How dry is my Valley
Winters are becoming milder not just in Delhi but in the Valley as well, adversely affecting the farming pattern, more so the saffron cultivation. Khursheed Wani from Srinagar tells you more
On an overcast morning this January, 24-year-old Swiss skier Daniel Naat, ignored a danger avalanche warning issued by the divisional administration in the Kashmir Valley to embark on his daily schedule of skiing on the alpine slopes of a Gulmarg resort. The adventure turned into a nightmare when the freerider prepared to descend a slope but nosedived into a deep gorge.
A local guide and members of a rescue team took less time to track Daniel’s co-skier Benjamin who pointed towards a gorge where Daniel had to be dug out of a heap of snow. He had stopped breathing, his nose had bled and body motionless. At a Gulmarg hospital, the doctors declared him dead on arrival.
The youthful Daniel’s death is the result of one of the countless negative impacts of little snowfall in Kashmir this winter. The autopsy report said that internal ruptures had caused his death. Daniel had hit stones in the gorge before mounds of avalanche snow buried him. If Gulmarg had received the amount of snowfall it used to, the stones would have been lying under a thick layer and not turning deadly for skiiers.
Except for a moderate snowfall that gave a wintry look to Gulmarg, the snowfall gave a miss to the Valley this year. The 40-day winter spell starting from December 21, 2017 known as Chillai Kalan, was out on a humiliating duck. Most days were abnormally sunny. The open sky nights created even more horror, each shining star bombarding a shivering ray on the earth’s surface. The night temperature remained below freezing point, making the climate more miserable.
“At the time of the incident, the Gulmarg region was experiencing an exceptional dry winter. The first recorded snowfall on November 16, 2017 measured 20 cm. On December 18, 2017, 85 cm accumulated over two days. The next measured precipitation was the morning of January 18, 2018, ” a snowpack analysis on causes of Daniel’s death mentioned.
The low precipitation stole the sheen off Gulmarg, which otherwise remains the centre of winter tourism in the Valley. The winter adventures remained a non-starter and people linked with the tourism industry kept praying for benevolence of the weather gods. The snow sculpture park, conceptualised to attract tourists, could not take a shape. To keep the ball rolling, however, the entire activity remained confined to the uppermost parts of Gulmarg.
The weather in the Valley is taking abysmally unpredictable twists. Traditional winter season goes dry and the onset of spring becomes freaky, like last year when entire April was drenched in rain. Earth sciences experts say that the global climatic changes are showing their impact on Kashmir Valley.
The changed weather conditions have impacted the pattern and yield of crops. This autumn, the saffron fields of Pampore refused to bloom. The crop failed almost 90 per cent. Agriculturists squarely blame the dry weather, which is perpetually hitting the cash crop, once a craze in the Valley.
Interestingly, the weather conditions and predictions have made Sonam Lotus, in-charge of the Meteorological Centre in Srinagar, a celebrity. His name is known to everyone due to his predictions on climate swings. “There is no snowfall in the offing except for a mild precipitation in the coming days. The weather will remain largely dry,” Sonam says, maintaining however that the weather statistics do not indicate abnormal weather conditions.
“The Valley is situated in western Himalayan ranges and surrounded by snow-clad Pirpanchal, Shamsbari and the Greater Himalayan ranges. The cold westerly and northwesterly winds are responsible for the harsh winter,” he says, adding that the western disturbances were the main weather system impacting the Valley.
“The southwestern monsoon has negligible impact on weather,” he explains. This year, the westerly winds did not arrive. This resulted in dry December and January months. In fact, January was recorded as the driest in a decade with a meagre 10 per cent precipitation. The situation is causing huge pressure on the glacial water bodies in the Valley. The anxiety is visible on the faces of farmers who foresee a drought-like situation. “This sunshine on a February day is not a good omen. We may face water scarcity in summer. It would wreak havoc on our crops and orchards,” seasoned farmer Gulam Muhammad Bhat tells you.
The Indian Meteorological Department has raised an alarm too. It has described the January as “largely deficient” in rain and snowfall comparing it with the average precipitation of 95.7-mm rainfall. The precipitation is also recorded as unusually uneven. Nine districts received no rainfall at all while 11 districts received largely deficient rainfall during this period, the department said.
The statistics at Srinagar Meteorological Centre corroborate Bhat’s anxiety. The Centre recorded an average of 49.6-mm rainfall in January, lowest for this month in the past decade. In Gulmarg, it was 16.8-mm precipitation, compared to the month’s average of 158.8 mm. Last year, the snow capital of the region had received 383.4 mm.
