Wednesday, February 12, 2020

A look back at 2019

Thank you, for your love and for continuing to be a part of our journey of change! We had an incredible year at Ecosphere where the wonderful moments and triumphs of the year gone by would not have been possible without you! But there are miles to go still and Spitian miles - in particular - can seem long. But the journey, as always, remains beautifully rewarding.

Here’s a look back at what made the year 2019 special!

5 Greenhouses in the villages of Shego and Hull

The contemporary narrative on ‘know where your food comes from’ takes on a different meaning in Spiti. By ‘food’ we usually mean fresh vegetables which literally journey from the plains, over mountain passes and valleys for 2-3 days before they finally reach Spiti Valley! This is because it is extremely difficult to grow green vegetables in the stunning but difficult climes of high-altitude cold deserts like Spiti.

In keeping with the aims of our Greening the Desert program, we built a total of 5 Greenhouses in the villages of Shego and Hull this year with the help of volunteers.

The construction of these greenhouses takes us closer towards enabling local farmers to grow their own vegetables throughout the year.

Which means fresh, nutritious food options for the locals, better overall health, additional income from surplus, and reduced carbon emissions in the process!

Solar Water Pumps for access to drinking water throughout the year

With inadequate snowfall during winter and retreating glaciers each year, the villages of Spiti are on the frontlines of climate change. The people of Spiti are battling challenges unheard of before. Depleting groundwater levels leading to villages running out of drinking water in the summer. Droughts in the summer that destroy entire crops and livelihoods.

To address this concern, we experimented with the construction of artificial glaciers with a focus to recharge groundwater levels.

An artificial glacier

Another issue faced in the region is that villages in Spiti still have no access to drinking water in the winter. We installed solar water pumps to mitigate these concerns.

Readers who’ve been following our stories for a while may remember how the village of Pangmo ran out of drinking water in the summer of 2018. A phenomenon that was once restricted to the winters in Spiti Valley. The solar water pumps were put to use that summer as well, providing drinking water to the residents of Pangmo. And with it, came the realization that this wasn’t a one-off instance but a disconcerting sign of times ahead instead.

Nuns carrying the panels for the solar water pump

We’re happy to share that apart from the solar water pump we installed in Pangmo that year, we’ve been able to take it further with the addition of a new water storage facility in the village.

Fast forward to 2019 and 3 new villages - Rama, Hull, and Lara – now have access to drinking water. We hope the solar water pumps continue to make their lives easier in the harsh winters of Spiti.

Empowerment through quality healthcare

Health and the ecosystem one lives in are deeply interconnected. Spiti is surreal and beautiful, but the struggles of living in paradise are also abundantly real.

The remoteness and unforgivable terrain mean our communities have limited access to quality healthcare and are at risk of suffering from chronic illnesses or deficiencies. Access to basic diagnosis, treatment, and medication is scarce here.

Our healthcare program was introduced to address some of these concerns and ensure a better quality of life for the communities in Spiti. This year, we took our initiative a step further with the help of the University of Utah to conduct detailed Oral Health assessments, Public Health assessments, and Water Quality assessments.

I Love Spiti

A little history: In 2017, a group of passionate volunteers banded together to start the #ilovespiti campaign. It was a campaign born out of love for Spiti and collective dismay at the increasing amounts of plastic waste in the valley. Volunteers conducted education and awareness drives with both locals and tourists on the harmful effects of plastic on health and the environment.

This amazing group of volunteers also took their passion for the cause further – with an artistic declaration of enduring love for Spiti in the form of an installation made from discarded plastic bottles. When you’re travelling to Spiti next, stop by to view the installation at the Kaza gate near the Rangrik bridge.

In 2019 we set up 5 water refill points at key tourist destinations in Spiti and with the help of volunteers, collected over 2000 water bottles littered across the valley which were sent down to Manali for recycling.

Water refill points

Library for the children in Chicham

We set up a small library cum learning centre in Chicham for the children and youth in the village. The idea is to offer a common space for them to come together, play, learn, and borrow books throughout the winter!

The popularity of the Learning Centre has grown so much that children from neighbouring villages are making their way to Chicham to borrow books. Snow or dreary weather can’t seem to stop these little dynamos from arriving.

The center is slowly transforming into an engaging space of learning through games and activities - thanks to several volunteers who have helped us develop learning tools and catalog books.

Food for the stray dogs in the winter

The best memories from the mountains often involve its most loved residents – the magnificent and endearing mountain dogs! They’re a sight for sore eyes and limbs on treks, or postcards for loving each moment and living it.

