountainous terrain is starkly beautiful and very dry, due to its high altitude and...

Climate change, development and water diversions threaten Himalayan communities and way of life

By Cheryl Nenn

Flying into Leh, the former capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh, feels more like landing on the moon than landing in India. Its harsh, mountainous terrain is starkly beautiful and very dry, due to its high altitude and cold desert climate. We were sent to Ladakh on behalf of Waterkeeper Alliance, an international organization dedicated to clean water and healthy communities, to train our new Himalayan Glacier Waterkeeper and 20 affiliates, most of whom are Buddhist monks, how to test water quality and be effective water advocates.

The Leh Valley from the air. (Photo by Sharon Khan)
The Leh Valley from the air. (Photo by Sharon Khan)

The Himalayan Glacier Waterkeeper and affiliates were founded and inspired by His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, who is the head of the “Drukpa” lineage of Buddhism in Ladakh. Buddhists consider the Himalayas to be the “sacred rooftop of the world” and see it as their duty to protect the environment and mountain waters that sustain them as well as all other life. The Gyalwang Drukpa and our Waterkeepers are very concerned about climate change, which is melting the Himalayan glaciers at an alarming rate. The region is often referred to as the “Third Pole,” as these glaciers contain the largest ice mass outside the polar regions, and their slow release of melt water in warm weather provides flow to many rivers that collectively provide water to over a billion people.

After several days of classroom training, we were able to get out and do some site visits to test the water quality of many of these glacially-fed streams. Most of the Buddhist monks that we worked with live in high elevation monasteries, often arranged on spectacular mountaintops or pinnacles in different watersheds that have small glacially-fed streams leading downstream to the larger Indus or Zanskar Rivers, which run all year round. The monks refer to streams as “tokpos,”which in Ladakhi means “river” and also means “friend.” Our big task was to teach these monks to be a better friend to their streams, and to better monitor emerging impacts to mountain streams from climate change and from increasing development.

Training Druk Gon Jampa Namsum on the Basgo River with Christine Ellis of the Waccamaw Riverkeeper and Translator Nurboo Thinles, along with some kids that wanted to help out. (Photo by Rinchen Wacher).

Fighting the battle of water shortages in the face of climate change

As the glaciers melt and recede, many streams are drying up seasonally or permanently. While glaciers are obviously influenced by yearly weather fluctuations, with some years wetter than others, most of the glaciers are melting at an alarming rate and are not coming back. Ladakh is also in a rain shadow from the Himalayas, further compounding dry conditions. In mid to late summer, which is when we visited, most of the rivers tend to run dry due to the glacial melt combined with wholescale diversions of water to local fields, farms, and villages for water supply. Although the City of Leh has many areas that have water pipes and basic infrastructure, water from streams is not treated except for occasional chlorine. Many houses outside of Leh have no water infrastructure, depending on ditches to convey stream flow or cisterns to catch rainfall. When there is not enough rain in late summer, many homes get water delivered via trucks that are also pumping river water.

Monitoring a very dry Basgo Topko or Basgo River in late July. (Photo by Sharon Khan)
Monitoring a very dry Basgo Tokpo or Basgo River in late July. (Photo by Sharon Khan)

There is an increasing concern that communities will run out of water, and communities are adapting in different ways. Leh is constructing an offline reservoir to capture high spring flows, to hold back water and supplement low in-stream flows later in summer when streams start drying up. This is also proposed as an ecological measure to provide better in-stream flows in summer for aquatic life and to increase recharge to riverine habitats. Water shortages have gotten so severe in summer months that several communities now create artificial glaciers – or ice “stupas”–by diverting streams to colder areas in winter/spring to freeze so that these “mini glaciers” can slowly release water in summer months to downstream communities.

In addition to climate change, a rapid growth of tourism (both national and international) has caused the population of Leh to double during summer months to around 30,000 people. This rapid growth in tourism is one of the reasons that this region has begun to suffer from increased development, deforestation, and pollution, particularly from non-biodegradable trash that enters waterways. As we drove around Ladakh, we witnessed new homes being built on top of former glacial stream beds, many of which have not run in 3-5 years. This trend is alarming given weather variability as well as the possibility of “cloud bursts,” which are basically the equivalent of a Himalayan tsunami or monsoon, where a cloud hovers over a small area drenching it with intense rain over a short period of time. In 2010, such a cloud burst event and resulting flash floods killed 100 people in Leh in an area now experiencing a rapid housing boom.

A new subdivision being built on a dry riverbed outside of Leh, where a cloud burst event occurred in 2010. (Photo by Cheryl Nenn)
A new subdivision being built on a dry riverbed outside of Leh, where a cloud burst event occurred in 2010. (Photo by Cheryl Nenn)

Convincing our new affiliates and Ladakhis about the importance of keeping water in the river for the sake of the river, the community, and aquatic life was a bigger challenge than we expected. As a Waterkeeper in the US, we often speak about the importance of clean water to our communities that is “fishable, swimmable, and drinkable” (which ties to goals set forth in the Clean Water Act). As Waterkeepers, we also work to connect our residents with our waterways through paddle and clean up events, under the guiding principle that if people don’t use or enjoy the rivers, they won’t help protect them. We learned pretty quickly from our host family that besides using rivers and glacial runoff for drinking, most people do not really use the rivers recreationally.

Teaching the importance of “fishable” and “swimmable” waters

Fishing is not really practiced in Ladakh –this could be because there are no fish in local streams (we saw one that appeared to be an introduced koi) — due to the waters drying up seasonally, but it could also be because many Buddhists believe fish are sacred and would not eat them. When asked if there were fish in local streams, there were conflicting opinions and many confused stares. Several people remarked that they may have seen a fish once in the Indus River, or maybe at a market. Despite not having a culture of fishing, the monks did make it clear that they did believe that it was their responsibility to engage in conscious thought and action to protect their waters and all the life within.

