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Science Meets Traditional Wisdom on the Road to Self Sufficiency in Ladakh's Cold Desert

Year round sustainable growing in Ladakh's cold desert for health & prosperity.

Photo of Kanika Khanna
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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Sunkalp Energy Pvt Ltd

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Our Vision has percolated through the following interactions: Dr. Dorje Angchok, Scientist- Agri Extension, Defence High Altitude Research Center, Ladakh ---|--- Mr. Moses Kunzang, Additional Deputy Commissioner, Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Leh --|-- Mr. Tashi Tsetan, Chief Agriculture Officer, Ladakh --|-- Mr. Deen Khan, Deputy Commissioner, Ladakh --|-- Various Ladakhi farmers, restaurant and hotel owners.

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • Under 1 year

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

New Delhi

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

India

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Ladakh, a Union Territory in North India, is a high altitude cold desert covering an area of 59,000 sq km.

What country is your selected Place located in?

India

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

In the winter of January 2012, our team made an arduous journey in Ladakh, at 11,000 ft over sea level, over the frozen Zanskar river, locally known as the Chadar trail. We covered the 100 km long distance on foot over the span of 7 days, camping during the nights on the sheet of ice. Temperatures frequently fell below negative 30C. The landscape was captivatingly beautiful but sparse and unforgiving. 

We ate meals of instant noodles and tea with powdered milk, using ice water melted over our portable stove. The Chadar trail is the traditional route between Zanskar village and Leh city for hardy Ladakhis sherpas during the long harsh winters. It gave us an intimate insight into the lives of the Ladakhi people. During the trip we met some young parents taking their children along this same route for education or to buy foods from the city of Leh. We forged lifelong connections and friendships which bring us back repeatedly each year.

Stanzin, born and brought up in Ladakh, went to Chandigarh for his engineering studies. He is now back in Ladakh and runs a prominent distributorship for insulation technologies and plumbing materials. Stanzin's wife, Diskit runs a restaurant in Leh which reinvents local Ladakhi dishes and is popular among tourists.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Locals live simple lives; Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus co-exist peacefully.

Ladkhis enjoy broths (thukpa) and meaty dumplings with liquid fat. They drink immunity boosting salted butter tea which gives them energy and is best enjoyed in the freezing winters. Dras, The Gateway to Ladakh is the second coldest inhabited place on Earth.

Ladakh gets 300 days of clear sunshine. They say that it is possible to get frost bite and sunburn at the same time here, if you are sitting sheltered under a ledge in the winter sun.

During summers the landscape which is dotted with Buddhist monasteries, is glorious with fields of tiny flowers.

During winters, the water plumbing freezes through and taps need to be locked shut to avoid damage to the pipes. Once temperatures dip, there is an annual migration of the affluent urban population and much of the migrant labor away from Ladakh’s hardships.

The urban population of Leh district increased from 24% in 2011 to 34% in 2020. Even though city dwellers have access to modern amenities, they still use traditional Ladakhi toilets and wood burning stoves (Bukharis) to warm their homes.

Almost 70% of Ladakh’s working population is involved in agriculture, but it contributes to less than estimated 10 % of its GDP.

Close knit villages come together for weddings, births or deaths. Even the rich spend very little on their large weddings as each community member contributes something- a food item, clothes or furniture- for the special occasion.

Cooperatives play an critical role in the area’s economy. This is as a result of active voluntary participation of the people, liberal financial assistance and the administration’s engagement.

Glacier melt water is mineral rich and fruits and vegetables grow abundantly in small home gardens during the warm months from May to September. The area is naturally organic- agriculture is without any pesticides whatsoever as people follow Buddhist practices. Apricots and apples from Ladakhi gardens are dried in the summer sun to be stored and enjoyed in winters.

However, as the soil is full of rocks and precipitation is low, the region is barren and for 7 months a year there is no vegetation due to harsh winters. At these times, locals eat stored root vegetables and meats. Due to a lack of access to vegetables women suffer from folic acid deficiency and anemia. As the roads are snowed in, the local council air freights in small quantities of vegetables which sell at exorbitant prices.

