Kashmir’s water woes: What lies ahead
‘A time may come when each one of us might have to stand in queue for every drop of water that we need for survival.’
Global warming and climate change are among the biggest threats facing the planet and the hottest topics of debate in the present times. Like any other place in the world, Kashmir is not exempt from the catastrophic effects of these phenomena.
Glaciers, one of the most significant sources of water for this part of the world, are melting at a never before rate. A study titled ‘Linking the recent glacier retreat and depleting stream flow patterns with land system changes in Kashmir Himalaya (India)’ has suggested that Kola Hai, the largest glacier in Kashmir, has lost 23 per cent of its surface area since 1962 and has also fragmented into smaller parts.
Another study titled ‘Satellite-observed glacier recession in the Kashmir Himalaya, from 1980 to 2018,’ finds that the glacier loss in Kashmir is higher than in other Himalayan regions and is threatening Kashmir’s water security at an alarming rate.
A document released by the JK Policy Institute in January 2022 has revealed that the excessive melting of the Kola Hai glacier has resulted in a constantly depleting streamflow of two of river Jhelum’s largest tributaries, the Lidder and the Sindh. This has resulted in major land system changes in the downstream regions of the Lidder watershed and the areas are witnessing an alarming decrease in the cultivation of irrigation intensive crops like rice.
Authorities have, from time to time, been forced to issue notifications urging farmers to not go for paddy cultivation due to lack of adequate water for irrigation. “All farmers are hereby requested that they do not go for paddy cultivation this year as, due to lack of snowfall and rainfall, there is hardly any water in the Jhelum River and the streams,” read a notice in Urdu issued by irrigation authorities in 2018.
Lack of irrigation has also resulted in a new trend in the recent past, with farmers selling their land to property developers. Environment website The Third Pole reported in 2018 that according to a letter to the government in March 2016, the director for agriculture in Kashmir had reported that “due to the haphazard land conversion, agricultural land has shrunk considerably, as per door to door surveys conducted by the field workers of this (agriculture) Department.”
Besides agricultural land being used for construction activities, the region has also witnessing a significant shift in cultivation patterns with farmers shifting from rice cultivation to horticulture. Government statistics reveal that the area under fruit cultivation was just 12,400 hectares in 1953-54 which expanded to as much as 325,000 hectares in 2018.
Research by the JK Policy Institute has revealed that irrigation-intensive agriculture in the Lidder watershed area decreased by 39 per cent between 1980 and 2017, while orchards increased by 177 per cent.
Changes in precipitation patterns in Kashmir are also being observed for some time now. As per a story published in Kashmir Observer newspaper in July 2022, Jammu and Kashmir received 979.1 mm of rainfall in the year 2020 against an average of 1258.7 mm. This amounted to a rainfall deficit of 22 per cent for that year. In 2021, the deficit touched 29 per cent when the union territory recorded a mere 894.4 mm of rainfall, which was also the lowest rainfall since the year 2010.
The story further says that during the first five months of 2022, Jammu and Kashmir recorded a rainfall deficit of 38 per cent, with the region receiving only 345.4 mm of rainfall against a normal of 559.2 mm. In comparison, 34 per cent deficiency was witnessed in 2020 and 11.5 per cent in 2021 for the same time period.
Interestingly, from March to May 2022, J&K received only 99.5mm of rainfall, which is the lowest spring rainfall since 2005. This rainfall deviation falls in the ‘large deficient’ category, according to the story.
In keeping with the trend of erratic weather patterns that is being witnessed for some time now, temperatures in Srinagar remained 10 to 15 degrees above normal on most days in the beginning of the year 2022 as per the news story. This resulted in rapid melting of glaciers and a flood-like situation in the month of March 2022, which was the warmest March recorded in Srinagar in at least the last 131 years.
In contrast to this, the month of April 2022 witnessed an extensive decrease in water levels of rivers and streams due to high temperatures. Some small streams, in fact, had completely dried up by the end of May.
It is pertinent to mention here that the months from January to May are the ones in which heavy snowfall is recorded in the higher reaches of the Valley. This precipitation is essential for the formation of glaciers which act as a source of water for the remaining months of the year.
The infrequency of rain has also led to groundwater depletion in Kashmir. Mountain springs are experiencing declining water yield in the recent past or have gone dry mainly due to the erratic rainfall in the recent decades.
According to Rayees Ahmad Pir, a Hydrogeologist at the Central Ground Water Board which works under the Ministry of Water Resources, one of the reasons for groundwater depletion is the strong intensity and least frequency of rain in Kashmir.
In a July 2020 interview to a local newspaper, Rayees had said that the rainfall which used to continue for one month earlier is now happening within hours of a day.
Research by local Earth Scientist Sumira Nazir Zaz has suggested that precipitation in J&K associated with monsoons and western disturbances has been decreasing significantly from last 30 years.
In addition to these geographical factors, demography also has a role to play in the water crisis that stares Kashmir in the face. The growing population is putting additional pressure on the limited and depleting water resources of the Valley.
According to a study done by the National Statistical Office, residents in rural Jammu and Kashmir spend an average of 21 minutes per day to fetch water from a source which is located outside of their residence.
In addition to this, they also have to spend 12 minutes per day waiting at the main source of drinking water. This job is mainly done by women and girls, who are at times forced to travel through dense forests to collect water for their families.
In urban areas, things are slightly better with a person having to spend 10 minutes fetching water along with a seven minute wait, according to the study.
A time may come when each one of us might have to stand in queue for every drop of water that we need for survival. It is of utmost importance that we the people, both at individual and collective level, understand climate change and come up with strategies to deal with its effects. Failure to do so may end up in us being held responsible by the future generations of not having done enough.