While they’re footloose and fancy-free during the summer, the story can turn a shade darker in the winter. The bitter cold and food scarcity compel them to turn wild, where they often resort to hunting in packs and preying on livestock.

This challenge was met with compassion and love by an awesome group of women who spent their Sundays cooking food for the dogs. The women of the Mentok Self Help Group made sure they fed the dogs regularly during the week, even when temperatures would drop to a bone-chilling -25 degrees! Massive respect to them and their efforts!

The amazing Phunchuk

We first met Phunchuk in 2017 during our health assessments in Spiti Valley. He might have lost the ability of speech and movement in his right arm and legs, but that’s never stopped him from doing what he loves.

Phunchuk left all of us stumped back then, as he proceeded to skilfully draw and color with just his left hand and a smile to brighten any room!

In 2019, we were able to design postcards out of his stunning artistic creations, where he earned INR 7000 from the sale of these postcards. Phunchuk brings the heart in art and we hope to continue helping him in his artistic journey. His story is a beautiful reminder of how there’s nothing one can’t possibly do!

Spiti awaits!

So we're taking a leaf or ten out of Phunshuk's book and welcoming the new season with even more enthusiasm than before! We look forward to new adventures and stories in 2020! Thank you, for reading and we can't wait to have you over in Spiti this year.

Monday, February 10, 2020

A taste of life at over 4000m

Organised through Ecosphere, I was due to spend just under two weeks with a local family in the village of Chicham, a small village of 75 houses in the Spiti valley. While I had already spent a few weeks in the Spiti valley, and therefore somewhat acclimatised, these were predominately in Kaza, which sits at about 3,700m above sea level. And when asking the host what I would be doing all day, I was told with a wry smile that the people of the village worked hard. They would work about 12 hours each day, helping mainly in the fields, but that I could see how much I could cope with. I was a little tentative, because Chicham sits at 4,200m.

The idea of this volunteering was to live with a local village family, eat with them, work like them, and get an actual uncensored version of what it is like to eek out a living at this altitude.

The reason they work so hard, is because they only have 6 months to make a living. Once winter (and the snow) arrives, there is no possibility of growing crops (except in the greenhouse), but those are limited, and not for sale, but only the house’s (and their animals’ consumption).

Takpa is the owner of the house, and he picked me up from the Ecosphere office. An hour’s drive later we arrived at his house. He had three large rooms on the ground floor: a bedroom for a helper of his; a large lounge for where the family spends all winter (basically in this one room for six months, because the snow is too deep to get outside); the kitchen, where Takpa and his wife sleep; and at the end of the passage is a greenhouse, with vegetable patch, and washing area. Cleverly, he has put the washing area inside the greenhouse, so that even in minus temperatures in winter, you can still be relatively warm, and have a shower.

Upstairs are the guests / volunteer rooms, as he also runs a homestay. I got a large room, with ample room and sitting area.

Niceties out the way, and an evening’s rest under my belt, work was due to start. I found out that they really were not kidding about 12 hour days, and however hard you feel you may work, I do not think you can know what a hard day’s work is, until you have spent 12 hours in a field.  They were always though accommodating to those ‘less seasoned’, and try as hard as I could, the best I got to was 11.

So come rain, wind, or sun, Takpa’s wife (Padma – a sweet frail looking lady, but who is one of the hardest workers I have met), his mother, and their worker Puntshuck get into the field just after 7am, and do not return until after 7 in the evening.

As I was living like a villager, I too got into the field just after 7am, after some tea and breakfast in the house.  Their cash-crop is green peas, and we spent the first number of days deweeding. Takpa’s family is one of 13 families who were the original inhabitants of Chicham, and therefore the only people in the village permitted to own land. 

So, a typical day meant I woke up at 5:30am, got up and stretched (the old back and knees needed some love after a day of toil). 6:30am was a light breakfast, oats or a pancake, before heading into the field at 7am. Some fields are close to the house, perhaps a 5 minute walk, but most are a lot further.

We worked until about 1pm, carrying out the daily tasks – which were primarily clearing fields from weeds, when lunch was served.  Lunch was mostly tirik (delicious, homemade bread) and either (also homemade) chutney (crushed tomato, chili and coriander), but mostly butter (freshly curdled from their cow).  This was washed down with more tea, and tsampa (a crushed barley mixture).  This held you over until about 4:30pm, where there was another tea break and any leftover tirik and tsampa.  Work continued until dusk, where at around 7pm, everyone packed up, and then went to make dinner.  Dinner was served between 9:30pm and 10pm, so you have a chance to relax, wash, and maybe do another stretching session. You then sleep and repeat. Don’t forget to peak outside just before, when the village lights are off. On a clear night, the sky is truly something to behold.