As it shares borders with Pakistan and China, Ladakh is strategically important for national security and over 100,000 soldiers are posted across the region.

300,000 tourists- more than the entire local population- descend upon the region in summer. Hotels import many exotic fresh foods to satisfy their demands. Pressure is placed on the already meager resources such as water.

Ladakh has recently been declared a Union Territory hence the region is bracing itself for development, incoming investment, industry, even more tourism and greater pressure on the fragile ecosystem. There is threat to the culture of self-reliance, sustainable habits and traditions of the locals.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

59000

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

350000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The only two roads by which Ladakh is accessible are closed annually for 7 months with heavy winter snowfall. Internal distances are large and the population is scattered.

Challenges 2020:

Environment

-Water scarcity, ground table is getting depleted. In tourist areas there is risk of leaching from underground septic tanks into the water table which is also the source for drinking water

-Infertile Soil

-Frozen water lines from Nov- Mar

Diets

-Diet devoid of fruits and vegetables for majority of the year and low in variety

-Per University of Kashmir’s research, Vitamin & Iron intake is only 389 ug/ day, about 1/2 the national average- due to “low agricultural productivity” and “scarcity of fruits and vegetables”. 23% of population suffers from anemia, 20% from scurvy and another 20% from night-blindness. (Dar and Rather)

Economics

-Remote & isolated: High transport costs make it harder to turn to the faraway major markets to compensate for the drawbacks of the domestic market's small size

-Food is expensive in winters as it has to be air freighted. Vegetables sell at 5X the national average rate, yet people wait in long queues for rationed portions. Availability is uncertain- when we were shooting the video for this competition this winter, we had to wait a whole week for a shipment of vegetables to arrive. Stored foods are exhausted by Jan

-Majority of the urban population migrates to the plains in search of greener pastures and reliable food in the harsh winters. Many buy permanent houses elsewhere- there are even settlements referred to as Ladakh Colony in other states. The seasonal migration results in an economic drain of Ladakh and worsens the position of the marginalized

-Some women self-help groups harvest the valuable seabuckthorn but due to lack of processing facilities are unable to get the right price for it

Culture

-As the area opens up politically, there is suspicion of outsiders

-Agriculture is for subsistence, women who primarily do it are marginalized

Technology

-Greenhouses increase the growing season only by 1-2 months as night temperatures are still subzero in them

-Research is ongoing with technologies like solar & geothermal to increase the growing period but costs remain high

- Electricity is available in Leh but 70% Ladakhis live in hamlets where power is unavailable as distances make grid erection difficult

Policy

-With Union Territory (UT) status governance has shifted from a local council which knows the region intimately, to far away Delhi

2050

Ladakh’s population will double and tourism triple by 2050 exacerbating stress on environment. Waste generation by tourism and ground water contamination may become untenable.

The 2010 Ladakh flash floods proved that cities suffer the greatest damage. As urbanization continues Ladakh will become less resilient to climate change. Leh’s high population density will result in faster spread of diseases, erosion of culture and sustainable habits (eg: dry toilets). This will also accelerate winter migration, further increasing the economic drain.

UT status means new central governments may result in unstable policy and poor implementation

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Given its physical distance and seasonal isolation from major markets, Ladakh must turn inwards for self-sufficiency. At the same time, it must use its strengths of abundant land, sunshine and rich bio-diversity to tap into external markets and economies of scale. This is the only way to spur domestic competition and innovation.

In Ladakhi Future Energy (LIFE) Farms we envision stretching the boundaries of existing technologies- use Ladakh’s abundant sunshine through passive solar or energy from geothermal technologies and hybridize these with active renewable energy and grid power to sustainably keep the temperature in LIFE Farms between 15- 25 C yearlong.

LIFE farms will use traditional Ladakhi wisdom of rammed Earth insulation. Hydroponics and precision agriculture will be used to tackle infertile soil and water scarcity. Manure processed in modern units from Ladakhi toilet waste will ensure supply of organic nutrients.

