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Months-long drought in Himalayas leaves rural communities high and dry
Abdul Rashid, a farmer in a remote village in the Kashmir Himalayas, is at a loss for words to describe the impact of a long drought which has been continuing in the Himalayas for over two months, ahead of the upcoming farming season.
“I don’t think anything will grow in the farms this year,” Rashid says dejectedly, adding that farmers heavily rely on enough snowfall in the winter for sustained water supply in summers. The drought has continued even in the winter, disappointing not only the farmers, but also creating water shortages in rural areas where people use water from streams.
In the Himalayan states of Uttarakhand, Jammu Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, the precipitation deficit this winter has been recorded as -75 per cent, -79 per cent and -85 per cent respectively according to the Indian meteorological department officials. Mukhtar Ahmad, who heads Kashmir’s Meteorological Department, attributes the prolonged drought to the lack of western disturbances (a weather system which originates from the Mediterranean Sea and causes snowfall and rains in northern India), rising temperatures due to climate change and the El Niño weather phenomenon.
Farmers everywhere in the Himalayas are concerned about how things will unfold as the farming season begins in two months’ time. “Even if it snows now, it won’t be enough to feed the streams for long because it didn’t snow in the peak winter, which would have stored more water in mountains,” maintains Bashir Ahmad, a 62-year-old farmer in Khushipora, a village in Central Kashmir.
What Ahmad says out of experience is attested by scientists. “The main winter months in Kashmir are December and January. The snowfall in these months provides irrigation water to farmers until the monsoon rains occur in mid-summer,” explains Raihana Habib, a senior agricultural scientist at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST).
According to Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, a senior glaciologist at Kashmir University’s Earth Sciences Department, a good snowfall in these months helps creating a large snowpack which plays a crucial role in maintaining freshwater supply in early summer from snow and glacier-melt.
Rapid melting of the glaciers in springs caused by climate change contributes to the stream-flow around spring, but not throughout the year, Romshoo explains. “So, accumulation of snow in the peak winter assumes importance.”
Romshoo says that extreme weather events such as droughts and erratic rainfalls have been occurring with more frequency in the region in recent years. Farhat Shaheen, an agricultural economist at SKUAST, notes that droughts of severe and moderate intensity were witnessed five times in the past seven years in the basin with the “water level in River Jhelum in 2017 recorded worst ever in 61 years”.
A study in 2020 found that glaciers in the Kashmir Himalayas had shrunk by 29 per cent from 1980 to 2018 and that glacier loss in the region was much higher as compared to other Himalayan regions. A number of other studies carried out in recent years have established that glaciers in the Himalayan region, including those in the Kashmir Himalayas, are indeed receding, while snowfall and precipitation are both showing decreasing trends.
An assessment report from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), the Kathmandu-based eight-nation inter-governmental organisation, states that glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region could lose up to 80 per cent of their current volume by the end of the century, on current emissions trajectories.
In most of the Himalayan regions, climate crisis has already started forcing farmers to shift to other crops. For example, apple has traditionally been grown in the Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh, but there is a decline in apple production in some areas where farmers have been diversifying the crops to secure their incomes.
For example, Motilal, a progressive farmer in Banjar who realised six years back that apple cultivation was no longer sustainable in the region, diversified into other cash crops such as capsicum, pomegranate and mushroom, using poly-lined tanks and a micro-irrigation system. “But, this year’s long drought has scared the hell out us,” he says, adding that he and other farmers “are worried about our livelihoods this year”.
Back in the rural areas of Kashmir, the problems associated with the current climate-driven drought go beyond farmers’ worries. For example, in many rural areas, streams which the rural communities are dependent on for water have partially or completely dried up. People in most of the villages also suffer long power outages which are blamed on a lack of required river-flows for the power turbines to function to their potential.
“We barely get power supply for one or two hours in 24 hours,” Jamsheeda Begam, a villager, told this writer over phone. In some areas, the drought has also caused forest fires. Over the past three weeks, dozens of forest-fire incidents have been reported in several areas of the Himalayas. People are so worried that they are holding special congregational prayers seeking divine help for the culmination of the long drought. Recently, hundreds of thousands of Muslims gathered in dozens of large mosques across Kashmir to hold special prayers for snowfall.
People in the Himalayas, including those in the picturesque Kashmir valley, which is nestled between the Great Himalayas and the Pir Panjal mountain range, are unaccustomed to drought. For generations, subsistence agriculturalists have relied on glacial melt and rainfall to irrigate their farmland. That seems to be changing – now this scenic Himalayan region is feeling the pinch of climate change.
Following the enforcement of the Big Landed Estates Abolition Act in 1959, a landmark legislation in Kashmir hailed a great reform by the then local government, over 9,000 landowners were stripped of over 100,000 hectares of land, which was transferred to hundreds of thousands of peasants, thereby creating an agrarian-based economy in Kashmir.
It is thanks to that historically important reform that over 70 per cent of the population of Kashmir currently rely on agriculture for livelihoods, cultivating such crops as rice, maize, pulses, saffron and potatoes. Livelihoods of people living in other Himalayan regions are also predominantly dependent on agricultural activities which are now threatened by climate-induced extreme weather events such as the ongoing prolonged drought.
Athar Parvaiz is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar/ Kashmir, India. Contact: atharparvaiz.ami(at)gmail.com