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The impact of modernization and climate change on nomadic life

Two weeks have gone by since we returned to Ladakh and our team here in Kharnakling.
Tomorrow we will leave for our first trip to the nomads in Kharnak, a small nomadic community from the Changthang Plateau, to start selecting wool for this winter.

Kharnakling is a small village which was founded more than twenty years ago. It consisted of a few small houses of nomads from Kharnak, who decided to settle down and leave the nomadic life. The difficulties they have faced such as cold winters, lack of medical facilities and education were too much to live with.

Settled nomad Jigmet in front of his house during construction.
Settled nomad Jigmet in front of his house during construction.
Shepherd Tenzin in front of his flock of sheep in the mountains.

Over the course of the last 25 years Kharnakling has grown to more than 400 people, mostly from Kharnak. As a consequence, the community of Kharnak has tremendously reduced in size, with only 16 families left in 2016 with a tendency of further shrinking. It is a combination of many different factors which are forcing many families to leave the nomadic life and settle.
The difficulty of life for the nomads in Kharnak is definitely one of the strongest reasons for settling. Due to global warming, which can be felt most in regions like the Himalayas, there is less and less water for the animals to drink and the grass to grow.
The winters are less predictable. In 2012, around 40,000 animals died in the Changthang Plateau due to an extremely harsh winter. Therefore, many of the nomads ask themselves the question “why still live here? Nowadays, we are just surviving here.”

One of the settled families we work with in their living room.
One of the nomadic families we work with in their yak hair tent during summer.

The continuity of a community is always in the hands of the younger people who will carry on this tradition. However, the rapid modernization of life in Ladakh is tempting many young nomads to live in the city. Better access to health care, education for their children and a more comfortable life are often the reasons. In this case, the old people are forced to follow them, because alone at 50 or 60 years of age, one cannot take care of a big flock of animals.

The group of weavers going through the wool on an empty property next to their house.
Nomads are taking the wool of the yaks during summertime.

The children go to school and the young people who have not had access to education become drivers or guides and are especially busy in the tourist season. Walking around Kharnakling, the settlement which is around 8 kilometers from Leh, one can see the remains of the nomadic life everywhere: tents, saddlebags, the backstrap looms, clothes which have been stitched numerous times, the list goes on. It seems like only the first generation which was born in Kharnakling and has not known the nomadic life as their own, are the only ones who have completely adapted to the new lifestyle.

One friend here, a grandchild of one of the weavers is now 17 and was born in Kharnakling. We talk often, especially about the art of weaving and spinning. However, in this case, the interest to learn and carry on this art is close to zero. This is the typical development of a community which has not benefited from modernization. 

Sonam Tandon, a settled nomad, weaving the traditional snambu in her home in Kharnakling.
Nomadic women weaving the traditional snambu in their home in Kharnak.

The old ways and the craft is not considered by the young people because it seems ancient to them and not something they, educated people, should learn. By working with the two communities, the settled nomads in Kharnakling and the nomads of Kharnak we hope to trigger a small change: we are currently researching on what the Kharnakling people appreciate about the city, but what they miss here. Likewise, we want to find out more about what is most needed by the nomads in Kharnak for an easier life.

It is certainly a challenge but we are determined to leave a positive impact with the people we work with. This work started as an “experiment” in 2014 and coming back for the third time this year, we are optimistic that with patience, time and endurance we can give something back to the people here.

1 comment

  • Bear

    What a plreause to find someone who thinks through the issues

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