In Kashmir, Bellwether Of India’s Changing Climate, Heatwaves, Receding Glaciers, Drying Rivers, Power Cuts & Falling Harvests

06 Nov 2023 11 min read  Share

Kashmir's cherished houseboats were stranded, rivers ran at historic lows, apple harvests were hit, and power cuts rose during an unusual but recently familiar heatwave—temperatures soared up to 10 deg C above normal—during the hottest September the world has ever recorded. Environmental damage, unregulated construction and government policies have exacerbated the effects of global warming and hit livelihoods in a region that reflects and affects subcontinental weather.

H B Gulshan Rose, a houseboat on the Jhelum river, is stranded for the first time in nearly 100 years as water levels fell to a 70-year low/ RAASHID ANDRABI

Srinagar: In September, the photo of a boat seemingly run aground circulated on Kashmir's social media, capturing the attention of locals, the media, photographers and the general public. The H B Gulshan Rose is a houseboat, and for nearly a century it has floated serenely on the sparkling waters of the Jhelum, the river that bisects the capital of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).

In the photo, the Gulshan Rose is stranded, with no water to keep it afloat, the first time this has ever happened in the living memory of Fayaz Ahmad Shagoo, 53, and his mother Raja Begum, in her 80’s, who have lived on and rented out the houseboat for half a century.

"For the past two months, we haven't had any tourists on board, as water levels dropped dramatically,” said Shagoo, a soft-spoken man dressed in an old salwar kameez. “This crisis threatens our iconic houseboats."

"Three houseboats on the Jhelum found themselves completely stranded, and several more suffered from the effects of this unprecedented heatwave," said Mohammad Yakoob, spokesperson of the Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association.

Shagoo, who studied till the 12th grade and has no other source of income, has been running the houseboat for 28 years. After Covid, tourists flocked to his four-bedroom houseboat, appointed with traditional Kashmir carpets, but over the last three months, he’s had no more than three each month, forcing him to continue doing what the pandemic forced him to do—work as a daily wage labourer. 

Large patches of the Jhelum went dry—there was some rain over the second half of October—as the river’s level fell to a 70-year low of 0.01 ft and Kashmir grappled with an unusual and unrelenting heatwave in September, the warmest September recorded globally, with 2023 on course to become the hottest year ever since record keeping began in 1659

Srinagar is bearing witness to temperatures unseen in a century, the latest evidence of a warming climate in a region known for its cold, snowy glaciers and mountains, clear waters and lush meadows. Those glaciers are now receding, at a rate faster than elsewhere in the Himalayas. The rivers they feed have less water than before, affecting everything from apple harvests, a primary rural income source, to water supply, irrigation, electricity supply & livelihoods.

Kashmir’s climate patterns are a bellwether for India, said experts, because its weather is influenced greatly by two primary climatic systems controlling subcontinental weather, and the health of the region’s glaciers, rivers and precipitation provide a forewarning to the rest of the peninsula.

The average annual mean maximum temperature over the Kashmir valley increased by 2 deg C between 1980 to 2020 (0.5 deg per decade), according to a July 2021 study published in Science Direct, a global journal, mirroring and outstripping a 0.2 deg C rise per decade recorded by a 2016 study of mean, maximum and minimum temperatures over the subcontinent between 1981 and 2010.

The Changing Climate

Meteorological officials attribute a dry spell that lasted from 3 August to 25 September across the Valley as the primary reason for the Jhelum's falling water level. Kashmir's weather patterns are not isolated, said experts, but are part of a complex web of global and regional climatic interactions. 

Srinagar experienced an 87.63% rainfall deficit in August 2023. It recorded only 9.5 mm of rainfall instead of the usual 76.8 mm and 73.33%  in September,  recording 20 mm of rainfall instead of the usual 75 mm.

The rainfall deficit in Srinagar is a cause for concern, as it could lead to water shortages and other problems. The Indian Meteorological Department has attributed the rainfall deficit to a combination of factors, including the El Niño weather phenomenon and the monsoon trough staying away from its normal position.

Kashmir’s climate, like the rest of the country's, is influenced by storms called the western disturbances, which originate in the Mediterranean and the Caspian sea,  and the summer monsoon. 

