- In the Kashmir Valley, dry conditions prevailed from March to mid-June this year, followed by flash floods later, triggering fears of severe economic losses among farmers.
- The streamflows in the Jhelum river have depleted significantly. An increase in average temperatures, low precipitation and loss of glaciers in the region, are considered to be the primary reasons. Rivers and their tributaries across Kashmir have been recording a drop in water levels.
- The adverse weather conditions that have affected the main crops of the valley (apple and paddy) are expected to impact the food security of the region. The farmers are advised to pursue alternate crops but they expect support from the government in terms of crop insurance.
In the village of Brah, in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, Mudasir Ahmad, a 32-year-old farmer is considering giving up farming since he has been incurring losses for many years now. Weather events have been damaging his crops, says Ahmad, adding that his losses run in to several lakhs of rupees. He, along with his three brothers, owns two hectares of land which would usually yield him crops worth Rs. 700,000 to 800,000 (seven to eight lakh) each year.
This year, however, farmers in the Kashmir Valley fear big losses as they face dual-threat from drought-like situations and flash floods.
The scarcity of water throughout April, May and June across Kashmir, led to a drought-like situation. This triggered panic among the farmers since they could not irrigate their fields and transplant the paddy saplings. Orchardists, predominantly apple growers, also faced problems in the absence of irrigation water.
“We could not transplant paddy saplings as the nurseries dried in May itself. Apple trees are in a bad condition. We could not irrigate the orchard which has led to the leaves falling and drying of trees reducing the yield to naught,” Ahmad told Mongabay-India.
Ahmad says nearly three dozen villages in his area face a similar fate as the irrigation canal managed by the region’s Irrigation and Flood Control department has been running dry since the later part of April.
Similarly, in the Ghat village of Pulwama, Hidaytulla Kawa, 35, is worried about the worsening weather conditions in Kashmir. His paddy nursery located just a few hundred metres from the large irrigation canal had developed cracks and the seedlings had started wilting. When Mongabay-India visited his paddy fields, Kawa was sowing pulses and maize in his field that was usually a paddy field that would yield a bumper rice crop. He points to a stretch of land and says, “This is actually a paddy field, however, due to the shortage of water in the irrigation canal, farmers in nearly 20 villages were forced to sow alternate crops like pulses and maize.”
Kawa says that giving up the paddy cultivation for an alternate crop due to the shortage of irrigation water would aggravate the economic woes of the farmers. “It would potentially leave us hungry throughout the year,” adds Kawa, whose family is entirely dependent on the yields of his land.
As farmers worried about dry conditions, in an extreme turn of weather conditions in June, the Kashmir Valley was hit by flash floods triggered by incessant rain over several days. This led to a rise in the level of most water bodies, many crossing the danger levels at various locations.
As the rains lashed the valley for days, the water level of the Jhelum river — the largest river in the region — crossed the 18-feet mark at Sangam in the Anantnag district. Once the water level crossed the threshold, the Jammu and Kashmir Flood and Irrigation Department issued a flood alarm for the Jhelum River. Many areas in Srinagar city were submerged. As it rained on plains, higher reaches like Gulmarg even received fresh snowfall. Amid rains on plains and snowfall in higher reaches, Srinagar recorded the coldest June in 48 years.
Threat to rice cultivation could impact food security
This year, in the valley, dry conditions prevailed from March to mid-June, followed by flash floods later, triggering fears of economic loss, among farmers.
Kashmir is an agrarian economy. Rice and apple are the chief crops of the region. Over 80 percent of the population is dependent on agriculture for a livelihood. Official statistics indicate that 75 percent of agricultural land is under paddy cultivation in Kashmir. Horticulture and agriculture together contribute over 26 percent to the Gross Domestic Product of Jammu and Kashmir.
“Our economic system depends upon agriculture, horticulture, and livestock. If hydrology does not improve and flows of the rivers do not regulate, paddy plantations and apple crops would be the first to go. Streams in Kashmir are running dry. It could dent the agriculture, horticulture, livestock as well as hydropower sectors,” explains Irfan Rashid, who teaches geo informatics at the University of Kashmir.
Chowdhary Mohammad Iqbal, Director, Department of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Kashmir told Mongabay-India that more than 4,000 hectares of paddy land have been affected due to dry weather and the subsequent shortage of irrigation water. Anantnag is the most affected district.