Worse, the day temperature this month remained five to six degrees higher than the average and registered a high of 14.2°C on January 21 in Srinagar against the average maximum temperature of 6.3°C.
The situation was not different in December 2017. It was second December in three years that passed off dry. Since 1993, it was the sixth time when Kashmir suffered an “almost dry” month of December, which has been recording 100 mm of rain or snowfall at an average. Sometimes the precipitation has been recorded more than double of the average. Records say that in December 1985, one of the harshest Kashmir winters, there was record snowfall and rains of 209 mm. In the following year, 185 mm rainfall was recorded. While in 1990 and 1994, as much as 244 mm and 154 mm was recorded. This is in contrast to Decembers of 1993, 1998, 1999, 2005, 2014 and 2016 when the winter month passed without any rainfall or snowfall.
The low precipitation has a visible and direct impact on the water bodies. Most of the streams in the countryside have either completely dried up or discharge only a semblance of water flow. The famed Dal Lake has shrunken and water has turned turbid and unpleasant. The managers of the lake disallow more water to flow out and maintain a steady level, apparently to keep the tourism mascot of the Valley—shikara — afloat.
The lifeline of the Valley, the Jhelum river, is not offering a different state of affairs. The river that soared to wreak havoc in September 2014 and devastated several parts of Valley including historic Srinagar city, is flowing at record-low levels for the past several months.
Jhelum’s water level has remained below zero point in south Kashmir where it originates from Verinag. The below zero flow continues for five months since October last year when it plummeted to -0.65 feet, the lowest in its recorded history.
Prof Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, head of Kashmir University’s department of Earth Sciences links the deficient snowfall in Kashmir to global climate changes. He said that even as the long-term precipitation pattern has not changed drastically, the rainfall is past paving way for snowfall, which has its own impact on the overall environmental behavior in the region.
“There is no change in overall precipitation trends in the past 130 years in Kashmir. But we are witnessing a decrease in overall snowfall and an increase in rains, particularly during winters,” Prof Shakil says.
This is the resultant of the change is showing in the shape of extreme temperatures. He says that minimum temperatures have increased which hinders precipitation in the shape of snow.
Romshoo’s colleague Dr Gulam Jeelani is in agreement. “Less snowfall means reduction in water discharge in glaciers during the summer. During past several years this phenomenon has led to scarcity of water during summer season,” Dr Jeelani opines, who is more worried about the future of glaciers in Kashmir.
He is part of a team working under Glacier and Climate Commission Chairman Prof Iqbal Hasnain that conducted a research on Kolhai Glacier in south Kashmir, which is the origin of Lidder River passing through famous Pahalgam Valley. “The last team of glaciologists had visited Kolahai glacier in 1985. Since then, it has reduced by two kilometre in expanse and around 100 metres in thickness,” he explains and paints a dismal picture.
“If the environmental safeguards are not put in place, the glaciers would become the thing of past,” he laments.
He also tells you that the average temperature has increased by a little less than a degree over the past century. “Though there is pressure on the glaciers, the snowmelt is contributing more to Kashmir’s rivers and nullahs than the glacier melt. Due to less snowfall, we have to learn methods of artificial water locking instead of relying extensively on natural locking at glaciers,” he suggests.
Notwithstanding the scientific explanations, the changes in the pattern of weather are felt on ground. This winter, the days remained warmer and nights freeing. The extreme conditions are shown in summer as well. For example, some years ago, AC-fitted cars were not a priority in Kashmir, but are in huge demand today. The new mosques are now installing cooling systems.
The pattern of farming is also undergoing a major change. The farmers are usually worried by less snowfall and depletion in the level of groundwater. As a result, the conversion of paddy fields into apple orchards is a growing phenomenon.
In south Kashmir’s Pulwama, Shopian, Kulgam and Anantnag districts, the land conversion is taking place at a faster pace. “One of the main reasons for the conversion is perpetual scarcity of water, though prospects of higher returns and change in the amount of labour investment are also the factors,” says Ghulam Hassan Mir, an agriculturist in Rajpora pocket of Pulwama.
He has converted five hectares of paddy land into orchards in the past decade. “A decade ago, swathes of land around our village were expansive paddy fields. Now, around 70 per cent fields have been converted into apple orchards,” Muhammad Anwar Mir, another farmer from south Kashmir’s Tral belt said. He said this winter alone, a vast aabi-awwal (land directly fed from a water source), path was converted into orchards despite the fact that the stream irrigating it has not dried up completely. “The farmers are looking into future and they don’t see the gushing stream anymore,” he rues.
