Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Ladakh 101 - Environmental Factors that Induce Zero Sum Games

Ladakh is growing economically.  The infrastructure required to support this growth is however inadequate.  This has led to the natural emergence of zero sum games (ZSGs) amongst various subsections of the society, between humans and wildlife and between humans and the environment.  Also as a direct consequence of inadequate communications, logistics, storage and energy infrastructure certain sections of the society have been left far behind.  Without remedial action this would deepen social fissures which in turn will serve as fertile ground for emergence of new ZSGs in the future.

ZSGs lock their participants into a competition whose outcome is guaranteed to be worse off for all than the outcome if participants had cooperated instead.  A healthy society ought to do better.

The introduction of traffic rules moderates the competitive urge of motorists to reach their destination at the earliest and induces a degree of cooperation that enhances everyone's safety.  Without traffic rules and an authority or a social value system that rigorously enforces those rules rational choices by individuals would quickly degenerate into collective madness.  ZSGs are powerful attractors, a vortex if you will.  Once they set in it takes great amount of effort to extricate the participants from the vortex.  In order to support sustainable growth in Ladakh effort needs to be directed at extricating the protagonists from ZSGs.

In this post we focus on key environmental factors in Ladakh underlying the many little ZSGs that have entrenched in the society.  The more I understand Ladakh the more it appears to me that (i) energy poverty is principally responsible for stacking up protagonists into ZSGs and (ii) adoption of solar and wind power technologies will play the role of the analogical traffic rules.  We will get back to these issues in subsequent posts.  Let us head straight to the environmental factors.

Disclaimer: Numbers mentioned here are approximate.  They are meant to give an intuitive feel and not to convey scientific accuracy. 

Ladakh means the land of high passes in Tibetan.  It is one of the three regions in Jammu & Kashmir and comprises two districts - Leh and Kargil.  Kargil borders Baltistan on the West, Leh borders Tibet on the east and Aksai Chin on the Northeast.  Most of Ladakh lies at over 3,000m and some peaks go higher than 7,000m.

Ladakh has a population of 290,000 and a population density of just 3.3 persons/square kilometer.  Over 80% of the population earns less than ₹1,800/month (£18/month).  Tourism and the armed forces are largest employers for men.  Tourism is however active only during May and October.  It generates over 50% of the economic output but employs only 4% of the working-age population.  The overwhelming majority of women and a large proportion of men, especially during winters, are self-employed in subsistence cultivation and animal husbandry.

As altitude increases the air gets thinner and temperature falls.  At 3,500m altitude such as in Leh city the air density is 60% of that at sea-level.  At 5,500m which is pretty much the peak of nomadic human settlements it is just 47%.  Temperatures in Ladakh range from a minimum of -55 degree Celsius in thick winter to +45 degree Celsius in peak summer.  High altitude increases risk of anaemia and low temperatures expose people to frostbites leading to loss of economic efficiency in the best case and limb amputation in the worst case.  Harsh winters can wipe out entire populations of smaller livestocks belonging to village and nomadic populations causing a significant economic loss.

A thin air supports higher wind speeds which can be as high as 150 kilometre per hour.  

Moisture capacity of thin air is low.  In addition Ladakh lies in a rain shadow region.  Hence the climate in very dry.  As a result Ladakh is a high-altitude desert with almost no tree cover.  Low moisture causes skin to crack, peel and get inflamed.  Outside the handful of towns, human waste is mixed with soil to create manure.  The manure is turned into powder by thermal stresses and the dry environment.  High wind speeds blow the excess, dusty human waste far and contaminates stagnant water bodies leading to elevated risk of diarrhea and Hepatitis A.

Electrification outside the handful of towns in the region remains limited to pilot projects.  Petrol-based fuel remains out of financial reaches of the masses.  Therefore they use scarce shrubs and twigs for heating, light and cooking.  This is environmentally harmful as it induces further desertification.  In winter due to biting cold, cooking is done inside tents.  Thin air causes incomplete burning.  This causes smoke to have a much larger content of unburnt particulates and carbon monoxide, a poisonous gas.  Long exposures to such cooking environments significantly raises the risk of asthma, induces lung and heart damage and cause hypoxia-induced chronic anaemia.  This is particularly risky to pregnant women or young kids as they tend to remain in physical vicinity of their mothers.

Schools are almost non-existent in nomadic settlements and small villages as they remain cut off from the rest of the world for six months a year and are without basic survival amenities.  Where there are schools, they remain without digital access due to lack of electric power and because without heating normal winter temperatures are well outside the operating range of computing devices. The harsh and remote environment magnifies the failure of governance in ensuring availability of basic education opportunities to the Ladakhis.

Exposure to ultraviolet rays (UV rays) substantially increases risk of skin cancer, suppresses the immune system and causes premature skin ageing.  Ozone layer in the region of 10-50 km above Earth's surface absorbs 97% of UVB rays and all of UVC rays.  However UVA rays are not absorbed by ozone and instead, atmospheric moisture, carbon dioxide and oxygen act as a natural sunscreen blocking a considerable portion of UVA rays from reaching the Earth's surface.  However given Ladakh's thin and extremely dry atmosphere this protection is considerably weaker.  The UV intensity in Leh city is 40% higher and in upper limits of nomadic settlements in the Changthang region is 60% higher than that at same latitude at sea-level.

Short summers and dry desert environment leads to scarcity of grazing pastures in summers and scarcity of fodder during winter months.  A combination of harsh weather and pastoral mismanagement can cause food shortage leading to starvation deaths amongst livestock.  The concern of loss of livestock due to starvation or scarcity of burning wood in winter months incentivizes livestock herders to overgraze available pastures.

The Ladakh region is rich in vulnerable/endangered species such as black-neck crane, chiru, urial, musk deerTibetan gazelle, wild yak and snow leopard.  Scarcity sets the wild herbivores and livestock into a ZSG.  Herders tend to use poison or feral dogs to keep wild herbivores at bay.  Loss of grazing ground to livestock and killings have led to decline of wild herbivore populations.  This decline has in turn set the stage for human-carnivore conflict - carnivores which would otherwise feed on wild herbivores increasingly attack livestocks.  Thankfully the threat of poaching is minimal in Ladakh.  However growth pressures and harsh and uncertain environmental conditions have induced a scarcity of pastoral lands causing a decline in wild herbivore count and revenge attacks on carnivores.  In addition closer contact with livestock and humans has introduced wildlife to new diseases.

Thank you for reading.  I will update this post as I have more information.  

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