Vanishing Waters

Farmers are fast switching over to cash crops, abandoning traditional rice cultivation. But those who still grow the paddy lack the fundamental requirement – the water. As the fast melting glaciers and a gradually changing weather cycle is hampering the centuries-old routine, Shams Irfan offers a window to dark days ahead

Bilal Ahmad Lone pointing towards a dried up paddy field

Since February 2018, every morning Bilal Ahmad Lone, 35, a third generation farmer from Reshigund, in north Kashmir Kupwara, would go out and check the water-level in Reshi Kua Kul, a small three-feet wide stream that snakes past his four kanal rice fields. This stream, which flows down from the nearby forests, fed Lone and his fellow villager’s rice fields till last year, has dried up completely. “Last winter was one of the driest I can recall ever,” said Lone.

With just 37 mm of snowfall in recent winters, against an average of 198.2 mm (between December and February), Reshi Kua Kul, and other streams, which once irrigated large tracts of rice fields in Kashmir, have vanished.

As for May 15, paddy sowing season neared, Lone and other farmers in north Kashmir started to panic. The reason for their anxiety, apart from vanishing streams and rivulets, was a notice by state’s Irrigation Department, advising farmers “not to sow paddy this year as lack of snowfall and rainfall has left Jhelum River and streams dry. The notice, issued early February, in north Kashmir’s Kupwara, Bandipora and Ganderbal districts, warned farmers that given the situation, the department won’t be able to provide water for paddy cultivation. “They told us to go for dry crops like maize and pulses,” said Lone, whose primary source of income was the rice he grows in his fields. “Despite the (department’s) notice, I waited for rains till early June. But there were not enough rainfall even then,” said Lone.

Finally, in mid-June, Lone and other farmers in Reshigund switched to maize, a crop that they say is less rewarding in terms of returns. In order to compensate his losses, Lone plans to spend at least six months in Punjab this year. For centuries, Kashmiri peasantry has been migrating to Punjab plains to work as labourers, a trend that came to a close with the rise of apple economy and white collar jobs. In certain cases now, it is being revived.

Usually, Lone spends three months (November, December and January) in Punjab, where he sells Kashmiri Shawls and other handicraft items door-to-door. “I have no other option as I have to buy rice for my own consumption this year,” said Lone, a father of two sons and a daughter.

Given the fact that only 41 per cent of Kashmir’s agriculture land has irrigation facility, a large number of farmers are solely dependent on streams, brooks, rivers and rivulets, fed by rainfall and snowfall, for irrigation of their fields. The lack of adequate water has forced entire Sonawari belt in north Kashmir’s Bandipora, to sow alternatives crops like maize and pulses. Flood-prone, Sonawari is one of Kashmir’s main rice bowls.

“I have 14 kanals of land which used to give me 27 quintals of rice,” said Abdul Rehman Bhat, 47, a resident of Ganastan, in Bandipora. But after the government’s notice, Bhat did not sow paddy, as he used to do since ages, and instead cultivated maize. “How can maize, which has almost no demand locally, compensate my labour?” he asked. Most of the maize production in Kashmir goes into the making of poultry feed.

For the first time in the last three decades, since Bhat inherited this piece of land from his affluent father, he has to purchase rice from the market for his own consumption. “Nothing could be more painful for a farmer than purchasing rice,” he said in a sad tone.

But Bhat is not alone. Almost entire Ganastan village has shifted to maize as the water in streams and nallah’s started drying since January. “I have never seen such hot winters in my entire life,” said Bhat. “I guess our sins have angered Allah.”

Data available with India Meteorological Department’s (IMD) Srinagar centre, suggest that in last one decade Kashmir has witnessed a gradual rise in winter temperature. This change has led to warm and dry winters with no or less snowfall and rainfall. In January 2018, the average temperature in Srinagar remained between 12°C to 14°C, which is way above the average temperature of 6.9°C.

But the most worrying factor was a drastic change in winter temperature at places like Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonmarg. For instance, in Gulmarg, against an average temperature of 0.4°C in January, the mercury even crossed 9°C, which is almost 20 times more. In Pahalgam, the temperature in the same month touched 14°C, which is way too above average.

The experts believe that the rise in winter temperature hampered western disturbances from settling over Kashmir, which brings rains in north and northwest India, during these months. “We are expecting a dry August and September,” said Sonam Lotus, Kashmir’s most famous weatherman.

As the weather pattern changed across Kashmir, a number of farmers were forced to convert their paddy fields into orchards, thus requiring a minimum amount of water for cultivation.

Rice to Apple

The lack of proper rainfall and subsequent fall in rice production has forced Abdul Aziz Dar, 65, a resident of Babhar village in Pulwama, to convert his paddy fields into apple orchards.

In the last decade, almost every single rice fields surrounding Dar’s land was converted into an apple orchard.

“Because of climatic change and mindless construction, the streams that used to feed our fields have shrunken,” said Dar. “We tried our best to keep water flowing into our fields, but lack of rainfall and snowfall forced us to switch.”

According to government figures, in 1953-54, the area under fruit cultivation in the valley was just 12,400 hectares, which has now expanded to 325,000 hectares.

