The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Community Design

Confronting Global Warming in India
  • Village elders mix paint for stupas.

As climate change erodes glaciers around the world, once self-sufficient villages are suddenly finding themselves forced to re-examine centuries-old patterns of living.

Around the globe, climate change is forcing many communities to adapt and Carey Clouse (UMass Amherst Assistant Professor of Architecture and Landscape Architecture) and her colleagues are helping one such community in Northern India.

Working with villages across the Ladakh and Zanskar region of the Indian Himalaya, Clouse is helping to design solutions for communities confronting global warming. In this arid, mountainous region, subsistence farmers are almost wholly dependent on spring and summer meltwater to irrigate crops of barley, wheat, and vegetables. As climate change erodes the glaciers in this part of the world, once self-sufficient villages are suddenly finding themselves forced to re-examine centuries-old patterns of living.  A faculty research grant from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences provided funding support for the project.

The tiny village of Kumik provides a striking story of resilience and adaptation from an outpost on the front lines of climate change. After suffering from a pervasive and inescapable decade-long drought, Kumik’s residents have formally decided to abandon their ancient mountain location. In a visionary and collaborative effort, the entire community is moving to a new site, where they are building new canals, fields for farming and homes on what is now dry, open land. During a series of design charettes led by Clouse and her colleagues during the summer of 2013, the Kumipas participated in the wholesale rethinking of their village layout, envisioning life in a new sustainable location that would also preserve the strong communal relationships and cultural identity from their shared past.

The prospect of moving an entire community from one mountainside location to the completely new landscape of a river delta threatens to destroy the traditions, daily lifestyle, and sophisticated social fabric that these villagers have cultivated over centuries. At risk is the loss of the deep-rooted cultural identity of these residents, which is inextricably linked to the physical buildings and spaces of Old Kumik.

As this community begins to consider the physical change ahead, new construction also presents exciting opportunities for improving the health, energy-efficiency and economic opportunities for Kumipas. From an architectural, planning, and community design perspective, the transition could capitalize on new technologies, ideas and resources that would boost long-term resilience and sustainability indicators. For instance, this region has abundant solar energy and a strong owner-builder construction tradition, and many homeowners and local NGOs have successfully experimented with passive solar designs that perform well in the cold, harsh conditions of Zanskar's winter.

In India, Clouse worked with writer and builder Jonathan Mingle and MIT graduate student Zachary Lamb to design and build out public spaces, prototype new structures, and develop a master plan that the entire community supports. Mingle, who has been documenting the village since 2008 for his research on black carbon, writes for the New York Times, Slate, Boston Globe, and other publications. 

Their goal has been to provide planning and design solutions that conserve scarce water, harness the region’s abundant solar energy, incorporate local materials and building wisdom, and generate much-needed income in this rural community. In working with a village that is relocating due to climate change-induced drought, the team hopes to develop new models for other resource- and labor-constrained communities in this part of the Himalaya.




College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
Banner: Village elders mixing paint for the stupas. Image courtesy of Carey Clouse