Spending days in the sunshine and freezing in bone-chilling Chillai Kalan nights, the desert weather has pushed Kashmir to the edge. A ‘bald’ Gulmarg is craving powder snow, power stations lack water to generate energy, and dry weather cold seems a resident disease. Syed Shadab Ali Gillani meets experts to tell the story beyond Climate Change and El-Nino
Jammu and Kashmir is living in the unpredictability of “interesting times”. Prolonged dry spell, a snow-scarce Chillai Kalan, daytime temperatures exceeding the normal by at least six degrees Celsius for over a month now, leading to health issues and serious concerns over an approaching drought. This is the state of the famed paradise of the Indies.
Gulmarg, the only ski resort known for the powdered snow outside the Alps is desperate for the white carpet. Houseboats are emptying at a fast pace and cancellations are piling up after a season that according to LG Manoj Sinha saw 22 million visitor footfalls. Google search queries ‘snowfall in Kashmir’ and ‘best time to visit Kashmir for snow’ surged from a baseline of 14 on December 31, 2023, to 100 on January 15, 2024. Sinthan Top which separates Kashmir from Chenab Valley is attracting tourists as it was bestowed with a thin snow sheet early this month.
Power distributor, KPDCL added 2.5 hours to the 8-hour load shedding in a 24-hour cycle as discharge in water bodies plummeted to a new low. December and January saw a 100 per cent rain deficit.
Rise in Temperature
Extreme temperature fluctuations are record-breaking. Kashmir sees unusually bright sunshine and higher temperatures unlike Jammu, which recorded 8.6 degrees Celsius, the fifth all-time lowest in January, a post-Lohri record of sorts.
However, Dr Mukhtar Ahmed, Director of the Indian Meteorological Department in Kashmir, vouched for the season not being unprecedented. “Similar occurrences are documented in December of 1981, 1983, 1987, 1992, 1993, 1998, 2004, 2007, and December 2014 to January 2015,” Ahmad said, insisting the reoccurrences happen once in a four-five-year cycle. “The ongoing dry spell commenced in August 2023, owing to a consistent rain deficit since the monsoons in late June and sporadic rainfall in the first and last three days of July.”
Srinagar experienced an unusually warm day on January 13, with a temperature of 15 degrees Celsius, marking the sixth warmest day in January in the past 133 years. This level was last recorded in 2010. Banihal reported a record-breaking maximum temperature of 23.4 degrees Celsius on January 11, 2024, surpassing the previous record set in 2003.
This rise in temperatures aligns with a broader trend observed across various parts of Kashmir, including Srinagar, Pahalgam, Qazigund, Kokernag, Kupwara, and Gulmarg. In Srinagar, the mercury settled at 15.8 degrees Celsius, 4.7 degrees Celsius above the usual temperature for this time of the year.
“The observed data from the past 40 years indicates an annual increase of 0.035 ◦C in maximum temperature (TMax) and 0.022 ◦C in minimum temperature (TMin) for the region,” said Mohammad Muslim, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Environmental Science, University of Kashmir, asserting natural and human-induced factors like greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and land use changes, contribute to this change.
“Kashmir has warmed by one degree Celsius over the last four decades, with high-altitude regions experiencing almost 1.25 degrees Celsius of warming,” Irfan Rashid, Assistant Professor at the Department of Geoinformatics, University of Kashmir, notes. “The drivers of this warming are largely global but there are local factors like urbanisation, deforestation and emissions from biomass burning and automobiles that are responsible.”
A recent study, Sustainability of Winter Tourism in a Changing Climate over Kashmir Himalaya published by Springer, has identified a decline in precipitation in Kashmir over recent years. It highlights the discernible impacts of climate change, including reduced snowfall, retreating glaciers, rising temperatures, and diminished precipitation.
Kashmir’s climatic conditions are part of the prevailing global situation. The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) of the European Union officially declared 2023 as the hottest year on record globally, with a global average temperature of 14.98 degrees Celsius. This surpassed the 1991-2020 level by 0.60 degrees Celsius and exceeded the previous record set in 2016, confirming the ongoing trend of global warming. Additionally, C3S anticipates that the 12-month period concluding in January or February 2024 is likely to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, highlighting the continued trajectory of rising temperatures with potential implications for climate-related impacts globally and in regions like Kashmir.
