‘The dynamics of climate migration in villages of the Zanskar valley’ – A Research Article

‘The dynamics of climate migration in villages of the Zanskar valley.’ –  A Research Article.

By Olivia.

After a busy term full of work unrelated to my dissertation it’s great to finally have time to focus on writing up the project and having had some time since returning to critically reflect on our project, it’s nice to feel that I’m beginning to link together ideas. However, stringing together the traces of stories, ethnographic details, literature and background into what I hope will become a coherent 10,000 words is going to be a challenge… As a sort of prelude to the finished work, I was advised to sit down and write a quick, ‘messy’ article about my thoughts to try to encapsulate a vision for what I wanted the finished piece to feel like… This article is what resulted!



My dissertation research project to the Zanskar valley in Ladakh emerged out of a desire to study mountain areas – an environment that I’m fascinated by – through the academic lens and techniques that I had learnt during my studies. I focussed in on Ladakh because I had previously visited, because I knew that water scarcity and management was a long standing issue and because I had read about the migration of Kumik village which seemed particularly fascinating.

One of the difficulties in preparing the project and something that I wanted this research to overcome was the idea of Zanskar as a remote and ‘exotic’ place that was hard to relate to in any way. The literature on Zanskar and Ladakh is quite thin and obscure since the area is quite rural and remote and was only opened up in 1974, and the more journalistic literature certainly painted it as a strange and ‘historic’ faraway land. However, it seemed to me that the events unfolding around water scarcity in this region were particularly relevant examples of contemporary issues such as climate migration and resilience work regarding climate change adaptation and ‘transformation’. By visiting the area and conducting qualitative and quite ethnographic fieldwork I wanted to bring these examples to life through real stories of change and continuity in this village and to make the experiences of the Kumikpa and other Zanskaris relevant to contemporary discussion on climate change.

The academic goals were therefore to make the geography and history of the migration of Kumik village clear and put them into the public sphere, to unpick the complexities in the dynamics of the relocation of the village and to relate this to climate change adaptation/ transformation and resilience literature.

In one of our lectures about designing our dissertation write up we were told to consider what made our project unique, and specifically, what we couldn’t have found out without our fieldwork. This struck me as particularly important since it is quite easy to get caught up in the theory and literature required in the dissertation and overlook the unique ‘thick description’ and insights we garnered from the fieldwork. In our case, the fact that we were able to visit and live in Kumik village in a homestay facilitated an amazing insight into village life (which does make you wonder what could be achieved with a much longer period of fieldwork). Small things like the fact that everyone seems to shout at each other across the village – which I was initially quite surprised by – have transpired to be quite relevant.  Because the village is so small and built on a hill, they have very sporadic mobile signal and since villagers very often work collaboratively, shouting across the village such that different people pass messages on is a practical way to communicate that will be lost with the move to the new site where houses are not so close together. For me it is important to try to include such ethnographic details in my final dissertation to breathe life into the work, do justice to some of our experiences and the people in Kumik who helped us so much with the research and to fulfil my goal of portraying some of the realities of this village.

The other unique element to the research was the way that we travelled as a team – which was necessary for safety and practicality reasons. The team of 3 other members was multidisciplinary and this hopefully brought unique insights as well as skills to the project, such as high quality photography and videography from Hannah, the anthropologist in the team. It meant there had to be some give and take in our schedule but also opened my eyes to other relevant issues through the projects other team members were conducting: for example the impacts of the move on animal husbandry and the role of changing educational possibilities in the decision to migrate. As an extension to this, being with a team also enabled us to trek out of the region following the route of a valley which had been totally abandoned due to water scarcity. We trekked past 3 abandoned villages which made the issue of water scarcity very real. Importantly, we ended the trek at the new community which the villagers from this area had built together with very little support. Speaking to villagers here was an insight into the decision to move, specifically highlighting Zanskari risk and land management techniques that I had glimpsed in Kumik village. As in the Kumik case, the villagers here had a very good local knowledge of where to find water in the locality and their strategy of using land for different purposes gives them a ‘portfolio’ of known potential areas for inhabitation. In the cases of both ‘new’ Kumik and this village (Chumik Gyaltsa) they built the new village in the areas where they had previously brought animals to graze.

Some of the key findings I want to portray are the complexity and interconnected nature of the factors affecting the decision to move to the new site in Kumik Marthang. I want to capture the interscalar nature of these factors, ranging from global issues such as the climate changes driving water scarcity and the reach of globalisation changing the nature of Zanskari society to personal perspectives and household economies. Globalisation transpired to be of greater importance to the village than I had anticipated and the contradictions of this process were fascinating: for example the contrast between cross village shouting as a form of communication and the fact that in our house, there was one window in the corner of a sitting room facing the valley where you could hang your phone and it might pick up text messages, resulting in what we dubbed the ‘mobile shrine’. There had been dramatic shifts in Zanskari culture, such that a vast majority of the older population (50+) were illiterate, and yet the majority of young people had been educated to the age of 18 and many were at university. These contradictions carried through into the move to Kumik Marthang, where the houses we visited appeared to encapsulate the best of the old and the new, and appeared to be a way for the younger generation to mediate their desire for economic development, easy access and communications, with cultural expectations to grow plots of barley to brew chang and keep a cow for daily milk supplies.

Having said this, the move to Kumik Marthang and the future that many of the villagers envision is highly contingent. The construction of the new road from Leh to Padum was particularly problematic, due to the loaded political implications of this, which renders the vision some villagers have for Kumik Marthang quite conditional. Moreover, the unreliable nature of the water supply channel to the new village makes the move even more unpredictable. These factors lead me to think of the move to Kumik Marthang as an insurance strategy, or as an extension of the risk spreading tactics that run through everyday life, social relations and household economies. In essence, for the few villagers that have decided to move and been able to do so, they are able to be supplied with water by truck from Padum, from the river in winter, and by pipe from old Kumik village even. Until the water supply canal is totally reliable the majority of villagers are unlikely to move, but if they were ever to be in urgent need of land with different water supply possibilities, they have already secured this.

Conceptualising this situation within the risk, resilience and climate change adaptation / transformation literature leads to an interesting debate. The idea of resilience usefully draws together the ideas of climate change adaptation and transformation, referring to the capacity of individuals and systems to ‘survive, adapt, and grow in the face of stress and shocks, and even transform when conditions require it’ (Royal Society, 2014). The move to Kumik Marthang is interesting because in some ways it challenges and re-envisions the very fabric of Kumikpa society, and in other ways it is a continuation of the long held risk management practices the community has developed to help them adapt to the changing land and climate. Whilst I might not be able to ‘fit’ this example in to a category, and most likely do not even want to, I hope that this research shows the tensions between modernity and tradition, individual agency against circumstance and the strategic, forward thinking and optimistic approach taken by a community to secure their livelihoods in a changing world.



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