A climate story from the highlands of Laya

Kharikha Tsho behind Niru-la, two hours walk from Langothang, Laya.

Their stories reflect the vulnerabilities the small mountain communities are grappling in the face of raging climate change

KARMA CHIMI | Thimphu

Just a few years ago, Layaps could only harvest potatoes, turnips and radish, but today they can grow a variety of vegetables in the gewog, including spinach, broccoli, beans, even chillies and some other vegetables, attributing the reasons to global temperature rise, climate change, and the aid of artificially constructed green house.

The amount of time it takes for their clothes to dry has also significantly decreased. Just about a decade or two ago, the cloths often froze with ice and took two to three days to dry on average. Today, the cloths dry in just one day.

Due to global warming and climate change, the hamlet though appears to be on the throes of modern development, they also sit on the precarious slope of being vulnerable to the ravages of changing climate patterns.

“The villages of Laya gewog like any other places in Bhutan are at the forefront of climate crisis and our stories need to be told to the society at large,” said 76-year-old Ap Tshering.

The gewog’s former gup and Chimi, Ap Tshering, said that back then it was so cold that when they spit, it would instantly freeze.

“The snow-capped mountains are retreating as the year passes by. I don’t know if it is to do with climate change or global warming but the glaciers are also melting as we speak,” said another village elder.

According to Ap Tshering, the inconsistency in rainfall and snowfall has severe impact on the Layaps’ primary source of income and disturbs the existence and harvesting season of cordyceps.

In order to lessen the effects of climate change, particularly glacial lake outburst, Ap Tshering thinks that people should preserve the sanctity of the tshos (lakes) and its surroundings.

He adds, “The lakes are surrounded with Picrorhiza kurrora (puti shing), Nardostachys jatamani (pangpoe), and Rhododendron (balu sulu), which supports the earth and they are uprooted by the people for incense production and this should be completely prevented.”

He noted that there has been a decline in snowfall in Laya. A good fifteen years ago, the snowfall would have reached our knees; today, it extends to our shins.

There are many lakes and glaciers close to Laya, but the glacial lake Gaap at the Wakela pass, which Zhabdrung traversed when he first visited Bhutan in the 1600s, is what the Layaps are most worried about.

Locals say that because Laya settlement is considerably farther away than Wakela pass, they said their hamlet and settlement won’t be harmed, but they are worried that the road and bridges that connect them to Gasa dzongkhag will be damaged.

Likewise, they are concerned that the people living near the river and lowlands of Punakha can be threatened to a great extent.

Flies and mosquitoes were never seen before but they are increasing by the day says 61-year-old Lhaba Tshering from Lungo village. “Before there were no presence of such insects in the locality but I think that it is to do with climate change and global warming.”

He relates that, aside from the river banks and in close proximity to the water source, it used to be frozen with enormous ice formation and that such majestic sights are a thing of past now.

In comparison to their youth, Wangyel, a 66-year-old elder from the village of Toko, and other elders have noticed that the weather has become warmer. The folks have noticed that the trees are growing to a much greater length as the weather has warmed up.

The tree line is moving towards the highlands, according to the Laya forest ranger, as the average global temperature rises it makes the trees and plants more suited to higher altitudes.

The ranger believes that the disruption of wildlife’s habitat and migration patterns is a result of climate change. The animal known as the gaur, which is often found in the southern foothills, was also observed at Laya this year. In addition, lowland birds can be spotted in the harsh climate of the Laya region.

Additionally, he noted that the timing of the snowfall and rainfall in the area is erratic, which has a significant impact on the season for harvesting and maturity of cordyceps.

Pema Jamtsho, Mangmi for Laya gewog said raw materials for incense resources are also short in supply due to change in climate patterns. The herbs and plants that are used to make incense powder and sticks were previously in great abundance. “One of our sources of income is from incense powder and sticks but their raw material is becoming less in quantity whereby, our income generation is cut short.”

Illegal extraction of such plants could also be the reason for such decreasing figures said some of the villagers.

55-year-old Zam from Chongra village said that as the glaciers melt, the lakes become massive which might cause havoc to the people.

Even the horrific episode in Tshari Jathang where 10 people died while going to gather cordyceps is mentioned by her. She reiterates that the climate change that led to such disasters is to blame for the inconsistency and excessive rains at that time.

Less cordyceps are present as a result of sporadic rainfall and snow. The area where cordyceps were formerly abundant is now deficient in cordyceps. There are fewer cordyceps in the highlands now and such problem began about three years ago, according to Zam.

While the effects of climate change are being felt throughout the entire world, Laya’s elders are dismayed to realize that their sacred and beloved snowy mountains are changing quickly and that their very source of livelihood is at stake.