After the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) admitted to a major mistake in its 2007 report, which asserted the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035, skeptics and opponents alike went on the offensive, using the admission as proof that climate change is a fabrication. Though the 2035 deadline may no longer be valid, global warming is surely having an effect on the ground and activists are now faced with an even tougher challenge.
Climate change has affected nearly every country in the world, irrespective of the role it has played in polluting the environment. Lying in the lap of the great Himalayas, Kashmir is one such place, and we are already feeling its impact.
While the West was in the grip of a harsh winter with unprecedented snowfall, the hilly region of Kashmir seated deep in the Himalayas was still waiting for its share of the season’s snow. Already overdue, its absence virtually guarantees a drought in the coming summer.
“Unfortunately the people who are most impacted by climate change are those who are least responsible for creating this phenomenon,” says Usmaan Ahmad, the Kashmir mission director for aid group Mercy Corps.
Kashmir’s orchardists were already nervous as their trees began sprouting buds. An early flower results in decreased production and a drought in summer could only worsen this bleak scenario. Just two decades ago, the Kashmir Valley would get heavy snowfall in early winter, which would freeze and cover the landscape until spring. Nowadays snowfall is not only thin but often late, which means it won’t last long.
Ghulam Mohiudin Bhat is a farmer in Kashmir’s southern district Pulwama. He converted his paddy fields into apple orchards due to water scarcity.
“We had a lot of land used for agriculture. But we were facing water shortage for the last 10 to 15 years, so we switched to horticulture,” he says.
Like Bhat, his neighbor Ghulam Rasool Ganai also abandoned paddy farming for apple farming this year. He will have to wait for more than five years before his converted field bears fruit, but he is ready for the bargain. “I had not switched to horticulture, though most of my neighbors had. We were facing water scarcity, especially during the crop season. Last year the problem was too profound, so I ultimately gave up and planted apple trees on my land.”
Kashmir’s prized saffron crops have suffered a 40% drop in production, too. One of the three places in world - besides Iran and Spain - most famous for its saffron, water shortages are straining the crops. Some of the saffron farmers who traditionally relied on rainwater are now looking at irrigation measures to save their rare and labor-intensive crop.
For the past five years, Shakil Romshoo, an assistant professor at the Geology and Geophysics department of the University of Kashmir has been studying the region’s glaciers. He says that the average temperature in the region has increased by more than a degree in the last 100 years, hastening the melt.
“If you look at the data from 1969 up to now we are seeing that temperatures have increased in the region, particularly the winter temperatures, and this increase has resulted in reduced snowfall and increased melting of glaciers,” he explains. In part, this is due to the burning of fossil fuels and the inefficient use of biomass, which darkens the glaciers and makes them soak up more sunlight.
He says the biggest threat climate change poses to Kashmir is the melting of the glaciers, lying high up in the Himalayas, which go on to feed almost one-fifth of the world’s population.
“This is a water tower of Asia – Himalayas, Kashmir Himalayas, other Himalayas. Waters from here go to Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, and beyond. I believe this is going to have serious consequences on all sectors that depend on water - agriculture, horticulture, even hydropower. It is already having an impact,” he says. “You see people switching from agriculture to horticulture".
Some analysts even predict that future wars between nuclear neighbors India and Pakistan will be over water.
On February 10th, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said that Kashmir and its water issues will top the priorities discussed during foreign secretary-level talks between New Delhi and Islamabad.
Pakistan depends heavily on Kashmir’s water for agricultural irrigation. As global warming hastens glacial melting, it changes the flow patterns of the glacier-fed rivers that flow into Pakistan. Apart from the change in volume, the water is reaching the country’s fields at the wrong time.
Jennifer L Morgan, Director of the Climate and Energy Program at the World Resources Institute in Washington D.C. writes in the Times Of India, “For communities downstream of mountain glaciers and snowfields, most of the energy, agriculture and municipal infrastructures have been developed in the context of an annual cycle of winter snowfall and gradual melt-water runoff during the dry season. The disappearance of those glaciers would have enormous socioeconomic impact around the world…To take one example, as the Andean glaciers retreat, the loss of hydroelectric power is estimated to cost Peru $1.5 billion annually.”
Though Morgan admits the glaciers will not be gone by 2035, she does highlight the strain water shortage will pose to Kashmir’s neighbors. “In recent years, the groundwater level in northern India has been dropping one meter every three years. Meanwhile, demand for water in India is projected to double in the next 20 years.”
Usmaan Ahmad says Mercy Corps has recently been involved in creating awareness about the problem in Kashmir.
“At the local level awareness is very important because there are solutions that are available for the farmers to become more resilient,” he explains. “Farmers need to become much more able to use weather reports, using midterm weather forecasts, to be able to predict when they should sow, when they should harvest. They should also to be able to predict what types of impact they may see, because our calendar doesn’t work right now,” he adds.
While Ahmad says local awareness will help the community survive the immediate future, the real solution he says, lies in large-scale global coordination. Unsurprisingly, the outcome of December’s Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change disappointed Ahmad and Romshoo when world leaders failed to reach a legally-binding treaty to lower carbon emissions.
“There is no single solution for the climate change problem,” says Ahmad. “In fact it requires multi-stakeholder approach wherein the community, educational as well as research institutions, the government and private sector have to sit together to find a way out. It is not the job of government alone. Climate change is a challenge because we are [considering] things 20 years [into the future]. It needs long-term thinking.”