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Enabling rural recovery in Leh-Ladakh

In unaffected villages, crops are ready to harvest (Athar Parvaiz)
In unaffected villages, crops are ready to harvest
Athar Parvaiz

Farming in the cold desert conditions of the western Himalaya has always been a struggle, the annual rainfall of only 50 to 70 mm limiting crop production from pockets of land made more fertile by years of sustained labour and some basic irrigation. The devastating flood that struck the region in August was a cruel blow, taking 233 lives, damaging 70 per cent of the irrigation infrastructure and depositing a thick layer of debris on the land.

After years of hard-won effort, supported by NGOs, the villagers in this remote part of north-west India had both raised the fertility of their soils and developed an irrigation network to serve some 5,000 hectares of land. Now they are struggling to cope with the flood's aftermath. "Crops can only be cultivated on this land after the flood debris is cleared and the top soil is exposed," says Lobzang Tsultim, executive director of the Leh Nutrition Project. And the emergency officer of Save the Children, in Ladakh, Robert Folkes, observes, "Obviously, the farmers can't clear this debris manually, they need machinery, which the government and NGOs need to provide to them."

"The government and NGOs should also supply cement pipes and skilled labour," adds Tsultim. According to him, most of the NGOs and government agencies are focusing misguidedly on basic relief and housing, while no efforts are being made to repair the damage to land and irrigation, the main means of survival for the farmers.

Farmers don't want to rely on government aid (Athar Parvaiz)
Farmers don't want to rely on government aid
Athar Parvaiz

Farming is the main occupation of people in Leh, apart from tourism. An average farmer makes up to US$1,000 for his annual yield of crops like barley, potatoes, wheat and other products, mostly sold to the Indian army. "We don't want to rely on government aid," said farmer Sonam Dorgai, "we want to stand on our own legs. But this is only possible if our agricultural land regains its cultivable status."

Good work spoiled

The floods have also damaged at least half a dozen of the artificial 'glaciers' which the 'Glacier Man,' Chewang Norphel has created over the years for the convenience of the farmers. Retired engineer Norphel's glaciers provide water to farmers early in the season when water from natural glaciers is scarce. "The repairing of the glaciers requires both time and money," he says. "If these glaciers are not repaired in time, it will mean a loss for the farmers." But while the villagers are keen to see these structures restored and are willing to work over-time on the repairs, they are short of skilled labour and money. "We need at least US$50,000 for restoring these glaciers," Norphel estimates.

More rewarding work

In addition to his artificial glaciers, Norphel is creating additional reservoirs near currently unproductive land and, so far, has built more than 30 in as many villages, enabling farmers to turn marginal land into productive land. Unfortunately, some of these reservoirs were also damaged by the floods and need repairs.

Norphel's latest project is to convert 100 acres into cultivable land by building a very large reservoir with a capacity of 1.5 million gallons near Chamdaydo village. There are currently 22 families living in Chamdaydo, most of whom own no land but lease land from the nearby Gompa Monastery. However, following harvest, half their crop goes to the monastery in rent.

Norphel is creating reservoirs near unproductive land (Athar Parvaiz)
Norphel is creating reservoirs near unproductive land
Athar Parvaiz

"Once this reservoir is completed, all this land will turn into cultivable land and each of the 22 families will get property rights for about five acres of land," says Sringumut, a farmer who is one of the workers at the reservoir. "As of now, each family is getting less than an acre on lease from the Gompa. And when we have our own land, we can even get a loan from the bank if we want to start some small enterprise. Right now, we are not in a position to apply for a loan since we don't own any property apart from our small hutments."

Another farmer, Tashi Nargiyal is even more visionary: "The reservoir can also serve as a stadium for skating during winter, apart from serving as a source of recharge for our hand pumps for drinking water during summer. Simply, it will bring a lot of prosperity to us poor villagers." But Norphel and the villagers first have to address their most immediate challenge, the lack of funds. "Though we have covered some of the costs, we are still short of some US$10,000," he says.

Written by: Athar Parvais

Date published: October 2010


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