Cold desert regions need special attention: experts

Dr Mustafa Ali Khan and Prof Ramanathan
Dr Mustafa Ali Khan and Prof Ramanathan

Greater Noida, September 05 2019: Degradation of land, which leads to the process of desertification, is not limited to arid and semi-arid areas but is also visible in high altitude regions that get very little rainfall and are known as cold deserts.

In cold
desert regions in India,
the expanse of deserts appears to be growing
because of deglaciation or progressive melting of glaciers due to climate
change, experts have warned. In order to understand different aspects of this
phenomenon, more indepth research studies are needed and local communities should
be encouraged to take up adaptation measures.

Cold desert in Ladakh

“There is clear evidence, direct and indirect, of
desertification increasing in the trans-Himalayan regions in the form of
shifting treelines, migrating dunes and changes in soil moisture levels,”
observed Prof A L Ramanathan, glaciologist from the Jawaharlal Nehru University
(JNU), while speaking at a panel discussion on cold desertification at the
India Pavilion at the ongoing Conference of Parties (CoP) of the UN Convention
on Control of Desertification (UNCCD) here.

The data from Leh station of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) shows a shift in precipitation from winter to summer which sometimes leads to a very high and intense rainfall causing flashfloods, cloud burst etc. “Such events give rise to the erosion of the fertile soil, destruction of agriculture lands as well as trees and forests in a region where the vegetation is sparse. This converts fertile lands to barren, non-productive ones,” he explained.

Almost 80 percent of the glaciers in the Ladakh region are very small (less than one square kilometer) but are critical as local communities are entirely dependent on glacier and snow melt. “We have found negative mass balance of glaciers in last two decades, primarily because of inadequate winter precipitation. Because of this, the region faces drought like conditions during early cropping season,” Prof Ramanathan said. In addition, tourism is causing the depletion of water table and destruction of marsh lands, springs and wetlands.

About 80
percent of the cold desert region in India is in the union territory of Ladakh,
while the rest is in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The melting of glaciers
will lead to excess of water in the intermediate time period, while in the long
term it will cause shortages. Therefore, adaptation in cold deserts and
mountains is a challenge.

“Glaciers
are an important source of water in the Trans Himalaya cold deserts and are
being impacted by climate change. In a water scarce region like Ladakh, local communities
are already taking initiatives such as building ice reservoirs to provide water
for irrigation and households during periods of scarcity,” pointed out Dr
Mustafa Ali Khan, Team Leader, Indian Himalayas Climate Adaptation Progarmme
(IHCAP).

The ice
reservoirs are based on the concept of slowing the movement of water so that it
freezes in layers and solid ice blocks get accumulated during autumn and winter
seasons. During spring, while the glacier melt waters are yet to arrive in
valleys the ice reservoirs located lower altitudes start to melt and provide
water for crops.

“Though ice
reservoirs alleviate water shortage, the argument whether these may called
adaptation solutions or not is yet to be settled. It is argued that ice reservoirs
do not help the community to use lesser amount of water, which would be the
ideal adaptation, but have only helped in postponing the problem to a future
date,” added Dr Khan. The discussion was organized by CMS Vatavaran.

By Dinesh C Sharma

 (India Science Wire)

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