Winter drought in Himachal impacts agriculture and drinking water supply

  • Lack of sufficient rainfall in Himachal Pradesh, between January and March, has caused major losses in the crops sown in winter.
  • With weather variations causing overall precipitation deficiency during winter, water sources in villages and small towns in the state have already started drying up and this could lead to drinking water shortage.
  • Snowfall rate has decreased not only in Himachal Pradesh but across the Himalayan region in past several decades. Temperature over the Himalayas warming due to climate change, has led to a significant melting and decline in glacier mass over the Himalayan region in the recent decades, say experts.

Madan Lal, a farmer from Bagtheru village in Himachal Pradesh’s Bilaspur district, was hoping for a good return this year for his wheat crop sown last December. But with scanty rainfall in the state, the crop production over his 10 bigha land (6 acres) is negligible.

Madan Lal told Mongabay-India that his produce this year was not even 10% of what it was last year. He said his farm was dependent on rainfall for irrigation but there was hardly any rainfall all through the winter. “The agriculture land in the entire Bilaspur district is affected because of rainfall deficiency. The government must step in for some help,” he added.

Madan Lal is not the only farmer suffering from significant financial loss.

Over 148,908 (1.48 lakh) hectare of rabi crop (sown in winter) has been destroyed due to the scanty rainfall, according to the initial assessment by the state’s department of agriculture. That is almost one-third of the cultivated area of the state. Naresh Thakur, Director, Department of Agriculture, Himachal Pradesh, told Mongabay-India, “This, as per our assessment, has caused the colossal financial loss of Rs. 130 crore (Rs. 1.3 billion).”

Thakur said, along with Bilaspur, Kangra, Hamirpur and Mandi districts were the worst affected. Among these worst affected areas, 33,520 hectares of agriculture land has been destroyed in Kangra, 36,000 hectares in Mandi and 30,220 hectares in Hamirpur.

He said the problem with Himachal Pradesh is that agriculture here is mostly rain-fed. The area of assured irrigation is not more than 20-25%. “The government is seized of the matter and will take all corrective measures,” said Thakur. On compensating farmers, he said that the state will take up the matter with centre and see financial help from National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). The state has previously, too, faced financial losses due to weather change. In the 2005-06 rabi season, the damage due to drought conditions in Himachal Pradesh was to the tune of Rs. 366 crore (Rs. 3.66 billion) which included loss of agri-horti crops and animal husbandry. In the year 2002-03 kharif season, the estimated damage due to drought conditions was Rs. 707.21 crore (Rs. 7.07 billion). Before that, in year 2000-01 rabi season, the estimated damage was Rs. 360.85 crore (Rs. 3.60 billion).

Farmer Madan Lal in his dried up fields at village Bagtheru, Bilaspur District. Photo by Special Arrangement.
Farmer Madan Lal in his dried up fields at village Bagtheru, Bilaspur District. Photo by Special Arrangement.

Water shortage an outcome of weather changes

Agriculture is just one part of the problem that the state has been encountering due to weather peculiarities.

Himachal Pradesh state water minister Mahender Singh Thakur, during his address in the state assembly session last month on March 19, warned that the crisis of drinking water shortage has been looming large over the state due to low snowfall as well as rainfall in the past winter season.

Usually, after winter, melt-water from snowfall along with the rainfall water feed the groundwater as well as other downhill water sources such as springs, wells, bawries, lakes, rivulets, streams and rivers in villages and small towns of the state.

“But due to overall precipitation deficiency during winter, water sources in villages and small towns have already started drying up. At some places, people can now simply wade through the Beas river to cross it,” he mentioned in his assembly address.

When contacted, water minister Mahender Singh Thakur told Mongabay-India that water shortage in HP this year was due to natural reasons and the state will do everything to overcome it.

The minister also told media recently that the installation of hand-pumps and borewells was stopped last year in view of depleting water table. But it will be resumed now wherever necessary.

Himachal Chief Secretary Anil Kumar Khachi on April 17 chaired a high-level meeting in Shimla and instructed Deputy Commissioners of all districts in the state to prepare an action plan in wake of water shortage in the coming summer.

Fields in Bilaspur district are dried up as scanty rainfall in the region destroyed crops. Photo by Special Arrangement.

Frequent weather changes

So how serious is the weather problem in Himalayan state?

Latest data of Himachal Pradesh’s meteorological (HP Met) department shows that there has been 58% deficient snowfall and rainfall in January this year, 81% deficiency in February and 62% in March. The onset of 2021, evidently, has been tough on the state.

HP Met department head Manmohan Singh told Mongabay-India that winter precipitation in the state depends upon the western disturbance. “This time there were some fluctuations in western disturbance that affect snowfall and rainfall patterns in the state,” he added.

But a close look at the last decade of meteorological data suggests far too many frequent variations in the state’s weather pattern in recent years. For instance, the water shortage in Shimla in 2018 was an alarming event which was caused because the state had 91%, 53% and 67% precipitation deficiency for the months of January, February and March that year.

