Leh: Anyone visiting Ladakh for the first time can be left gasping for breath due to low oxygen levels in the high altitude region. But a successful plantation drive has brought about environmental changes - driving up oxygen content by 50 percent and, most unusually, making it rain, say Indian scientists.
Ladakh is located between the Kunlun mountain range in the north and the Himalayas in the south at a height of nearly 12,000 feet and has a rarefied atmosphere. But scientists of the Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR), which is behind the plantation drive, have found a marked increase in oxygen content.
"Oxygen content in the atmosphere has gone up by 50 percent. Wheat cultivation, horticulture and greenhouses are also adding to the oxygen delivery," W Selvamurthy, chief controller (R&D) of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), said.
Most of the Ladakh region is a cold desert with nearly no vegetation. The oxygen content is much lower than that in the plains.
"Most of Ladakh has been a dry cold desert. But when you go today there will be lots of greenery. The poplar and willow trees given by DIHAR are growing very well. The greenery is very important as it brings rainfall and that is good," said Selvamurthy.
Green, yellow and orange poplar and willow trees now adorn the otherwise barren landscape of the region. The result of the plantation drive is showing up in rains - a phenomenon never witnessed in Ladakh before.
The DIHAR headquarters in Leh district and in its attachment at Partapur yearly give about 20,000 trees to local people for plantation. But due to the extreme climatic conditions, which see the mercury plummeting to minus 50 degrees Celsius, their survival rate is abysmal.
"We used to have mud houses as it never used to rain in Ladakh. But this year it rained," said Rinchen, a local.
Buoyed by the results, DIHAR is planning to undertake organised cultivation of seabuckthorn, a plant better known here as Leh Berry that has high concentrations of vitamins A, B2 and C and grows wildly. Over 11,500 hectares in the region are covered by the shrub.
"We will be cultivating this plant (seabuckthorn). We may undertake aerial seeding. We still need to discuss the ways and means to do it," Selvamurthy said.
For this, DIHAR has joined hands with the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC).
"Plantation and cultivation will help in the economic development of the region and LAHDC has shown a lot of enthusiasm in the project," said the scientist.
Ladakh, which used to depend on the import of vegetables from Chandigarh, now produces 78 varieties of these and is able to meet 58 percent of its vegetable needs internally.
"We have now 78 varieties of vegetables being produced by locals here. We have given various greenhouses to the Army and the locals for horticulture," said DIHAR`s director Shashi Bala Singh.
"We have been able to produce 13 types of apple here with the collaboration of scientists and local farmers."