LIFE Farms will grow a wide range of vegetables and some fruits cheaply year round. Operating expenses will be minimal owing to reliance on renewable resources. With the availability of locally-grown fresh vegetables, Ladakhis will supplement their diets and eliminate deficiencies.

LIFE Farms will leverage digital technology- training via mixed reality to bridge farmers’ skill gap, sensors to gage plant health and media parameters, automation and intelligent algorithms to predict demand & supply. This ensures Ladakh leap-frogs to a zero waste economy that does more with less.

Grants and government funds subsidize the first farms, after which competition, innovation and economies of scale make LIFE Farms economical.

As LIFE Farms multiply, they generate a plethora of jobs for managers, engineers and agronomists for the increasing number of educated Ladakhi youth.

Our vision capitalizes on the rich Ladakhi culture of co-operatives by leasing out LIFE Farms to Ladakhi farmers to own and operate. This model will make farms affordable; ensure that the locals’ livelihoods are benefited directly and is designed to garner trust of Ladakhis.

We estimate that an energy efficient greenhouse shall be at least 150 sqm. Farms can be built modularly- a one acre LIFE farm with 25 greenhouses shall feed 2500-3000 people. Decentralized deployment of modular LIFE farms across hamlets will benefit the scattered population. The hyper-local yearlong availability of food and job opportunities will stem the migration of people from rural areas.

There is an unsubscribed policy of the local administration to promote food parks. LIFE Farms will generate excess organic produce during summer months, attracting professional food processing units. These will further process endemic produce, enabling Ladakhis to get the right price for seabuckthorn and apricot based foods.

The new government is looking for opportunities to use Ladakhi land for sustainable means and are open to supporting such projects. The time is ripe for implementing this vision.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Our vision is to leverage a mix of science such as hydroponics & precision farming; mature technology such as solar & geothermal energy; combined with traditional wisdom in passive solar architecture, earth insulation and human waste composting, to economically & 10X more sustain-ably grow produce yearlong in Ladakh’s cold desert. Including during the long harsh winters with sub -30C temperatures.

Yearlong growing with increased productivity will make Ladakh self-reliant while preserving the ecosystem, even as the population doubles and tourism explodes. Ladakhis will have easy access to a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables even in winters, diversifying their diets, and women no longer suffer from deficiencies.

Bustling tourism economy is balanced by a new genre of eco-tourism which showcases Ladakh's naturally organic produce and tantalizing local cuisine as food delightfully moves straight from farm to table instead of being air freighted in. Eco-resorts promote traditional dry toilets where human waste turns to manure creating a cheap and reliable supply of organic fertilizer for our LIFE farms.

Bumper summer harvests attract investment into food processing units which also preserve and export antioxidant rich endemic produce such as seabuckthorn and apricots. Ladakhi chefs showcase these foods globally through re-mastered traditional recipes.

Cooperatives manage LIFE farms and sell directly to the Indian army as well as foreign armies stationed nearby across the border, improving trade and cooperation.

Digitization enables remote extension and open data democratizes market access.

Policy makers get the whole region certified as organic and implement programs to promote food parks and hence entrepreneurship.

Educated youth find high value jobs locally thanks to the new food system. Ladakhis not just survive, but thrive as they leverage their land's abundant sunshine and rich bio diversity to generate jobs and propagate their culture through food.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Dawa & Diskit, 2045

“Hurry up, I’m getting late!” said Dawa as he knocked and stood freezing outside the door of the Ladakhi toilet in his courtyard. “I’m coming!” said his wife, Diskit, as she finished up and quickly dumped a shovel of earth into the toilet, the way it’s always been done. The municipal van would be there at the end of the month to collect the organic manure from their toilet.

Dawa had returned to Ladakh last year with a degree in energy & technology. He had secured a great job as a manager at the cooperative run Leh LIFE Farm. At the farm, the wind whistled outside, it’s negative 25C. Dawa examined yesterday’s 3D temperature heat map, “We barely needed to turn on the heaters, the sun did all the magic”, he said as he examined the concentrated solar dish. Dawa took off his jacket as he stepped inside the greenhouse, the thick walls made with local mud were excellent insulation. “We will have a bumper tomato crop again this year”, he whispered to himself, smiling.