Chowdhary explains that as of now his department cannot evaluate the economic losses farmers would incur. “This would be revealed when the crops are harvested,” he states.
Officials from the agriculture and horticulture departments have been regularly visiting these affected villages across the valley. However, the farmers expect more support.
“The agriculture department distributed maize and various varieties of pulses. They told us not to keep any section of the land uncultivated but that is not going to compensate for the losses we would incur,” Ahmad elaborates. Paddy needs about 900-2,500 mm of water in one cycle. Drought conditions lead to crop failure due to lack of moisture.
The farmers expect crop insurance and say that they are unaware about any schemes introduced for the benefit of farmers. Chowdary who is also the Mission Director of Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY), a government-sponsored crop insurance scheme, in the valley, says that the department has always been advocating, advising, and educating farmers about the benefits of crop insurance.
“We are advocating crop insurance among farmers and it is an ongoing process. There were some technical issues that we have sorted. Within a month the whole process would be completed throughout the Union Territory,” Chowdary confirms.
“The adverse impact of dry conditions on apple crop would lead to financial distress among the farmers. Rice is a staple in Kashmir. Besides being economically important, failure of paddy cultivation would hit the food security of the region,” explains Suhail Ahmad, Technical Officer, Department of Agriculture.
Receding water levels in important rivers
The drought-like conditions that prevailed between March and mid-June had an impact on scores of water schemes which in turn left various irrigation canals dry. According to the officials at the Flood and Irrigation Department, a gauge reading of 0.57 feet was recorded at the Sangam site, a benchmark recording station for the river’s water level.
“This was the lowest gauge recorded in June in several years,” Mushtaq Ahmad, a senior engineer in the Flood and Irrigation Department tells Mongabay-India.
Over the years, experts say the streamflows in Jhelum river have depleted significantly. An increase in average temperatures, low precipitation and loss of glaciers in the region, are considered to be the primary reasons for streamflow depletion. There was scanty snowfall during the winters. The temperatures in March and April 2022 were 9-10 degrees warmer than usual.
“The alarming drop in water level is the result of the scanty snowfall and exceptionally high temperatures,” informs Rashid. Instrumental evidence from the Flood and Irrigation Department reveals that more than 64 sites show statistically significant depleting trends of discharge in the Jhelum river. Due to the perennial drop in the level of water in the rivers, the Agriculture Department of Kashmir has repeatedly advised farmers to avoid paddy cultivation and shift to other crops.
Low precipitation and melting glaciers
Precipitation patterns in the valley over the years have also been erratic. Experts say climate change has led to warming which has led to change in the form of precipitation over a long time.
According to the data from the Meteorological Department in Srinagar, the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir recorded a rain deficiency of 38 percent in the first five months of 2022. “Against a normal rainfall of 559.2 mm, Jammu and Kashmir received only 345.4 mm of rainfall between January 1 and May 31 (2022),” reveals Mukhtar Ahmad, Deputy Director, Meteorological Department Kashmir.
Over the years Kashmir valley has witnessed a considerable deficiency of the pre-monsoon rains. In 2022, Kashmir valley received 99.5 mm of rain from March 1 to May 31 which amounts to a 70 percent deficit. Similarly, in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021 there has been a deficit of 16 percent, 28 percent, 35 percent and 26 percent, respectively during the period of March-May.
“The otherwise driest of November is turning out to be the wettest month. The wettest season, Spring, this year saw the lowest rainfall in the last two decades,” said Faizan Arif, an independent weather forecaster who has been tracking Kashmir weather for years. These events illustrate the dual-threat faced by the residents of Kashmir Valley, with drought-like and flood situations.
A study by the researchers at the University of Kashmir also finds that the loss of glacier area has exceeded the increase in the ablation area (the low-altitude area of a glacier where loss in ice mass occurs), translating into statistically significant depleted stream flows that have resulted in land system changes downstream.
The area under irrigation-intensive agriculture has shrunk by 39 percent, whereas the orchards have expanded by 177 percent from 1980 to 2017. The study suggests that the land system changes have resulted due to the depleting streamflows.
Banner image: Authorities in Kashmir, over the years, have been advising farmers to shift to alternate crops. Photo by Umer Asif.