El Niño Impact
El Niño is a climate phenomenon marked by elevated sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. This warming disrupts established weather patterns and can have broad-reaching effects on global climate conditions. Occurs irregularly every 2 to 7 years, El Niño typically leads to delayed or deficient monsoon rains in India and has potential implications for Chillai Kalan in Kashmir.
Climate change is considered a significant factor influencing Kashmir’s current weather conditions, as outlined by Dr Irfan. “The region is witnessing a decline in the frequency of snowfall events, leading to a snowless winter,” he said. This situation raises concerns for water-dependent sectors, including irrigated agriculture, orchards, hydropower production, and snow tourism, all of which could be adversely affected.
This triggers the erratic weather patterns in Kashmir. Anomalous higher temperatures during the 2022 winter and spring, as well as erratic snowfall in the first week of November in 2018 and 2019, resulting in damage to apple orchards, are indicative of this development.
Adds Dr Muslim: “Climate change manifests in rising temperatures, decreased precipitation, and shifts in precipitation patterns, contributing to more frequent and intense extreme weather events”.Visible consequences apart, these changes impact ecosystems, leading to altered phenology, shifts in species distribution, habitat loss, and increased vulnerability of threatened species.
Mukhtar, however, cautions against attributing the absence of snow solely to global warming. He emphasises the necessity of sustained trends lasting at least 30 years for a genuine shift, challenging the notion that isolated weather events can conclusively indicate climate change. Mukhtar underscores the importance of distinguishing climate variability from more prolonged trends.
Melting Of Glaciers
Whether or not the prevailing and recurrent weather conditions are linked to climate change, the devastation is visible. Glaciers spread over Kashmir Himalayas have seen a significant 23 per cent reduction in area since 1962. Between 1980 and 2015, satellite image analysis suggests the Kolahoi glacier, Kashmir’s largest, witnessed a 10 per cent length reduction, a 13.5 per cent decrease in aerial surface, and an 18 per cent volume loss. Machoi Glacier, a source of the river Sindh, shows a 29 per cent area decrease between 1972 and 2019.
This glacial melt influences downstream lakes, affecting volume, temperature, and nutrient levels, posing a threat to water resources and ecosystems. Accelerated melting initially increases water inputs to lakes, but long-term consequences include reduced water supply and shifts in temperature and nutrient dynamics.
Irfan draws attention to the glaciers across Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh regions, emphasising their retreat in response to regional climate change. “The effects of glacier melt vary across the area, with glaciers covering 0.45 per cent of the total area in Kashmir and 11 per cent in the neighbouring Surubasin (in Kargil)”, he said. The heavily glaciated regions of Chenab, Zanskar, and east Karakoram also experience significant impacts.
“Despite potential further warming, Kashmir’s stream flows may continue to decrease due to glaciers having reached a critical point,” Irfan anticipated. “This is corroborated by discharge data from the Jal Shakti Department. However, regions like Suru, with abundant glaciated basins, may not witness the same effects.” The ongoing glacier melt has led to the formation of numerous proglacial lakes in the region, susceptible to Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs), the most recent case being in Leh.
Kashmir’s glaciers are under stress due to a change in the traditional snow stock on glaciers. The rising temperatures, coupled with a shortened winter period, add to this stress. “The heavier snowfall from December to February sustains the heat during the summer months, influencing the overall health of the glaciers”, added Mukhtar.
The Jal Shakti (Water Works) department has issued a warning conveying a notable decline in water levels across Kashmir. Sanjeev Malhotra, Chief Engineer of Kashmir Jal Shakti, stressed the urgent requirement for a wet spell to replenish water sources.
Malhotra urged responsible water usage, highlighting that the partial drying of water bodies has resulted in a reduction in regular portable water supply. The situation is being closely monitored, especially in North and central Kashmir areas, where reports of water shortages are on the rise. Remarkably, historically abundant water sources, such as lakes and rivers, are encountering unprecedented challenges, raising concerns about an impending water scarcity crisis.
“This winter snow is crucial for maintaining our water resources,” Dr Raja Muzaffar, an activist, said. “The present crisis poses a significant threat to agriculture and horticulture sectors in the region.” Asserting that the variability in precipitation patterns is global, he said India is experiencing a decreasing trend in annual precipitation, with Kashmir not excluded.
