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A Quiet Desperation

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Photo courtesy: Chunnit Chhering

Nestled at the foothills of gigantic mountains, my village Gue is located south – east of Spiti near the Indo-China border. Away from the hustle-bustle of urban plains, we have always lived a quiet life. Our lives revolve around what we primarily derive from nature. Our days are spent tending to our barley farm and grazing livestock in the high pastures of my village. Growing up, I never fathomed this could change or imagined any alternative. Whether it is our elders, women, younger children, almost everyone is tied to some form of agrarian work and everyone did their bit.  

In the recent few years, we are gradually experiencing an insidious shift – the weakening of the agricultural foundation upon which everything else is built. Water which forms a crucial base for our sustenance is slowly becoming unreliable. Uneven rainfall, drying up of water sources and flash floods are new normal to my village. As far as climate change is concerned, it cannot be more real. Spiti is a high altitude cold desert. We experience cold weather throughout the year with a short period for agriculture. But it feels like a lot has changed since my childhood. The weather feels much warmer and our glaciers appear thinner. Gue is Spiti’s highland settlement and therefore we depend on glaciers and spring water for both domestic use and irrigation. In our village we have a total of 4 sources of water channeled to different households and each of them is facing a threat. 

Kirki Phak: A northern side mountain range which possesses a huge reserve of scattered spring waters. All the spring water flowing in this mountain combines at the mountain foot and becomes a rivulet. This used to be the prime source of water for villagers whose fields are located in Gang (north side) but now this blessing has turned into a river of sorrow. During unseasonal rainfall, this river swells up and gives birth to flash floods. A dreadful flash flood in 2010 wrecked havoc and many farmers lost their fertile land. The debris, huge boulders, unwanted sand has made the land unfit for agriculture or anything else. What once was a vast stretch of green has turned into a flat track of barrenness. A lot changed after that, floods, soil erosion became quite normal and now it is even difficult for us to maintain a water canal as when it rains, everything gets washed away.

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Photo courtesy: Chunnit Chhering

Ringi Buk: This glacial water is located behind ITBP camp (Indo Tibet Border Police). It serves as a source of water for agricultural fields located at Tho (central zone) as well as Chumik Pharma (fields located at the other side of a spring water). Untill last year, this was  the most constant and reliable source of water  but this year, we struggled even to irrigate our fields. There’s hardly any water flowing in our Kuls! Villagers are now forced to find measures – the only viable way to draw water is to link this source with the Kirki Phak and irrigate our fields.

Chhumik: This spring water is a source of water to Matka – fields located at the lower side of the village. The supply of water hardly gets disturbed but it requires extremely sensitive management to cater the needs of all farmers. This is the only source of water during winter as the other sources freezes up but this too is getting disturbed due to change in climate.

Phuk: This glacial source is at the Tibet border side. This is an unchanneled source but most voluminous in nature.


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Photo courtesy: Chunnit Chhering

I do not know much but our lived experiences and relations with nature are changing. We revere nature for its life-giving qualities; our lands, our water, our pastures, our glaciers and other components of our surroundings are precious and there's a deep sense to protect it, preserve it and coexist amid harsh conditions. The Buddhist values of living harmoniously in our environment with all lifeforms is what makes us unique but that deep veneration, that love is slowly getting replaced with fear. Many people are fearful of fiery elements of nature. Rainfall is very less in our region. But it has become quite frequent and untimely in the recent few years causing a lot of damage to our farm and our crops. Timely snowfall is good for us but hailstorm and torrential rainfall is causing huge devastation. It has disturbed the whole ecosystem and we always live in fear of floods and falling rocks.


Throughout the mountain region, springs are reported to be drying and mountain agriculture is suffering from drought. The shortage of water has placed an increasing burden on mountain communities particularly villages like us where springs provide access to 90 percent of freshwater. In the whole climate change scenario, agro-pastoralists like us are the most vulnerable. Our village experiences both drought-like situations as well as the brunt of flash floods. Geographically, Gue is slowly turning into a barren land. Our village already lost half of our agricultural land and that cannot be revived. Many people lost huge bighas of land in the process, including mine. Since the flood, there has been a lot of erosion and we also face difficulty maintaining our water canals which is key to the water distribution system. The woman in the picture is my mother with whom I go upto Kirki Phak to bring down water to our fields during our Chu-rey (watering turn). It is not easy as we have to wake up at 4 am in the morning and the canal frequently

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Photo courtesy: Chunnit Chhering

loses its shape due to excessive siltation which creates hard labor for us. Maintaining water canals is a huge issue and women bear the brunt. With the help of the local Panchayat, there has been some solution to reinforce the canals but if it floods, we are back at ground zero – where we started.

Elders in my village believe that if there’s any magic in the world, it is contained in water. Peace, healthy social relations and communal harmony has its strong roots in water availability. The flood has a direct impact on our livelihood. The backbreaking work of agriculture is becoming more precarious and people are gradually shifting from it. Some leaving their fields uncultivated, some finding resort in tourism and odd labor works. It has also marred social prospects for many youngsters as people are reluctant to marry their daughters in our village. I feel all these are climate induced changes - uneven rainfall, retreating glaciers, drying up of water sources, water scarcity, flash floods and its devastating impact on mountain people. Tourism has escalated the situation and placed additional burden. At one point, the number of vehicles entering my village exceeded 400 on a daily basis!


Gue is a popular travel destination and is often listed among off-beat travel itineraries. Our village monastery preserving the mummified body of a great Buddhist yogi draws special attention. Travellers across the world visit the village to witness it but their relation to the place doesn’t go beyond consumerist approach. With more people getting to know about it, there’s huge love pouring to the beautiful picturesque mountains but no one is bothered how locals are eking out. No one is bothered how we are quietly bearing the enormous burden. Away from the limelight – an unspoken desperation. I feel only through collective action we can mitigate some of the climate induced devastations and  I hope everyone takes care.


About the Author

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Chunnit Chhering

Chunnit Chhering is from Gue village. He finished his postgraduate studies in Sociology from Himachal Pradesh University in Shimla. He is a civil service aspirant and nurtures passion for reading, writing and youth activism to bring social change in Spiti. 

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