World’s “highest” village runs dry as Himalayas starts melting

World's "highest" village runs dry as Himalayas starts melting

KOMIK, India,August1: With a backdrop of the snow-capped Himalayas stretched out across a vibrant blue sky, it is hard to dispute the sign as you enter Komik that declares it to be the world’s highest village with a road.

Others also boast the title – from Nepal’s Dho Tarap to Bolivia’s Santa Barbara. But at 4,587 metres (15,050 feet), this remote Buddhist hamlet near India’s border with Tibet is no doubt among the planet’s topmost motorable human settlements.

Yet despite its coveted status, life is harsh for the 130 residents of Komik, a quaint collection of whitewashed mud-and-stone houses located in the desolate Spiti Valley.

The region is a cold trans-Himalayan desert cut off from the rest of India for six months of the year when snowfall blocks mountain passes. Phone and internet connectivity is almost non-existent. Schools and clinics are a tough trek away.

But Spiti’s some 12,000 inhabitants, who eke out a living farming green peas and barley, have a much bigger concern: their main sources of water – streams, rivers, ponds – are drying up.

“We are used to being in a remote place. We have our traditional ways of living,” said farmer Nawang Phunchok, 32, as he sat tying bundles of a prickly desert bush together to insulate the local monastery’s roof.

“But these days the water is not coming like it used to. The seasons are changing. We see there is less water than before.”

There is little doubt India is facing a water crisis.

Decades of over-extraction of ground water, wasteful and inefficient irrigation practices, pollution of surface water like lakes and rivers, and erratic weather patterns attributed to climate change, have left many parts of the country thirsty.

But while government, charities and media increasingly focus on the drought-stricken farmers in the plains, their Himalayan counterparts – ironically living in a region often called the “Water Towers of Asia” – also need help, say conservationists.

Pumped Dry

From its deepest aquifers to its biggest rivers, India is one of the most water-challenged countries in the world, according to the World Resources Institute.

More than half of country – including the breadbasket northern states of Punjab and Haryana which produce 50 percent of the national government’s rice supply and 85 percent of its wheat stocks – is considered highly water-stressed.

More than 50 percent of the country’s wells have registered a decline in volumes in the last decade. Up to 80 percent of rivers, lakes, ponds and streams are polluted with human waste and sewage.

Over 63 million rural Indians – the equivalent of the population of Britain – do not have clean water to drink, cook or wash with, says WaterAid. Around 76 million need improved water sources and 770 million require proper toilets.

And climate change is exacerbating the situation.

Overall rainfall in the last century has been erratic, and the annual average temperature has risen by 0.5 degrees Celsius, says India’s meteorological department.

“There exists a huge knowledge gap regarding the connection between water scarcity and climate change. There is an immediate need to fill this gap and make people aware about the importance of water conservation,” said WaterAid India’s Puneet Srivastava.

“The government also needs to undertake severe measures to regulate and monitor the use of groundwater resources.”

The risks posed to food security and the plight of around 200 million farm workers are also a major concern.

Thousands of farmers have committed suicide over the last decade as unseasonal rains and drought combined with lower global commodity prices have hurt farm incomes.

India is forecast to overtake China as the most populous nation with 1.7 billion people by 2050. With rapid urbanisation, rising demand for hydropower and changing weather patterns, the situation is set to worsen.

Government data forecasts India’s annual water availability per person to drop by over 25 percent by 2050 to 1,140 cubic metres from 1,545 cubic metres in 2011.

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