Naresh Kumar, Chief Engineer, Irrigation and Flood Control, acknowledged a decrease in Jhelum’s water level. However, he compared it to previous years, stating that there is not a significant difference, as the water level has historically remained low. Kumar highlighted that the irrigation season begins in April, and it is premature to comment on the potential impact on the agriculture sector.
“Our wettest month is March, and we still have two to three months before the season starts. If the situation persists, discussions with the agriculture department will be initiated, and measures will be taken accordingly,” Kumar said.
The Drying Wular
Wular Lake, a vital Kashmir water body, is facing a survival challenge as half of its expanse has dried up due to persistent dry weather. The lake, a lifeline for nearly 10,000 fisher families in the region, is crucial for residents of Kehneusa, Zurimanz, Ashtangoo, Lankrishipora, Laharwalpora, and Kulhama villages who rely on it for harvesting water chestnuts.
Gulam Ahmad, a fisher from Kehneusa village, expressed concern over the diminishing water levels, likening the lake to a mere stream. “Navigating our boats to the centre of Wular requires careful use of oars in the scant water,” he said. Ahmad highlighted the community’s traditional reliance on the lake for livelihood and the need for alternative employment due to the changing conditions.
Ghulam Mohiuddin, another resident, lamented a sharp decline in daily fish catches, from ten kilograms to one or two kilograms, severely impacting the community’s income. He correlated the absence of snow on surrounding mountains with the lake’s decreasing support, pushing the community to explore alternative means of earning a living.
Muhammad Sultan from Kulhama emphasised the community’s illiteracy and sole dependence on the lake. He pointed out the adverse effects of increasing sewage on both fishermen’s livelihoods and aquatic species. Sultan urged authorities to address garbage disposal in nearby streams, which contributes to the contamination of Lake, the primary Ramsar site.
Gulzar Ahmad, an angler, painted a bleak picture of the situation, highlighting the drastic shrinkage of the lake. He disclosed the financial strain on fishers who usually earn Rs 50,000- Rs 60,000 in winter by harvesting chestnuts, a source of income now restricted due to the current conditions.
Nazir Ahmad, 38, acknowledged human responsibility for the lake’s desiccation, citing decades of garbage dumping as a contributing factor. He regretted the situation, recognising the lake that once sustained them is now in jeopardy.
Kashmir is experiencing an increased risk of winter forest fires due to an extended dry spell and rising day temperatures. So far more than 50 forest fires in the South, Srinagar, and North Forest circles of Kashmir were reported in the past month, causing substantial damage to trees. In Kulgam, a significant bushfire during the dry spell resulted in injuries to two forest department employees.
Forest fires have also occurred in areas like Khull, Chimmer, and Banimulla. Besides, a major forest fire in Jammu and Kashmir’s Poonch district on January 14, 2024, required a coordinated effort by the Army and civil administration to contain the threat to lives and infrastructure in the region.
In response to the prolonged dry spell, the Wildlife Department has imposed a ban on unauthorised entry into forests and Kashmir’s Wildlife Protected Areas. The directive emphasises the heightened risk of forest fires and warns individuals against entering specific areas, including Brane, Nishat Conservation Reserve, Dachigam National Park, Dara Conservation Reserve, Khrew/Khanmoh Conservation Reserve, Wangath Conservation Reserve, and Thajwas Wildlife Sanctuary. The notice emphasises strict consequences under the Wildlife Protection Act for unauthorized entry into these areas.
The renowned tourist ski resort of Gulmarg, typically blanketed in snow during this season, finds itself devoid of visitors due to an unusual lack of snowfall. The absence of winter sports activities has adversely affected the livelihoods of local stakeholders.
Mushtaq Ahmed Lone, President of the Guides Association Gulmarg, reported a significant 60 per cent decline in bookings, impacting local businesses and tour guides. He expressed concern over the challenging period faced by tourist guides and local enterprises due to the scarcity of snow during the winter season.
Government data reveals that Gulmarg hosted an impressive 16.5 lakh tourists in 2023, surpassing the previous year’s figure of 15.4 lakh.
Muzaffar admitted Gulmarg is standstill. “I have never seen Gulmarg without snow at this time, and it’s really disturbing,” he said.