I was used to the kind and overly hospitable nature of people in India, and this house was no different.  Padma and Takpa always made sure to try and serve me generous helpings, and seconds and thirds, until I had to pull my plate away. I quickly learnt “maan”, which meant enough.

Spitian food is similar to Nepali/Tibetan food. The momos, thentuk, and tirik were amazing. We also had more traditionally, Indian curries; and Takpa even cooked a really good pasta one night.

Besides for the work deweeding in the fields, I helped plough other fields with a group of yaks (yes, literally, yaks), and spent other days in the mountains herding cattle and collecting dry cow dung.

Unfortunately, after 10 days, my time was over. I thanked the family for their hospitality as best as I could. I was so grateful for a real authentic experience on village life, and to learn how tough it is.  An amazing adventure that I can only highly recommend – if you are up for the challenge.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Year in Focus - 2018

A Big Thank You to all our travellers and volunteers, for being a part of our journey during the year 2018. Your travels to Spiti, the kindness you shared, inspires us and enables us more & more every year to do whatever little we can to bring an improvement in the lives of those in Spiti. Heartfelt thanks and gratitude for travelling with us and taking out time to volunteer with us. We would like to share what you helped us do. 

10 Families have access to Green Vegetables through the Year

We built 10 greenhouses across Spiti this year with the help of volunteers. Add this to a count of 130+ greenhouses already in Spiti. We now have 140+ families and institutions eating green veges throughout the year enabling them to have better access to nutrition. Have a look at this video of one such greenhouse.

Volunteers building a greenhouse in Upper Langza
Volunteers building mud-bricks for a greenhouse in Lower Langza

Pangmo Village now has access to Drinking Water through the Year

Spiti faced a drought during the summer of 2018 and a number of villages lost their entire pea crop which is in most cases the only source of income for the local community. Pangmo village ran out of drinking water in the summer a problem that only afflicted them in the winters. In 2017 we had installed a solar water pump, so they could have drinking water in the winters. Fortunately the pump came to their rescue and the village and nunnery were able to have access to at least drinking water this summer. 

Given this problem is only growing in Spiti valley, in 2019 we plan on helping 4 more villages to have a year round access to drinking water something that we in the cities take for granted.

Meeting in Lara Village to discuss the issue

Site survey of the water source from where the water will be pumped to Lara village

Recharging the groundwater aquifers of Demul village

During the winter of 2017-2018 we received no snowfall in Spiti – an occurrence that has made history. Lower and lower amounts of snowfall every year is resulting in the ground water levels to drop in Spiti. As a result springs are drying out which are the main water sources for a number of Spiti’s highland villages. In 2017 we built a series of check dams with the help of volunteers behind which water has frozen forming a river of ice similar to a glacier.

An Artificial glacier 

In 2018 we took that one step further and dug contour trenches along the spring recharge zones of Demul Village with the help of Volunteers. Have a look at this video.

Trenches built by volunteers 

9 Patients have access to medicines

Medicine for special cases such as epilepsy, CP, Hepatitis B are not available in Spiti. These medicines are often expensive and patients cant afford them or even if they can, they don't have access to buy them. As a result medical issues are often ignored and no medication is taken. With the help of volunteer doctors we were able to bridge this gap, diagnosis and appropriate medication was prescribed and we were able to support the year round medicines for 9 such cases. We also had individuals that came forward to support medication for some of the Hepatitis B cases. 

Sonam Dolma suffers from epileptic fits and reduced movement in her right hand. 
With medication the frequency of her fits have reduced. 

Over 2000 patients have access to alternate & preventative healthcare

If you’ve visited Spiti with us, you will know Norbu – the person behind the scenes that manages it all. And during his free time (which trust us he gets very little off) he is a practicing Amchi (a traditional doctor). This is a practice that has been carried down from generation to generation and dates back many 100 years. He learnt it from his father who was a famous Amchi of Spiti. Norbu has been practicing for the past 3 years and his skills as an Amchi, ability to diagnose accurately and treat diseases has earned him a lot of repute in the valley so much so that his patient base has grown from less than 200 to over 2000 in a matter of just 2 years. 

