‘Rethink Power Projects On Unstable Slopes’

Dr Irfan Rashid, a Senior Assistant Professor at the University of Kashmir’s Department of Geoinformatics has the distinction of being the first INSA (Indian National Science Academy), Young Scientist Awardee in Earth and Planetary Sciences from Jammu and Kashmir. His research focuses on glacier-climate interactions, glacier-related hazards, alpine vegetation dynamics and lake and wetland ecosystems. In an interview with Umar Mukhtar, he talked about the issues of development, hydropower and climatic change

Dr Irfan Rashid

KASHMIR LIFE (KL): How has climate change impacted Kashmir? Or has it?

Dr Irfan Rashid (IR): The impact of climate change on Jammu and Kashmir is very clear. There is a plethora of scientific literature on the impact of climate change on glaciers, vegetation, agriculture, incidence and frequency of extreme weather events, and livelihoods. Research has shown that the glaciers in the Jammu and Kashmir region are melting at comparatively higher rates compared to other parts of the Hindukush-Himalaya-Karakoram region.

For example, the Kolahoi glacier is one of the fastest retreating glaciers in Kashmir whose snout is depleting at ~50 m per year. Drang Drung, a 23 km long glacier in Zanskar, is retreating at ~60 m per year. Many other glaciers are showing similar recession patterns and higher mass loss.

Climate change is also affecting the vegetation distribution and composition in the region that includes the shift of treeline and proliferation of invasive species in otherwise pristine landscapes. The erratic weather patterns over Kashmir like the untimely snowfall that Kashmir experienced in November of 2018 and 2019 dented the apple industry. Even the Chillai Kalaan of 2021 was very harsh considering the climatological record of the last three decades.

KLThis winter was the harshest since 1991. Can we relate it to climate change or there could be other factors as well?

IR: Climatic change does not mean warmer temperatures only. It is, as I said, also associated with increased frequency of extremes, in this case extremely low temperatures that were experienced across Kashmir during January. However, more research needs to be done to see the impact of climatic change on atmospheric circulation patterns including western disturbance over Jammu and Kashmir.

Kolhai Glacier is receding fast. It is a major contributor to the Jhelum River

The glacier shrinkage has already affected stream flows in the Kashmir valley and could affect agricultural production and hydropower generation in the region.

KL: Over the years we have seen the shift in our four seasons and delayed precipitations. Why is it so?

IR: Any change in the atmospheric circulation patterns (westerlies and monsoons) operating over the Jammu and Kashmir region can have implications on temperature, precipitation, and seasonality. Though there are global factors like greenhouse gas emission responsible for this but there could be local forcing factors like anomalously high black carbon aerosols and land system changes (specifically deforestation and urbanization) that might affect regional weather regimes and their seasonality. However, it needs to be researched further.

KL: Since our glaciers are melting at a very fast pace, how will it impact our environment?

IR: I would say all the sectors of the economy, be it hydropower, agriculture and even tourism, are dependent on melt-waters from glaciers. The faster the glaciers recede, the sooner will the region experience negative impacts related to increased incidence of glacier-related hazards, imbalance in water supply and demand, wetland bathymetry changes, and also downstream land system changes. For example, our research group at the University of Kashmir has reported and deconstructed a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) that struck Gya Village, located some 80 km from Leh on Leh-Manali highway. In a changing climatic scenario, Jammu and Kashmir region might experience more such events.

A view of a village in north Kashmir during Snowfall on Wednesday, January 6, 2020. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

KL: Last fortnight we saw the Uttarakhand disaster that claimed many lives. Is Kashmir vulnerable to such accidents?

IR: Uttarakhand event is one of the first cases of a glacier detachment in the Himalayan region. The detachment was triggered by many factors and warming temperatures were one of them. It is pertinent to mention that January 2021 marked the warmest January in Uttarakhand considering the last six decades of meteorological records. Besides rehabilitation and drawing insights into what happened in Uttarakhand, the policymakers of all the countries across the Hindukush-Himalaya-Karakoram region need to involve the scientific community for identification of similar potential hotspots that could exist across the region and pose danger to people and infrastructure living downstream.  