Sonamarg is grappling with a similar crisis, with its typically snow-covered slopes now dry and barren. President of Beopar Mandal Sonamarg, Shabir Ahmad, noted the adverse impact on tourism-dependent individuals. Sonamarg Development Authority (SDA) Ilyas Ahmad said the “cancellations are due to the lack of snow and highlighted efforts to organise additional winter games to enhance tourist experiences”.
In another popular destination, Pahalgam, unprecedented warmth during the dry spell has resulted in a record-breaking January temperature of 14.1 degrees Celsius.
The dry conditions in Kashmir have also taken a toll on the houseboat sector, with only 30 per cent occupancy in Srinagar’s houseboats, marking a historic low for winter tourism.
Tourists from Southeast Asia and other countries, who typically prefer Kashmir during this time, have either postponed or cancelled their visits due to the dry weather. Manzoor Pakhtoo, President of the House Boat Owners Association (HBOA), Kashmir, expressed concern about the prolonged dry spell’s impact on adventure tourism, stressing the absence of snow as a crucial requirement for adventure enthusiasts.
With the administration aiming for 30 million tourists in 2024, the dry winter poses a significant threat to achieving this target. Regarding the impact on the water level in Dal and Nigeen lakes, Pakhtoo mentioned that, so far, there has been no major impact. However, if winter passes without snow, Dal Lake could face issues. Houseboat owners are already dealing with challenges due to a ban on new houseboat construction, leading to a reduction in their number from 1200 in 2013 to 750 at present.
Impact on Crops
Concerns are rising about potential impacts on agriculture. “The altered precipitation pattern is a significant threat to water resources, potentially disrupting river flow and leading to reduced water levels in key rivers crucial for downstream purposes like irrigation, hydropower, and drinking water supply,” Muslim said.
Highlighting the broader repercussions, Irfan points out that while the total precipitation has not seen a substantial change, the form of precipitation has indeed undergone shifts. This transformation carries implications for all water-dependent sectors.
The Directorate of Research at Sher-I-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology of Kashmir (SKUAST) has already issued an advisory. For Apple, Almond, and Apricot orchards, the advisory cautions against pruning to avoid freezing injuries and premature sprouting. It recommends refraining from irrigation to prevent root damage, advocating for orchard sanitation and burial of twigs and fruit. The advisory suggests implementing bur lapping on tree trunks if not already done.
For field crops like oilseeds, wheat, peas, and oats, the advisory recommends measures such as thinning brown sarson crops, using organic mulch, maintaining field sanitation, and installing yellow sticky traps at 10-meter intervals. Farmers are urged to uphold weed-free conditions in standing crops to mitigate competition for moisture, addressing isolated reports of vegetable crop damage.
The dry spell is poised to impact power generation, raising concerns for the KPDCL in the approaching summer and winter seasons, according to H Rajesh Prasad, the Principal Secretary of the PDD.
“The ongoing long dry spell will likely have an impact on power generation in the upcoming summer and winter seasons,” Prasad was quoted saying. “If the weather situation remains the same, I think we will be in distress in the upcoming summer and winter seasons. The problem won’t end in the summer season only; this will affect more in the next winter season wherein we usually face water shortage.”
The peak summer power generation capacity in Jammu and Kashmir exceeds 1200 MWs. With sub-zero temperatures causing a 70 per cent decrease in water flow, the generation has nose-dived to 250 MWs. This has added to the load shedding by 150 minutes to more than 10 hours in a 24-hour cycle.
“This is for the information of the general public that due to a drastic reduction in power generation resulting in reduced availability of power, KPDCL shall be forced to temporarily increase the curtailment by 2 to 2.5 hours across Kashmir Valley during peak hours,” the Corporation said. “The temporary increase shall be reversed as soon as sufficient power is available.”
Experts insist that Kashmir should avoid getting on the global climate bandwagon and skip the local contributions to the change. “We should also look into the things that are causing problems locally,” Muzaffar said. “The increase in brick kilns and cement factories is majorly polluting Kashmir, and this pollution is degrading our air quality level.”
Mukhtar underscored certain issues contributing to the situation, noting multiple local factors at play. “The rapid urbanisation and the proliferation of vehicles in Kashmir have impacted the air quality, and it is not limited to Srinagar only; it has affected other small towns of Kashmir.” He said the rise in brick kilns, causing black carbon emissions, contributes to an increase in temperature.