Swimming in local rivers is also not really common for the most part, except for maybe kids who jump into the Indus or Zanskar Rivers on a bet, although some do swim in glacial lakes if the water is warm enough. There is some new whitewater rafting that has started on the Zanskar River, largely for “tourists” but no other culture of boating or water-based recreation. When talking to one gentleman about the argument that “upstream” neighbors needed to limit pollution to protect the drinking water of “downstream” communities, he remarked that with the exception of a few Indian communities, sending pollution downstream is not a big concern because it just goes to Pakistan! No love lost there. Also, it is unlikely for many communities that they would use the Indus for water in the future, due to the extreme elevation differences between the low-lying Indus and many high-lying Himalayan villages, and the inability to pump water uphill efficiently or effectively. When asked what they would do if their glacial stream completely dried up one day or one year, many said they would have no choice but to move.

Whitewater rafting on the Zanskar River. (Photo by Cheryl Nenn)
Whitewater rafting on the Zanskar River. (Photo by Cheryl Nenn)

Creating “drinkable” waters

It is clear that most Ladakhis value the rivers as they provide drinking water. We were able to monitor around 10 glacial streams with our new affiliate programs, and most streams we tested were very high quality. One stream registered zero conductivity (conductivity is the ability of water to conduct electricity, which can be an indicator of pollution), and this caused us to quickly take out another water meter to test for equipment failure, but amazingly the water was just that clean. This was a “first” for me after several decades of water monitoring in the US. The lower-lying Indus and Zanskar Rivers that receive most of the water from glacial streams, were much more turbid or dirty than the tributary streams leading into them, but we suspect a lot of that sediment could be natural and they had fairly good water quality overall.

Druk Jigmet Lundup monitors the quality of the Hemya Tokpo or Hemya River. (Photo by Sharon Khan)
Druk Jigmet Lundup monitors the quality of the Hemya Tokpo or Hemya River. (Photo by Sharon Khan)

Despite the good quality of the streams that provide drinking water, Leh is no longer a small village with no pollution sources. Sewage is not treated per se, although many have latrines or septic fields. There is also animal waste from livestock, many of which congregate along the streams. Interestingly, given the dryness of the climate, animal waste dries very quickly and it is collected quickly by locals that store it for burning in winter to provide household heat via traditional wood stoves. Most Ladakhis also burn wood and charcoal and whatever else they can find to provide heat in the winter, although some of the more affluent now have central heating (largely powered by hydropower on the Indus). While collection of animal wastes minimizes polluted runoff to streams, black soot from biomass burning as well as combustion from diesel car engines and coal burning in India has been implicated by scientists as a factor in increasing the rate of glacial melt in the summer, as the soot landing on glaciers doesn’t all wash away and the dark coloration increases absorption of heat and thus melting.

A view of the rapidly developing Leh City from Tsemo Castle. (Photo by Cheryl Nenn)
A view of the rapidly developing Leh City from Tsemo Castle. (Photo by Cheryl Nenn)

Still, there is progress in educating local residents about the importance of protecting the water quantity and quality of local waters. The Chief Counsel of Leh (the equivalent of Mayor), after participating in a press conference launching this citizen-based water quality monitoring effort, decided to bulldoze the entrance to a road that was used by many Ladakhis to drive into the river to wash their cars. This effort though small and symbolic was a good first step to Ladakhis reimagining their relationship to their local rivers and inspiring efforts to protect water quality. Our host at our guest house, a local car dealer, was inspired by these efforts to educate his new car buyers about the importance of not washing cars in local streams.

Treating the problem of “Himalayan Affluenza”

When asked for one of the biggest threats to local rivers and the Himalayan way of life, a new friend told me he felt the biggest threat was addiction to money, which was interpreted by me as a type of “Himalayan affluenza.” Many families in Leh, having made a bit of cash by renting out rooms or guiding treks in the mountains for tourists, are quickly building more guesthouses for tourists, bigger homes for themselves, and buying cars. This echoes a larger trend in India (and Asia) of a rapidly growing middle class that is projected to increase by 5% by 2020, from 50 million people today to a projected 200 million. The big challenge for Ladakh, and the rest of India, is to develop in a more sustainable way that will help protect their water and environment as well as their traditional way of life in the face of enormous threats from increasing development and climate change. Although tackling these problems is an immense undertaking, we hope that we taught our Buddhist monk partners some basic tools to better assess threats to their drinking water and streams, and to allow them to make better decisions to ensure they continue to protect their communities and the sacred rooftop of the world for future generations.

aibeiaiaaabeciqv1mgowufjjqeic3zjyxjkx3bob3rvkigyntzlndiymmm0zdy2ytywnwixmgu4zdi5n2mxote4mdljytiwotc2magtwcdrahx03shkdsy3lwxbnsdqvqCheryl Nenn has been the Milwaukee Riverkeeper for 14 years working toward achieving clean fishable, swimmable, and drinkable water in the Milwaukee River Basin and nearshore Lake Michigan in southeast Wisconsin. As Riverkeeper, she identifies sources of pollution, responds to citizen concerns, and works with many partners to find solutions to problems affecting area rivers. She also helps to lead citizen water quality monitoring efforts, implement local watershed restoration plans, coordinate the Milwaukee Urban Water Trail, and manage several stream restoration projects. Cheryl is also on the Board of the international Waterkeeper Alliance, which has over 302 Waterkeepers worldwide working to achieve clean water and healthy communities in 34 countries and on 6 continents. She has an MS in Resource Ecology and Management from the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment, and a BS in Biology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Check out more on her work at and


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