Interestingly, the area under agriculture has shrunken rapidly in the last three decades. In 1996, there were 163,000 hectares under agriculture in Kashmir, which got reduced to 141,000 hectares by 2012. That means every year Kashmir loses 1375 hectares of agricultural land to both construction and fruit.

In south Kashmir’s Pulwama, Shopian, Anantnag (Islamabad) and Kulgam districts, lack of returns from paddy, and looming drought conditions, has already forced farmers to switch to horticulture. This is despite the fact that rice is a staple food in Kashmir, which is grown over 141,000 hectares, with an average production of close to ten lakh tonnes a year, all of which is consumed locally. But the local production is not sufficient to meet the growing demand in Kashmir. In order to fill the gap, Kashmir imports around five lakh tons of rice (2015-16) from states like Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.

An irrigation canal showing drought conditions

Interestingly, two decades back, Kashmir had imported just 79,000 tonnes of rice. “It is simple. We are going backwards. The more food we need, the less food we grow now,” said Abdul Aziz Mir, 78, a farmer who recently sold his rice fields in Awantipora and brought apple orchards in neighbouring Pulwama. “Only government can help by making water available. Else, there will be no rice fields in Kashmir, only apple and pears.”

This is incorrect that everybody wants to get into horticulture and make money. There are some wise old men who do not want to switch over. In Nayer-Tahab belt, an octogenarian is a legend. As all the neighbours around his fields converted their land into apple orchards, he resisted and continued with the rice. “One day, his immediate neighbours came and constructed his home on his paddy field’s boundary and it blocked water supply to his fields,” one of the old man’s neighbour’s said. “The man decided to have a borewell within his land and it fed his fields for two seasons and then it dried up.”

In stage second, the man invested heavily in a water pump that would get water from a small stream and feed his rice fields. “It also continued for two years till the stream dried up,” the neighbour said. “Finally he gave up and I think he wants to have an apple orchard now.”


In February 2018, after a long dry spell of over eight months, a communication was sent to Public Health Engineering (PHE) department, asking it to make an assessment and give inputs about how to handle the situation if the dry spell continues. Given the seriousness of the issue, all 24 heads of PHE divisions of Kashmir were sent this communication. This was done after the state government was communicated about the ground situation in Kashmir valley, as almost all sources of water including streams, brooks, rivers and nallahs have started to dry up. The situation was grim as only 17 per cent of Kashmir’s households (2011 Census) have access to untreated tap water, while the rest of the population relies on streams, rivers, and lakes for drinking water. According to the 2011 Census, 23 per cent of people living in urban areas fetches water from outside their homes, while in rural areas 65 per cent of people rely on outside sources.

But most of Kashmir valley’s eight lakh, between north and south, rely on River Jhelum for their water needs.

In October 2017, Jhelum recorded the lowest water level ever measured at just 0.65 mm. Since then, there have been inconsistent rains, which made Jhelum’s level go up, or even in some instances cross the danger mark. In June 2018, the discharge in Jhelum has fallen to less than 700 cusecs, which usually is above 1200 cusecs at this time. Apart from that, more than half of the existing 1400 drinking water supply schemes were affected. “There are a few schemes which have dried up completely in last few months because of the prolonged dry spell,” said a PHE official who is posted in south Kashmir. “If this weather trend continues, it will be hard to provide even drinking water.”

In normal circumstances, the PHE department maintains a per capita supply of 135 litres in the cities, 70 litres in towns and 40 litres in villages. But the lack of precipitation has affected rural areas in Kashmir mostly as the PHE department supplies just 75 million gallons a day (MGD) against a requirement of 85 MGD at present. Out of what PHE supplies, a large portion of water gets lost because of the poor distribution network, especially pipes, which are over seven decades old. The PHE has sought Rs 700 crore for the upgrade of infrastructure in light of drought-like conditions in Kashmir.

But according to a PHE official, who wishes not to be named, funds are often hard to come by. The new water supply schemes commissioned in the last decade are still waiting for funds, and political interference said the official.

These include newly allotted water supply schemes in places like Srinagar (98), Bandipora (89), Ganderbal (73), Baramulla (173), Anantnag (156), Budgam (111), Kupwara (109), Kulgam (101) and Shopian (90).

Melting Ice

Whatever discharge the Kashmiri water bodies is coming at a huge cost. Almost all the glaciers are melting fast.

In 1980, the total glaciated area of the nine benchmark glaciers was 29.01 sq km, which in 2013 got reduced to 23.81 sq km. Recent research has highlighted that Srinagar is facing one of the highest black carbon (caused due to incomplete combustion of fossil fuel) pollution, nearly as much as in Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world.

The loss of mass in glaciers directly affects the flow in Chenab, Jhelum and Indus River.

Glaciers are shrinking as much as 15-18 metres a year and, in the past 70 years, Kashmir has lost three major glaciers. During the last half a century, two mountain ranges, Shamasbari and Pir Panchal, have lost all their glaciers.

This situation is an indicator of a very harsh situation in the coming days. While it will impact food security and cash crops, the larger crisis will be witnessed by the ecology of the place. The weather cycle prevalent in Kashmir indicates an onset of desertification. The lush green environs may fade away by the turn of this century.

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