Sonam Wangchuk addresses protesters demanding statehood for the Ladakh region of India, February 15, 2023.

Sonam Wangchuk addresses protesters demanding statehood for the Ladakh region of India, February 15, 2023. ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo


At 11,500 Feet, a ‘Climate Fast’ to Save the Melting Himalaya

Sonam Wangchuk has long worked to help people in India’s Ladakh region adapt to climate change. In an e360 interview, he explains why he fasted for 21 days to pressure the government to grant legal protections to the region’s fragile ecosystem and its life-giving glaciers.

This month, Indian activist Sonam Wangchuk conducted a 21-day “climate fast” in his native Ladakh in the Himalaya. He had two objectives: to call the world’s attention to the rapid meltdown of the planet’s “third pole” and to pressure India’s government to grant Ladakhis the power to legally protect the region’s resources.

For centuries, Ladakhis have survived and thrived in the “rain shadow” of the Himalaya, where the only water comes from melting snow and ice. But in recent decades, they have witnessed rapid glacier loss, increasingly erratic snowfall, and disasters caused by unprecedented cloudbursts and glacial lake floods.

An educator and an engineer, Wangchuk has pioneered the construction of passive solar-heated buildings throughout the region, as well as “ice stupas,” in which meltwater is refrozen for later irrigation use. But he is painfully aware such efforts can’t solve the bigger problem, which is why he has become one of India’s most prominent voices for climate action.

For three weeks, Wangchuk, whom Yale Environment 360 interviewed on day 19 of his fast, consumed only water and salt and slept outdoors at 11,500 feet in subfreezing temperatures. Thousands joined him in their own day-long fasts and in mass protests in the Ladakhi capital to call on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to designate Ladakh as a “tribal area” under a provision of India’s constitution, which would guarantee local autonomy over land use and resource management. Entrusting Ladakhis with this authority, says Wangchuk, is the only way to protect this fragile, cold-desert ecosystem and Ladakhis’ way of life.

“In Ladakh, we are in a very important position to be messengers from the frontier,” he says. “We have a responsibility… to tell the world what’s happening with us today, and that tomorrow it will be happening to you.”

Sonam Wangchuk is surrounded by supporters on the 17th day of his hunger strike, March 22, 2024.

Sonam Wangchuk is surrounded by supporters on the 17th day of his hunger strike, March 22, 2024. Sonam Dorje / AP Photo

Yale Environment 360: You are now on day 19 of your 21-day fast. How are you feeling?

Sonam Wangchuk: Last two days, I was feeling very weak. Today I was feeling much better.

e360: How would the legal safeguards you are seeking — such as having your own legislative autonomous district councils — help protect the glaciers of the Himalayas and the ecosystems and communities that rely on them?

Wangchuk: There is a special provision in the Indian constitution called the Sixth Schedule, which gives safeguards to regions where tribal communities are the majority, to the people and their cultures, so that they can determine how these places should be developed without interference from others.

What we are demanding — and what the government had promised — is the provision of autonomy to the Indigenous Ladakhi people. The Sixth Schedule provides for the formation of autonomous district councils that have legislative powers; they can make rules and regulations governing land, forest, water, agriculture, health, sanitation, mining, and more. But after the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party won in the elections, it backtracked on those promises.

“Over my lifetime, I have seen glaciers vanish. Glaciers that used to be right next to roads have retreated hundreds of meters.”

e360: In the absence of these protections, what future forms of industrial development by outside interests are people in Ladakh worried about? Are there specific proposed projects that concern you the most?

Wangchuk: Without these protections, Ladakhis themselves could be completely excluded from decision-making around land use in their own land. Outsiders will be able to come in with huge mining, energy, industrial projects, and we will have no say in the matter. There will be no local input, no limits on how these big projects are decided and built.

If Ladakh is left open to this kind of free-for-all, with no safeguards, mining companies will surely come. We hear reports that they are already scouting in the mountains and valleys. Huge hotel chains are also eager to come here. There simply won’t be enough water in our high-altitude desert to support these new demands. Every drop here is important. The tourism industry has already caused a lot of havoc in terms of pollution and water use. What people fear is that without these protections our culture and our way of life — which has been finely tuned over thousands of years to survive in these mountains, in balance with the resources and the environment — we won’t be able to sustain it.

