Ladakh, a high plateau at the northern tip of India, beyond the Himalaya, is under attack. The enemy is cutting off its water sources, drying its farmlands. Desperate farmers, who long raised pashmina goats, wheat, and barley on the arid land, are fleeing to Leh, a city on the Indus River. Sonam Wangchuk and I are driving over passes and valleys above 9,000 feet to inspect his defenses: tall cones of ice that he calls stupas.
“This enemy wears no uniform, bears no allegiance to any nation-state, and carries no automatic weapons,” says Wangchuk, an engineer who also founded an alternative school in Ladakh. “Undeterred by borders, it bides by no international laws. We Ladakhis are on the front lines of a very different war.”
The enemy is climate change. A rise of around one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) in average winter temperatures during the past four decades has severed a crucial link in Ladakh’s water cycle. Wedged between Pakistan and India, shielded by the Himalaya from the southwesterly monsoon, Ladakh averages only four inches of rain a year. Its lifeblood is winter snows and glaciers in the mountains. The snows, however, have become fickle, melting before the spring planting, while the glaciers have retreated far up the mountains and are melting later.