Catalysts of change in the face of high-altitude climate calamities

by SEEDS | Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society (SEEDS) - India
Monday, 6 August 2012 05:38 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Situated in the mountainous region of Ladakh in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, Leh is one of the remotest administrative districts of India. Despite the cold desert climate, the Ladhakis have prospered; practicing agriculture at altitudes of over 3,500 meters (11,500 feet) in the brief summer months and under severe resource constraints. The harshness of the terrain has led Ladakhis to establish a way of life that is based on extremely efficient resource management, recycling, solid waste management and other ecological tenets of Buddhism.

In recent years, however, Leh has rapidly changed. The growing numbers of tourists has led many Ladakhis to abandon agriculture and move to the city for tourism-related businesses. The rapid urbanisation is also leading to overcrowding with an influx of migrant workers. Day-to-day life has been impacted as young Ladhakis increasingly adopt new and mainstream ideas of development. Local elders are concerned that these changes are resulting in the breakdown of their traditional value system and an abandonment of the longstanding ecological approach and indigenous wisdom.

The negative impact of these changes has become more apparent in recent times. Two severe flash floods, a phenomenon uncommon for the region, devastated Leh in 2006 and 2010. The damage was exacerbated by the overcrowding and encroachment on water channels. At the same time, Ladakhis have been witnessing a fast depletion of glaciers and snow cover; erratic water supply in the glacier fed streams; warmer temperatures; and new pest species that often destroy annual yields. These new realities have left Ladhakis increasingly insecure and uncertain about their future. Changes are happening at multiple levels and at a rate faster than can be managed and understood.

SEEDS, an NGO specialising in disaster risk reduction and recovery, started work in Leh in 2010 to support some of the worst affected families of the flash floods. The mission was to help reconstruct damaged houses. Two years later, SEEDS has helped rebuild 35 houses, constructed two community centres and conducted various mason trainings and school safety awareness activities. This work was supported by Cordaid, Care Today, Toshiba Japan, Kewal Remani Foundation and other donors.

Over this period, SEEDS’ learning on both the Ladakhi architectural ethos and their vulnerabilities has grown manifold. One could not help but notice how an extremely resilient community has started to become vulnerable and helpless in the face of climate changes. As strong advocates of ecologically sustainable and resilient development, seeds believes that integrating disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation (CCA) into local development planning is an imperative step.

Therefore, with the support of CDKN and START, SEEDS has embarked on a 17-month action research project. The objective is to understand the factors and find the catalysts to bring about this integration in Leh. It looks at the relationship between local multi-stakeholder forums and policy environments.  What is their potential to catalyse shifts in DRR and CCA policy in post-disaster contexts? What institutional mechanisms and governance structures can ensure the sustainability of such programmes? 

Over the next year, SEEDS will be working with the local administration, which includes the Leh Autonomous Hill Council Development Authority and Leh district administration, NGOs, research organisations and community based oganisations in Leh. The activities will include coalition building, agenda setting and piloting of village level integrated CCA and DRR programmes.

As a first step, a one-day workshop was organised in Serthi valley, near Leh city, on July 27th, 2012. Over 100 men and women from villages in and Serthi attended to discuss issues of disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. The venue itself told its own story. This community centre was built by SEEDS with the help of local families of Serthi. A creation of stone, mud and wood, it uses traditional Ladhaki architectural wisdom. The building construction and design is not only locally appropriate and sustainable, but also capable of enduring harsh weather conditions and holding out during earthquakes.

Serthi’s Area Councillor who was also present at the meeting, appreciated these efforts of SEEDS and the people of Serthi. He offered the support of the Hill Council for the development of disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation programmes in Serthi and other parts of Leh; and pledged funds for the enhancement of the community center in Serthi. The Gobas (village heads), Sarpanchs (elected village chief administrator) and village elders all stressed the need for local solutions to the water issues that plague Leh. They also acknowledged the need for better preparedness and risk reduction from flash floods and the ever-present risk of earthquakes.

The workshop led to the setting up of a committee of local authorities and elders, under the leadership of the Area Councillor and a local NGO, Rural Development and You (RDY). The committee will work on a disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation programme for Serthi. Padma Tashi, Director of RDY, announced that the people of Serthi had resolved to set up an agro-met station and seismic monitoring centre for Leh. This centre would hold workshops and consultations for farmers, youth, school children, media and other groups on disaster and climate issues. Its purpose would be to ensure that local communities engage with each other in finding local solutions to these problems.

For more information on the SEEDS flash flood rehabilitation programme in Leh, please contact Shivangi Chavda ( and for the CDKN-START climate research project contact Sahba Chauhan Alam (