KL: Are these types of incidents totally natural and thus cannot be stopped or they are man-made?

IR: Although we cannot fight nature, there are ways to mitigate disasters. There are a lot of intricacies involved as far as the incidence of such disasters is concerned but changing climate has a dominant control on the incidence of such disasters. It should be mandated to identify unstable slopes that have the potential to generate avalanche and limit infrastructure development in such areas.

KL: Is the building of power projects in such eco-sensitive zones pose a risk of a disaster?

IR: Yes, people boast that Jammu and Kashmir region has a hydropower generation capacity of 20000 MW that could help the economy of the region. But the development of the hydropower stations in areas with steep unstable glaciated slopes that could be potential future avalanche sites needs to be avoided.

KL: Environmental experts say that the number and area of glacier lakes will continue to increase in most regions in the coming decades and new lakes will develop closer to steep and potentially unstable mountain walls where lake outbursts can be more easily triggered by the impact of landslides. Can we stop it?

IR: We cannot stop the expansion of already existing glacial lakes and the formation of new ones considering the climate projections over the Himalayas but we can certainly limit or curb the infrastructure in the downstream areas of such glacial lakes.

An aerial view of Srinagar in Flood 2014. (KL Image by Special arrangement

The glacier shrinkage has already affected stream flows in the Kashmir valley and could affect agricultural production and hydropower generation in the region.

KL: Kashmir has traditionally been vulnerable to natural disasters on account of its unique geo-climatic conditions. This Himalayan state is more prone to these natural hazards and similar other hazards like floods, avalanches, landslides, earthquakes as we have seen it in 2014 or many other times in past? What measures need to be taken to avoid large-scale losses in the future?

IR: Considering the ecological fragility of the region we are living in, we need to build ecologically-resilient infrastructure based on scientifically robust land-use plans or be ready to face such calamities.

KL: What do you think should or can be done to ameliorate the effects of global warming going forward?

IR: We cannot curb climate change setting in Kashmir since atmospheric circulation patterns prevalent over Jammu and Kashmir region operate at a global scale.  However, we can think globally, act locally. I do not think there is any perspective land-use plan for the region aligned to UN Sustainable Development Goals. The civil society and also the subject experts have raised fingers on many master-plans, town-plans that exist for various areas of Jammu and Kashmir. Similarly, we can have a robust policy on making public transport more efficient. That will not only help reduce the commuting time but also decrease the concentration of air pollutants which are also climate forcing agents.

KL: What are the latest surveys or studies that show the changing patterns in our glaciers?

IR: Analysis of the satellite data, field-based observations and modelling experiments carried out at the University of Kashmir indicates that the glaciers over Jammu and Kashmir region are shrinking and at the same time losing mass at never before rates. Our group has mapped more than 200 pro-glacial lakes across the Jammu and Kashmir region and validated many of them in the field. These lakes not only accelerate the glacial melt but could be potential future glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) sites. The glacier shrinkage has already affected stream flows in the Kashmir valley and could affect agricultural production and hydropower generation in the region.

KL: What according to you have been the policy failures in Jammu and Kashmir with regard to the environment?

IR: We lack scientifically robust policies that aim to mitigate the impacts of climate change, glacier melt, and disasters in the region. For example, we do not see any tangible change after having experienced a once-in-a-century mega-flood in 2014. Urbanization in the south of Srinagar City which traditionally used to be a wetland, the floodplain has not been stopped. Conversion of irrigation-intensive rice paddies to built-up and orchards also needs to be scientifically looked into. 

KLHow impacted are the communities who depend on these glaciers for their livelihood?

IR: The impact of glacier changes on the communities is very clear. Many of the streams in Ladakh and also in Kashmir Valley have gone dry for example. That essentially means the water demand-supply ratio has got affected. Although the conversion of otherwise agricultural lands to horticulture is economically-driven, there is a significant footprint of climate change. Add to that the increased frequency of glacier-related hazards.

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