Tree plantations in the Himalayan desert may worsen the effects of climate change

As he watches his neighbors water the tens of thousands of saplings they planted in their Himalayan village a few months ago, Gyan Thinlay is thrilled to turn this patch of bare desert into a lush habitat for insects and pests. birds.

The village of Chushul sits over 14,000 feet, or 4,267 meters, above sea level in Ladakh, a cold desert between India and China where less than 10cm of annual rainfall and variations Seasonal temperature extremes make it difficult for many to grow.

But that hasn’t deterred villagers from planting 150,000 trees – mostly willows, sea buckthorn and tamarisk – in June, as part of a project they hope will combat air pollution, boost biodiversity and provide a new source of income for locals who traditionally depend on livestock.

“All we see around us are barren mountains. Now we can’t wait to see some greenery too,” said Thinlay, a Buddhist monk who oversees the effort as Chushul’s vice president for Go Green Go Organic, the nonprofit organization behind the project.

“The trees will also provide the farmers with fodder for their livestock,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Businesses, governments and green groups are promoting and embracing tree planting in an effort to combat rising temperatures and mitigate the effects of climate change, as forests extract carbon from the air which warms the climate, capture and store water in the soil and provide shade. for crops and livestock.

But some conservationists warn that the “senseless” creation of forests in areas where they wouldn’t grow naturally can damage fragile and unique ecosystems.

“Planting trees in deserts can be as harmful as cutting down trees in forests,” said Abi Tamim Vanak, acting director of the Center for Policy Design at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, or ATREE, in Bengaluru.

Native plants and wild animals, such as Ladakh’s famous snow leopards and blue sheep, are not suited to forest ecosystems, Vanak noted.

“The establishment of plantations, especially in areas where people do not reside, can harm native habitats and render them unusable for wildlife,” he said.

Balance water needs

In India, a massive development spurt is intensifying deforestation, one of the main drivers of climate change.

Mining, along with the construction of roads, hydropower projects and other infrastructure, has consumed a total of 554.3 square kilometers of forest in the country over the past three years, according to government data.

In the cold desert of Ladakh and other parts of South Asia, climate change is disrupting agricultural calendars and amplifying flood risks.

“Glaciers are melting rapidly while rain and snow patterns have undergone changes, with extreme weather events such as downpours occurring more frequently,” said Mukhtar Ahmad, a scientist with India’s meteorological department, adding that he It is unclear to what extent this can be attributed to climate change.

Tree planting projects are relatively new to communities in the cold desert of Ladakh.

Only six years ago, Tibetan Buddhist leader Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche began encouraging people to establish plantations and store water from melting glaciers to help reduce carbon emissions caused by rising tourism in the region, to produce more food and to earn money by supplying wood to the construction industry, said Chushul Councilor Konchok Stanzin.

Villages in other parts of his constituency have also established forests in the desert over the past two or three years, he added.

The trees are still young, but once mature, “villagers hope they will be an important source of fodder for sheep, goats and other livestock, in addition to providing greenery”, Stanzin said.

But ATREE’s Vanak pointed out that growing trees requires a lot of water, so planting them in environments that are unnatural to them can make areas already struggling with low water supplies even drier.

“Indeed, trees in the wrong places can ‘steal’ water from desert-adapted shrubs and grasses, and overwhelm them,” he said.

A report by a group of European scientists published in May in the journal Nature concluded that while large-scale expansion of tree cover can increase water availability by up to 6% in some areas, it can lead to a decline of up to 40% in water supply in others .

Besides potentially taking water away from livestock and wildlife — and, therefore, reducing their food supply — planting trees in desert ecosystems can even exacerbate climate change, said Forrest Fleischman, associate professor at the Department of Forest Resources, University of Minnesota. .

When trees that have been planted in places like the African savannah are killed by fires or large animals, like elephants, they release more carbon into the atmosphere than if they had remained underground, he said. he explains.

Instead, “avoiding deforestation, improving forest management and protecting grasslands, bogs and shrublands from land use conversion should be the priority,” Fleischman said via email.

Stanzin said the irrigation of the Chushul plantation had no negative effect on the region’s water supply.

From June to October, villagers use water from melting glaciers and the rest of the year they draw groundwater using solar-powered pumps, he said.

“We rather believe [the project] will raise the water table, because water is only used around this land and is absorbed here,” he added.

Damage the desert

Jigmet Takpa, joint secretary of India’s environment ministry, said concerns about the greening of the desert were overblown.

“If you plant trees on one or two square kilometers out of 57,000 square kilometers, how can that damage the desert?” He asked.

In Chushul, the warnings did not worry Stanzin Dolker as she tended newly planted trees with a group of other villagers.

More important to her is the hope that the forest they created will bring wild plants and animals to lands that have been barren all her life.

“We will ensure that each of these saplings grows into a tree. This is our resolution,” Dolker said.

This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

Also read: Why massive tree plantations are a disaster for desert ecosystems

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