Lessons from Ladakh’s climate leadership | Inquirer Opinion

Lessons from Ladakh’s climate leadership

The Hindu Kush Himalayan region, encompassing Bhutan, Nepal, and long border stretches of India, China, Pakistan, and other nations, is often referred to as the “Third Pole” because it holds the largest reserve of snow and ice outside the polar regions. This region is crucial to the livelihoods and economies of billions of people, as it is the source of 10 of the largest rivers in Asia. However, climate change is threatening this lifeline, with glaciers retreating, and weather patterns becoming increasingly unpredictable. Scientists have declared that the Hindu Kush Bio-Sphere is on the brink of collapse.

In this critical situation, Ladakh’s proactive approach toward climate change becomes a source of inspiration. Ladakh is an Indian union territory with the highest high-altitude plateau that is mostly desert. Despite its stark landscape, Ladakh is a place where the principles of “dharma”—a concept encompassing duty, righteousness, and moral order—take precedence over material gain. The quarter-million people of Ladakh have an intrinsic understanding that true wealth lies in the health of their environment and the continuation of their cultural heritage, not just in immediate financial benefits.

Over the years, Ladakh’s response to climate change has been multifaceted: from innovative water conservation measures to investment in renewable energy, protection of biodiversity, promotion of sustainable agriculture, focus on climate education, and integration of sustainability into governance. These initiatives have fostered a resilient community, capable of adapting traditional wisdom to contemporary challenges. Such strategies are underpinned by an ethos that values sacrifice and stewardship, viewing the preservation of the ecosystem as a sacred duty rather than an economic trade-off.

Their commitment is exemplified in the pioneering work of the educational institution, Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh. This movement seeks to engage local communities in sustainable practices by empowering young Ladakhis, providing education that harmonizes with the region’s environmental and cultural ethos. This model of local involvement, alongside water conservation through ingenious methods like “ice stupas,” solar passive mud buildings, widespread use of solar power for water heaters, responsible tourism, and traditional compost toilets, encapsulates a comprehensive approach to climate resilience.


A poignant embodiment of their commitment is the ongoing “Climate Fast” undertaken by the people of Ladakh, fasting in chilling Himalayan temperatures to spotlight the urgency of climate action. Led by global innovator, educator, and engineer Sonam Wangchuk, their fasting is a profound expression of dharma toward the Earth and future generations. It underscores a collective vision for the future—one where the integrity of our ecosystems is regarded as sacred and indispensable.

This steadfast vision and dedicated action come with huge sacrifices. Ladakhis have forgone certain development opportunities that conflict with their ecological and cultural values. Instead, through their daily lives, they demonstrate how to carve out a development path that is sustainable, one that respects the fragile balance of their high-altitude ecosystem.

In Ladakh, this is not a new-fangled trend but a time-honored tradition. By prioritizing their dharma over short-term economic gain, they have maintained the purity of their rivers, the sanctity of their mountains, and the vibrancy of their culture.

The fast in the freezing cold is a dramatic assertion that the people of Ladakh are ready to bear hardships for the greater good. It is a clarion call for humanity to adopt a similar ethos of selflessness and sacrifice by choosing to live simply.


The message emanating from Ladakh’s austere landscapes is clear: the well-being of our environment is nonnegotiable. It carries a stark warning: While economic development can be postponed, the irreversible loss of glaciers—a critical source of water and life—cannot.

Simply put, Ladakh’s “Climate Fast” and the teachings it embodies are seminal to charting a course for the Hindu Kush Himalayas and beyond. The dharma (personal mission) of environmental stewardship, as embraced by the Ladakhis, is a testament to the profound wisdom that when we protect our earth, we protect ourselves. In the stillness of Ladakh’s cold, the warmth of this understanding beckons us to a future where economy and ecology walk hand in hand, guided by the immutable principles of dharma. Asia News Network


Andrew Sheng is distinguished fellow of Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong, and writes on global finance, climate change, and geopolitical issues. Sneha Poddar is a research fellow at Georgetown Institute of Open and Advanced Studies, an associate of the Global Soil Health Programme, and an adjunct faculty member at the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives Ladakh.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of the Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 media titles in the region.

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