Dawa put on his VR glasses, which synthesized an infra-red scan’s data and coded each row of vegetables based on their health and maturity. "That row looks ready, let's harvest it today", he instructed one of the supervisors.

Next, he switched the glasses view to see next quarter's predicted demand. Based on historical data and demand keyed in by some restaurants, their algorithm fairly accurately recommended how much of which crop needed to be planted. This ensured that there would be no demand mismatch in the summers.

Dawa felt excited that digital technologies along with data now increasingly ensured that there was almost no wastage in produce.

At home in the evening, he beamed at Diskit who had just returned from her job at the processing unit, “How was your day?”

“We got another order for our organic apricot seabuckthorn jam from Europe”, she happily reported. They sat down to a wholesome meal of thukpa and fresh sabzi (vegetables). Dawa was excited, they were planning a baby soon- the Doctor had said that Diskit was in the pink of health.

“Tomorrow at the Farm we are getting visitors from Delhi”, said Dawa, “they want to learn how we have used technology sustainably to make Ladakh self-sufficient for fruits and vegetables while crops are failing across the plains due to climate change.”

“I read that the water table has stabilized as most of the homes have replaced insulated pipe plumbing with the traditional Ladakhi sewage system.” said Diskit, “and all the farmers have adopted drip irrigation”. She was relieved there would no longer be sewage waste leaching from septic tanks into the groundwater that they used for drinking. It was important that their future kids would get access to pristine drinking water.

“Oh did you know!” Diskit exclaimed as she banged the dinner table with excitement, “the Nubra Women’s Group deposited 600 tons of natural seabuckthorn at our processing plant this year! Imagine the handsome revenue each woman would have drawn!” “The cold chain that our company set up has really changed their lives, so easy to pluck and deposit the harvested berries”. Diskit had come from a humble family. Her mother had worked hard each September, while Diskit was growing up, to collect seabuckthorn, but most of the harvest would get damaged as it had to be processed the same day. “Mom would be proud of us”, said Dawa as he planted a kiss on his wife’s cheek and brought out dessert.

“Mmmmmm, you’re a magician”, Diskit mumbled as she dug into the apricot pie her husband had made. Dawa chuckled in response, the local apricot preserve added most of the flavor.

“How’s Tashi’s restaurant doing?” Dawa asked Diskit about her cousin. “Oh excellent”, she responded as they snuggled into bed, “the tourists love her farm to table menu.

“So how many tons of tomato will your farm send our processing unit this summer? Dawa….Dawa….” she asked but got no response, her husband was already fast asleep.

The next day at the Farm, Dawa escorted the delegation from New Delhi. “25 years ago, when we became a Union Territory, the local council did two good things. Firstly, they got the whole Ladakh region certified as organic. Secondly, they set up as a public private partnership, a large scale hydroponic-solar farm using locally developed know-how, to grow staple vegetables such as tomato, year round. A grant from the Rockerfeller foundation was key to this farm. And finally, the government's policy for setting up food processing units started getting subscription as this farm was slated to produce excess during the summers. These were the stepping stones to attract abundance to Ladakh’s cold desert. At the same time the Farm made a commitment to procure organic fertilizer made from local Ladakhi toilets, instigating a collection system and supply chain for it.”, Dawa said as he proudly showed off the flourishing greens.

“We use one twentieth of the water as compared to regular agriculture. 100% of our energy needs are served by solar passive and active technology. It was the simple idea to use conventional wisdom and stretching the boundaries of existing technologies. Now not only do Ladakhis have access to locally grown vegetables year round but we also export a large amount of excess produce in the summers” he continued.