And then there will be more and bigger roads to serve all of this new development, with more diesel trucks and vehicles plying them. All of this activity will lead to more local emissions of black carbon — soot — and we know that this will make the glaciers disappear even faster. Because when the soot falls on the snow and ice, it absorbs solar energy, heating them and speeding up their melting.

Leh City, the largest city in Ladakh.

Leh City, the largest city in Ladakh. Sonam Dorje / AP Photo

e360: Ladakh lies in the rain shadow of the Himalaya, where virtually the entire water supply comes from snow and ice. How worried are Ladakhis about their future ability to continue to farm and live in the region if these warming and glacial-loss trends continue?

Wangchuk: Over my lifetime, I have seen glaciers vanish here in Ladakh. Glaciers that used to be right next to the roads have now retreated hundreds of meters. These changes have led to flash floods in some places, drought in other places. We are already facing water shortages in some areas. If new industries come in, with their own demands for water and with pollution, not only will the local people suffer, but all of North India will suffer. That’s why we consider it so important to preserve these glaciers. When the glaciers disappear, the local people in Ladakh will become refugees, because they’re our lifeline.

But this does not only affect us in Ladakh. Ladakh and its glacier system is [part of what is] known as the “third pole” of the planet. It’s the largest reservoir of fresh water outside of the poles, feeding one fourth of the planet’s population, directly or indirectly. It’s not just Ladakh’s problem. It’s everybody’s problem.

“My appeal always to people out there is, please live simply in your big cities, so we in the mountains may simply live.”

e360: Have you been encouraged by the response to your fast from other parts of India?

Wangchuk: Yes. I have been highlighting these issues and educating people in India — while also reminding the government of the promises they have made — through my morning and evening updates [on social media] throughout the fast. Many people from northern India especially, the Himalayan foothills, and the rest of India have been moved and have expressed solidarity with us. Definitely there’s a big change. Some have even organized one-day fasts in their own cities. Last Sunday it was 25 cities around India. That’s an indication of how much they are moved, and they are in support. People have come from Darjeeling, Uttarakhand, all the Himalayan foothills, and many other places.

e360: Whether or not the government responds to your demands, what do you think your fast and the related protests have already achieved?

Wangchuk: What I think we have achieved is educating the nation around the reasons for the fast. But rather than keeping it as just something we gain for our cause, I have been trying to educate them about how the glaciers are melting, how corporations are unsustainably exploiting the mountains. It’s about education. That has definitely happened, even if the [political] demands are not met.

Lots of networks and connections are being made, and the government takes it seriously —although they are trying to avoid it for now. But sooner or later I think they’ll have to pay attention. Because it’s making a dent in their votes.

Protestors in New Delhi demanding statehood for Ladakh, February 2023.

Protestors in New Delhi demanding statehood for Ladakh, February 2023. Sonu Mehta / Hindustan Times via Getty Images

e360: The United States and other wealthy nations bear most of the historical responsibility for fossil fuel emissions driving the melting of Himalayan glaciers. Given that fact, is your fast intended to speak to people beyond the borders of India too?

Wangchuk: Yes, my climate fast is just as much to educate the big cities of the world, where most of this problem starts, and the historically responsible nations. But I must say, I’m not one of those who blames the rich historical emitters and then takes a concession for the developing world to emit more, “because now it’s our share, why shouldn’t we emit as you have already?” I don’t believe in that. Something that is poisonous and harmful to the planet — the sooner we learn and act, the better.

We don’t have to repeat the mistakes made by previous powers. We have to set things right in our own individual capacities. We can’t be doing the same, or else there will be no difference between us who claim we understand the issues of environment and those who didn’t know at the time and did what they thought was right. But, yes, the big emitters have a big responsibility also, and I want to connect to them in the U.S. and Europe and other countries to appeal directly to the people.

e360: Do you have a message to people in the United States and other industrialized countries about their role in helping protect the Himalaya?

Wangchuk: To make their lifestyles simpler. To switch from carbon-intensive lifestyles to greener lifestyles, because it harms the planet and themselves, later. But much sooner we Ladakhis — for no fault of ours — will become victims of their acts. So, my appeal always to people out there is, please live simply in your big cities, so we in the mountains may simply live. I want to influence people beyond the borders of India, because emissions don’t know any boundaries, and pollution doesn’t know any boundaries. And because education is the best defense.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.