Norbu's line up of patients out on site where he has come to provide technical assistance to build a greenhouse in Pangmo village

It is now customary that if Norbu goes to any village there is a line up of patients waiting to meet him. In the middle of meetings, or building greenhouses and digging trenches patients will come requesting for treatment. He cannot refuse even though he realises this patient base is now way beyond his ability to manage financially. The medicines made from herbs require a lot of time and money to collect/buy and make. As per traditional custom an Amchi does not charge for this services or medicines. Even when offered, Norbu refuses to take any money from the local community. Realising the great service he was struggling to keep doing, Ecosphere decided to intervene and take this financial burden off this shoulders and help him financially to procure herbs and make his medicines. 

In 2019 we plan on holding regular camps across the valley to enable access to alternate and preventive healthcare. 

Art that will Inspire the greatest of Artist

During our health assessments across the Spiti valley in 2017 we met with Phunchuk. Disability had crippled his legs, right arm and his speech when he was a child - however nothing could stop Phunchuk. He sits at home all day and everyday. On of our visits we were amazed to find that he loves to draw and colour. So we got him a colouring book.

We knew we had got him the perfect gift when we saw that smile on his face

We didn't know what to expect - but what he made after a few days with a set of crayons and his left hand - had us all in awe.

In 2019 we are publishing a series of postcards for sale, proceeds from which will go towards helping him fulfil his dreams of buying a laptop. Many thanks to Bhavya who will be helping us design these postcards. 

Reduced over 10,00,000 kgs of CO2 in 2018 

We converted 12 winter rooms into passive solar rooms this year. This will enable 12 families to reduce upto 60% of their fuelwood consumption reducing a large amount of money spent on buying wood that comes all the way to Spiti in large truckloads just before the onset of winter. Over and above the saving on fuelwood, each household will reduce their carbon emissions by over 2000 kgs of CO2/ annum. Add this to the tally of 527+ solar passive rooms already modified and we have had an estimated reduction of over 10,00,000 kgs of CO2/annum from Spiti this year.

One such passive solar winter room

I Love Spiti

In 2017, Ecosphere initiated the #Ilovespiti campagin with a group of passionate volunteers to spread awareness amongst tourists and locals regarding the environmental and health impact that a commodity like plastic bottles pose. We created an installation with plastic bottles proclaiming our love for Spiti. 

This year once again volunteers spearheaded the campaign led by Michael our oldest volunteer (not in age but in number of years volunteering in Spiti!) who took it to another level with volunteers Nikhil and Paromita. Together they collected over 10,000 bottles from the valley and brought in a plastic shredding machine so that the plastic can be shredded and taken out of Spiti. Kudos to them!  

In 2018 it became bigger

In 2019 we will be setting up refill points across the valley at key points where travellers can refill their bottles enabling a reduction in waste from plastic water bottles.

Photographers for a Cause

Saurabh Narang, a well know photographer and more importantly a volunteer began this movement in 2017. In 2018 we had 2 renowned photographers, Tathagata Das & Bastien from France that volunteered to help capture our initiatives and help further the cause. Many thanks to both of you. 

Further to this Saurabh and Tathagat will be running Photo trips for a Cause with us in 2019 – proceeds from which will go towards enabling us to Light up more Lives in Spiti Valley. 

Sol Cafe - our cafe with a cause

Sol cafe shifted to a much larger and brighter space this year. It was buzzing with travellers, volunteers and locals. We had movie nights, cook like a local lessons, meetings and discussions, movie Sundays for the local kids, and much much more. Thank you to each of you Sol Volunteers that made this possible and helped shape Sol Cafe this year - George, Lakshmi, Avni, Shatakshi, Megha, Laurijn, Mrignaina, Paromita, Pratyusha, Sushmita, Damini, Shivani. 

Movie sundays for the kids of Kaza

Meeting with local women's group who feeds the stray dog's in the winter's  


Cook like a local

A special thanks to all our volunteers and especially those that worked behind the scenes to keep Taste of Spiti and Osel rooms – our Home – up and running. A big thank you to Shantanu, Sanjay and Nischal. 

Last but not the least - Team Ecosphere - nothing is possible without this awesome team of dedicated and hardworking people. 

"Kindness is the language the Deaf can hear and the Blind can see"                                                     - Mark Twain

Kindness is the language of the heart that doesn't need words to communicate. 
Lets together keep growing this love and kindness.
We are forever indebted to all of you for enabling us to do what we do.