“The initial grant and subsequent government subsidy ensured that the technology could be tried and tested and technology risks mitigated. The increasingly fast uptake ensured economies of scale came into play and private capital got mobilized.” he explained. “Once the model was demonstrated to work successfully, more and more investors and entrepreneurs converted large tracts of infertile land into Ladakhi greenhouse farms distributed across the region. Farmers cooperatives leased out these farms to operate. Our union territory status ensured that the investors could easily access credit.”

“There were other intended consequences too”, he continued. “The processing units that came up because of our farms, could then process the locally growing species such as apricots and seabuckthorn too. The unit created a bigger demand for the raw fruits, which improved the livelihoods of small farmers and self-help groups.”

“Soon, produce from Ladakhi greenhouse farms started getting sold to nearby villages in Pakistan and China. This increased trade resulted in improved collaboration and hence also contributed to peace. Food security in the region contributed positively to National security.”

“Infact”, Dawa continued, “our governments are jointly setting up a platform to transparently share data regarding farm level produce availability, productivity and even best practices”. “This crowd sourced repository will help our friends across the border set up their own farms too. It will eliminate data asymmetry; empower every small farmer and ensure that supply chains stay as simple as possible. Every farmer gets the lion’s share of returns from what they harvest.” Dawa wrapped up to a round of applause.

The next day, Dawa and Diskit travelled to her parental village of Changpa to participate in a wedding celebration. “There’s my lovely daughter and son-in-law!” Diskit’s mother Jigmet exclaimed happily as she ran out to greet them.

“How have you been mummy?” mother and daughter slipped into excited conversation. “Oh life is good darling. When I was younger, winters were hard because we had to go out to graze all our cattle even on the coldest of days. Ever since Changa LIFE farm has come up we don’t have to rely as much on our livestock, we’ve slowly reduced their numbers this year and things are much simpler!”

“Where’s daddy?”

“He’s at Namje’s house helping with the wedding preparations. I’m so glad that he’s hale at hearty even at this age. None of that gout nonsense like your grandfather. Your daddy eats his greens!”

“Here mom, we’ve got you a present”, said Dawa as he handed Jigmet a pair of glasses who looked at him quizzically.

“Put them on!”

She put on the glasses and lo and behold, a menu floated in front of her. “Mummy, this has all the latest recipes, they update automatically based on the vegetables available at your closest farm. See that thukpa recipe with spinach, let’s try it tomorrow!”

Jigmet loved cooking, she was excited to indulge her loving husband who she had won over again and again with her kitchen skills.

“Daddy!” Diskit squealed as she saw her father walk in and ran to give him a hug.

“Come now, let’s have supper” Jigment coaxed everyone to move their chatter to the dinner table. They sat down to a full spread.

“So how’s work going?” Diskit’s asked her brother Dorje who was an Extension Scientist with the High Altitude Research Lab. “Excellent! We are building content which can be delivered through mixed reality to train farmers in the remotest of villages. This will let farmers practically understand the latest techniques without travelling far.”

“I have an idea for a module which will let farmers identify plant diseases and give real time solutions” Dawa added. “Let’s work on it together brother”.

Jigmet looked on at her family chatting, this was her dream come true. She had always believed in the magic of family and had prayed that they would not have to migrate away from this beautiful close knit village. She and her husband knew that health was happiness and was glad that technology had brought them all even closer. She was glad that life had turned out this way.

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Note: We at Sunkalp Energy, have already received buy in and a commitment to provide land for the Ladakhi Greenhouse Farm of the future from the local Ladakhi Council. We have exchanged ideas with research institutes, for eg. at DIHAR, we spent time with Dr, Dorje, an extension expert. We have also engaged with rural land-owners who are extremely excited by the potential of this vision, so much so, one said he would donate his family land to such a cause.

Come, explore our System's Map: https://bit.ly/2uKNWf8

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Photo of Kanika Khanna
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Thu Nguyen , Just saw this post on Instagram and wanted to share it with you! Seeing a similar pattern of migration from rural to urban in Mongolia due to winter famine.
Excited about the potential of using the Leh farm to solve the same problems in other cold deserts too!
https://www.instagram.com/p/B8f74MkgkWP/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet

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