Earlier, in 2011 too, the month of January and March had 64% and 42% precipitation deficiency.

A city-wise analysis of snowfall data also establishes growing concerns of erratic weather patterns and water crisis in the state which, according to some experts, is an outcome of climate change and global warming.

For instance, this year, 2021, there has been no snowfall in Shimla and Manali for the month of January, while February had a moderate snowfall. But this has not been the first instance of low or no snowfall. Shimla had just 7 cm snowfall in 2018, 3 cm in 2016, 8 cm in 2011 and no snowfall in 2010 for the month of January. Additionally, about 17% decrease in rainfall in Shimla was observed from 1996 onwards, as per the meteorological data. Similarly, data for the month of January in Manali, shows no snowfall in 2018 and 2020 while in 2016 and 2014, rainfall was just 2 cm and 5 cm respectively.

Himachal’s Dhauladhar range has had no snowfall this year; below the mountains is the Kareri Lake in Dharmshala, Himachal Pradesh. Photo by Special Arrangement.

There were years, for instance, 2017, when Manali received 150 cm rainfall in January – more than twice its average rainfall of 70 cm for the past one decade.

This variation in snowfall pattern is seen even in higher reaches of the state.

Kinnaur’s Kalpa station that is at 3000-metre elevation from sea level, 800 metres more than Shimla, received 150 cm snowfall in January 2013, but 23 cm in 2016 and just 3 cm in 2018 for the same month. In January 2020, total snowfall recorded in Kalpa was 165 cm but this year, 2021, it was below 100 cm.

Changing climate a possible reason for weather variations, say experts

Some experts link these frequent weather lapses to climate change. Anjal Prakash, who is an IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) author and the research director at Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, said that due to changing climatic condition and global warming, the snowfall, as well as rainfall patterns, have changed drastically in Himachal during the past couple of decades.

“The state depends on the western disturbance for snowfall but due to changes in weather and climate in eastern Europe and Central Asia, these cycles of snowfalls have been disturbed and made it very unpredictable,” he added.

Assistant Professor Farooq Azam, climate change expert at Indian Institute of Technology in Indore, told Mongabay-India, “We have entered into an era of extreme precipitation in Himalayan region meaning, thereby, that sometimes we receive more than expected snowfall or rainfall, sometimes we have dry months.”

He said the problem is that frequency of such instances is increasing and “we don’t have enough resource to predict these variations.”

Roxy Mathew Koll, climate scientist at Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune told Mongabay-India that the snowfall rate has decreased not only in HP but across Himalayan region in past several decades.

“Also, the recent climate change assessment report for India shows that the temperature over the Himalayas is warming due to climate change, at a rate of 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade. At high elevations (above 4000 m), the warming rate is up to 0.4 degrees Celsius per decade. This has led to a significant melting and decline in glacier mass over the Himalayan region in the recent decades,” he added.

“Monsoon rainfall already shows a decline over the Indo-Gangetic plains, due to climate change. So, a decrease in glacier-fed flow downstream can result in an aggravated water stress for downstream communities. We need to be prepared to address such a situation,” he adds.

No wheat in the fields of Bilashpur as scanty rainfall in the region destroyed crops. Photo by Special Arrangement.

The impact of low snowfall and rainfall in HP is seen in record dipping of water level in reservoirs of the Bhakra dam and the Pong dam that are situated over Beas and Sutlej river that originate in Himalayan ranges. The Pong’s water level is critically low as a fall of 30 feet will empty the reservoir. The refilling season would not begin before monsoon begins in June. This in turn impacts drinking water and electricity supply. From Pong reservoir, water flows to Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi for drinking purpose. And owing to the dip in water level, power generation in Bhakra dam too has been reduced to half.

Read more: Why trout farmers in Himachal Pradesh are exiting the business

Way forward

Anjal Prakash informed that a study done by Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 2010 talked about developing a climate change adaptation-focused sustainable water resources strategy for Himachal Pradesh.

“Taking the trends in temperature and other climatic factors, the study pointed towards the impact on water resources on seven aspects which included changing frequency of heavy precipitation, increase in extreme rainfall intensity, increased variability in rainfall patterns, increased likelihood of water shortages/drought, reduced levels of precipitation as snow, loss of glacier volumes, earlier snow melt, and increased temperature. It is, therefore, imperative for the state to start working towards solutions to overcome these challenges,” he added.

Himachal state too prepared a road map on climate change in 2012 in which it talked about expanding surface and groundwater storage facilities. It mentioned that all significant state development projects, including township, hydropower and industry projects, must consider the potential impacts of locating such projects in areas susceptible to hazards resulting from climate change. It sought to develop plans for an increased use of renewable energy, harnessing solar, and wind power to meet out the energy demand from projected population growth with greater energy conservation. But the state is yet to aggressively implement the action plan to allay fears of repeated change in its weather pattern.


Banner image: Farmers in higher altitudes in Himachal Pradesh have moved from apple to vegetable cultivation. Photo by Neil Palmer/CIAT via Flickr.

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