Indian-administered Kashmir

As Glaciers Melt, Experts Warn of Water-related Conflict in Kashmir

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SRINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR – Nazir Ahmad Dar, 35, belongs to a group of families who have been growing saffron, the famed Kashmiri spice, for generations in Pampore, some 20 kilometers from Srinagar, the summer capital. He talks about hearing the stories of the “good times” from his grandparents and parents, the times when the field turned purple because of the wealth of saffron flowers.

But now the flowers only dot the fields, thanks to climate change, he says.

“We can never expect to have such a harvest as things are getting worse with each passing day,” Dar says. “There is [a] dearth of water, which is going to increase as water increasingly becoming a scarce commodity.”

He attributes the decrease in saffron flowers to decreasing water levels and untimely rainfall.

“The timing of rainfall is very important for a good production of the spice,” he says. “We need it in spells, which is what used to happen earlier. Untimely rainfall can cause havoc.”

Dar says that, for example, they never have rainfall in August anymore, which used to be the norm during his grandfather’s days.

Dar says his community even increased the cultivation area for saffron flowers, but that saffron production is still decreasing, thanks to the effects of climate change.

Experts say climate change is undoubtedly shrinking Kashmir’s glaciers and reducing snowfall, which both provide key water to the region. Kashmiris say that water shortages and irregular rainfall are also forcing them to switch to livelihoods that require less water and may soon affect the drinking water supply. University sources say that the government needs to do more to address climate change. While independent groups strategize, government officials say the state has made efforts but that ultimately climate change has to be addressed at the global level.

India’s role in attaining environmental sustainability – a set of various environmental targets under goal seven of the Millennium Development Goals, a U.N. initiative agreed to by countries worldwide to achieve eight anti-poverty goals by 2015 – is increasing its population’s access to water, according to a United Nations Development Program report. While India is home to 16 percent of the world’s population, its share of fresh water sources is just 4 percent, according to the report. And climate change is further reducing its supply.

Shakil Romshoo, a scientist at the University of Kashmir who has been studying Kashmir’s glaciers, says data on glaciers is difficult to obtain. But he says there’s no doubt that climate change is drastically affecting Kashmir’s water resources.

“Of the 24 watersheds in Jhelum basin, I can say that at least 17 are showing decline in discharge,” Romshoo says of Kashmir’s water levels.

Romshoo, who heads the geology and geophysics department at the University of Kashmir, has been engaged in a study of Kashmir’s glaciers that is sponsored by the Indian Space Research Organization, a division under the Indian government’s Department of Space that aims to apply space technology to various national tasks. He says his research on the Himalayan glaciers suggests substantial recession of the ice masses because of global warming.

“Let me tell you, all of these glaciers, whether in Jammu or Kashmir, are responding to climate change,” he says. “That means melting is enhanced. This is a very simple science, and we have loud and clear indicators that temperature is increasing.”

Romshoo’s research focuses mainly on the Kolahoi glacier, the largest in the region. He says that the waters from this and hundreds of big and small glaciers in the Himalayan ranges go on to feed the plains in India and Pakistan.

“Kolahoi is the lifeline of Kashmir,” he says. “Every sector of the economy is dependent on Kolahoi, whether it is the surface water, ground water or tourism.”

He explains that each glacier responds differently to changes, depending on a host of factors, such as its location, altitude and exposure to sun. Therefore, while some glaciers may have lost a lot of mass, with some smaller ones having disappeared altogether, others may show no visible signs of change.

But he says global warming, in general, tends to melt the glaciers faster and decreases their retention capacities. Streams fed by glaciers affected by warming are prone to increased discharges or flooding in initial years.

Most of Kashmir’s streams that are fed by winter snow have seen a decrease in discharges, though, as the snow accumulates on the hills and melts gradually during the summer. Romshoo says Kashmir has seen “almost normal snowfall” in 2011, but that snow has been irregular during the past decade, meaning lower stream levels.

“Harshest part of our winter used to be very cold,” he says. “It is not so now, so even if we have a snowfall, the snow does not last long.”

Residents here say that climate change does not just hold a threat for the future, but that it has already affected livelihoods in the region. Kashmir’s famed saffron fields are bearing the brunt of decreasing water resources.

Romshoo says the water shortage, as well as the lure of better revenues, has driven many people to switch from agriculture to horticulture in Kashmir.

At the other end of the valley from Dar, Abdul Rehman Magray, of the Ganderbal district, echoes Dar’s concerns. Magray used to farm paddy, but it’s a water- and labor-intensive crop. Facing water shortages and untimely rains, which he says caused his paddy to rot in the field, Magray switched to cultivating willow trees and shrubs, which can be used to make wicker baskets.

“I would have converted my land into an orchard, but the soil is not good for that [although] it would have been much easier to look after,” Magray says, adding that apple orchards require little water and horticulture experts say they yield higher revenues.

Romshoo says drinking water may even be threatened in the near future.

“Imagine when water reaches to a limit when even my drinking water supply [is] affected,” he says. “Will people of Kashmir allow waters to go to Pakistan?”

Water is already becoming a hot issue in Pakistan, where radical outfits are even hinting of a war over water. Romshoo says that the agriculture-based economy of Pakistan will definitely be affected, thereby threatening the already tense Indo-Pakistani relations.

Romshoo says that local measures can’t arrest climate changes in the region and that joint efforts need to be made at the global level instead. Still, he says a lack of mitigation and adaptation at policy level in Kashmir doesn’t help.

Sameer Ahmad, a science graduate from the University of Kashmir, says the government in Kashmir has not responded to the changes in the climate.

“We are losing production in agriculture, in horticulture,” Ahmad says. “Unexpected weathers are destroying our crops, but you see the agricultural university or the agriculture department of state government has not worked on the issue of climate change. They should be assisting farmers to adapt, rather than just watch.”

An official at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology of Kashmir, who declined to give his name to protect his job, admitted that not much work has been done on the subject.

“We don’t even have data to see what impact the climate change has had on agriculture so far,” he says.

But he says that the university plans to start major projects to study the impact of climate change on the region and to suggest measures.

Shabir Ahmed Khan, minister of state for forest, environment and ecology, transport, labor and employment, consumer affairs and public distribution and power, says that climate change is a global issue that needs to be handled at the global level. He says the state government held an International Conference on Climate Change two years ago, where they discussed the strategy for tackling climate change.

“We cannot stop development, which means there will be pollution,” Khan says. “But at the same time, we are taking measures like reclaiming the encroached forest lands, conducting plantation drives in order to increase the forest area. There has been a decrease in the deforestation and timber smuggling.”

Nadeem Qadiri, executive director of the Center for Environmental Law, an independent, nonprofit research center, says Kashmir needs to be especially wary of climate change.

“The melting of glaciers is an open and clear sign of climate change for all of us globally,” Qadiri says. “We have to be more responsible because Kashmir falls [in] the most eco-fragile zone of, not only India, but Central Asia. Deforestation, melting of glaciers, drying up of wetlands are all pointers of the problem of climate change.”

He says that there are a lot of geopolitics involved in the issue of climate change. He says that the center is in the process of setting up the South Asia Consortium of Experts for Climate Change in Kashmir, but that overall it has to be tackled at a global level.

“It’s not that we can intervene in climate change,” he says. “We cannot correct what has already changed, but we have to explore the possibilities of what can be done.”