But, the conversion of paddy fields is not altogether satisfying. “The warm winter has resulted into premature bloom. If there is a spell of freaky weather that can be harmful,” Dr Shamim Simnani, a scientist at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences, Kashmir says.
The situation is not different with farmers who have not been dependent on streams but were taken care of by weather gods alone. The major farming of this sort was in Pampore in the outskirts of Srinagar, famed for saffron cultivation. “This year the saffron crop failed due to a completely dry weather in crucial phases,” director agriculture Altaf Ajaz Andrabi admits.
“The saffron crop requires soil moisture during September to initiate timely growth of roots and floral shoots. However, last autumn the weather remained dry and the crop suffered immensely,” Andrabi says.
The drought conditions in 2001, 2002 and 2017 coupled with unusually heavy rainfall in September 2014 drastically reduced the yield.
The scientific intervention to tide over this situation also failed on the ground due to official apathy and lack of farmers’ attitude to adopt newest methods. The National Saffron Mission, introduced in 2010 for five years and extended twice has not yielded the desired results. The project had embarked on a mission to establish 128 tubewells and distribute of 3,715 sprinkle sets. The Government has fully invested in bore wells, each costing around Rs 20 lakh, to be built on land provided by the farmers. Ironically, the Mechanical Division of the State Irrigation Department was asked to dig wells but they did not comply speedily as per the requirement. Most of the 100 wells have not been commissioned.
At Munpora village, a progressive farmer Mohiuddin has proven that the scientific intervention could be beneficial if it was followed with dedication. Mohiuddin is the lone farmer who ensured 90 per cent successful yield, even in the drought conditions, by using sprinkle water method at regular intervals.
“This is the only way out and I have proven it can be beneficial. We should not expect rainfall and snowfall at our will. We have to adopt the alternate methods,” Mohiuddin tells you.
For the past several years, the Tulip Garden in Srinagar did not bloom due to extreme cold conditions in March-end. This meant that the tourism managers couldn’t bring tourists much before its traditional beginning in May. This year the fingers are crossed again. Nobody is sure, how the famed Tulip Garden in the lap of Zabarwan hills overseeing the Dal lake would behave when the short span of tulip bloom begins.
This uncertainty looms large on every aspect of life in the Valley.
Points to ponder
- January 11, 2018: Residents in Kashmir got a respite from intense cold as the minimum temperature rose by several degrees at most places in the Valley and Ladakh region. Srinagar recorded a low of minus 3 degrees Celsius, nearly three notches up from minus 6.3 degrees the previous night which was the coldest night of this winter so far.
- The day temperature in January remained five to six degrees higher than the average and registered a high of 14.2°C on January 21 in Srinagar against the average maximum temperature of 6.3°C.
- Records say that in December 1985, one of the harshest Kashmir winters, there was record snowfall and rains of 209 mm. In the following year, 185 mm rainfall was recorded. While in 1990 and 1994, as much as 244 mm and 154 mm were recorded. This is in contrast to Decembers of 1993, 1998, 1999, 2005, 2014 and 2016 when the winter month passed without any rainfall or snowfall.
- The statistics at Srinagar Meteorological Centre said that it recorded an average of 49.6 mm rainfall in January, lowest for this month in the past decade. In Gulmarg, it was 16.8 mm precipitation, compared to the month’s average of 158.8 mm. Last year, the snow capital of the region had received 383.4 mm.
- Earth Sciences experts say that the global climatic changes are showing their impact on the temperate Kashmir Valley. The changed weather conditions have impacted the pattern and yield of crops. This autumn, the saffron fields of Pampore refused to bloom. The crop failed almost 90 percent. The agriculturists squarely blame the dry weather, which is perpetually hitting the cash crop, once a craze in the Valley.
- A research on Kolhai Glacier — the origin of Lidder River passing through Pahalgam — in south Kashmir has thrown alarming firgures. A team of glaciologists had visited Kolahai glacier in 1985. Since then, it has reduced by two kilometre in expanse and around 100 metres in thickness.
- The pattern of farming is also undergoing a major change. The farmers are usually worried by less snowfall and depletion in the level of groundwater. As a result, the conversion of paddy fields into apple orchards is a growing phenomenon. In south Kashmir’s Pulwama, Shopian, Kulgam and Anantnag districts, the land conversion is taking place at a faster pace. One of the main reasons for the conversion is perpetual scarcity of water.
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