These climatic systems, in turn, are significantly impacted by global climatic forces, such as the warming effect called El Niño, and teleconnections, or links between distant global weather phenomena, said Mohammad Muslim, a senior assistant professor with the department of environmental science at the University of Kashmir.

“Western disturbances bring moisture and precipitation to the region (J&K), especially during the winter months,” said Muslim. “The behavior and intensity of these disturbances are subject to larger global atmospheric conditions.” 

For instance, said Muslim, a strong El Niño event, as is currently underway, can disrupt the monsoon circulation, affecting rainfall distribution across India, as is evident now in many parts of India.

In India, climate change is a growing concern with rising temperatures, shifting rainfall patterns, and increasing frequency of extreme weather events. These changes have widespread implications for agriculture, water resources, and human health. 

The base of Kashmir's Harmukh Glacier in August reveals only patches of snow. The region's glaciers are retreating faster than those in other Himalayan regions/ RAASHID ANDRABI

The Indian monsoon, a lifeline for agriculture, is becoming more erratic, coastal areas are threatened by warming seas, rising sea levels and stronger cyclones, impacting both coastal ecosystems and communities, and Himalayan glaciers—their moisture supplied by the summer monsoons—are receding across the Himalayas. These glaciers are sources for the rivers that water India’s great northern plains. 

Kashmir’s Great Dry

Kashmir has experienced similar climate shifts, such as early snowfall and drier winters. On 1 September 2023, Srinagar experienced its second-hottest September day ever recorded, with temperatures reaching 34.2 deg C, 6 deg  above the normal for this time of year.

“Typically, our autumn season is arid, but this year defied expectations with an exceptionally dry autumn,” said Muslim.

Sonum Lotus, director of the Srinagar meteorological office, said the second-highest September temperature recorded since the observatory was established in 1891, broke a 53-year-old record set on 1 September 1970, when it recorded 33.8 deg C. 

The highest September temperature recorded was 35.0 deg C on 18 September 1934. Average Kashmir September temperatures range between 24 and 28 deg C. 

"The temperature increase [has been] gradual, without a specific pattern,” said Lotus. “This year's exceptionally high heatwave is mainly due to the extended period of dry weather.” 

Mukhtar Ahmad, deputy director at the Srinagar meteorological office said prolonged dryness in August and September led to heatwave conditions. “Daytime temperatures across most stations soared 5-6 degrees above normal, firmly placing the region in a heat wave," said Ahmad.

In 2017, 2019, and 2021, temperatures often crossed 32 deg C, making the recent heatwave familiar, if more prolonged. The all-time highest September temperature in Srinagar was registered on 28 September 1934 at 35 deg C. Data from the India Meteorological Department reveals an annual rise of 0.05 deg C in Kashmir's temperature over 102 years, from 1901 to 2003.

On 14 September 2023, the water level at Sangam, the main measuring point for the Jhelum River in Srinagar, reached a historic low of 0.01 ft, which in 2022 was 0.50 ft. This decline marks the lowest September measurement in the past 70 years. 

The Jhelum, a lifeline for the region, revealed what it rarely did before: dry stretches in numerous locations, with men wandering to the middle of the river to fish.

People fishing in the middle of Srinagar's Jhelum River, which fell to a historic low in August and September 2023/ RAASHID ANDRABI

Manzoor Ahmad, 33, a fruit vendor who sets up his cart in Srinagar's downtown Lal Chowk, a historic square, said he had never seen the Jhelum as dry as it was in September. He also complained of the unusual severity of the sun. 

Water Shortages, Power Cuts

The consequences of declining water levels in the Jhelum have meant a severe water supply shortage, especially in Srinagar and swathes of north Kashmir, where the decrease in the river’s water levels has led to a drinking water crisis.

Since 68% of the Valley’s electricity comes from hydel power, electricity officials reported a decrease in generation by the region's powerhouses, leading to erratic power supplies and protests in the Valley.

Javed Yousuf Dar, chief engineer of the Kashmir Power Distribution Corporation Limited (KPDCL), acknowledged that reduced water levels in the Jhelum and Chenab rivers and other water bodies had led to power cuts, which were likely to increase as winter neared.

“Plummeting temperatures have increased the demand for electricity, prompting the KPDCL to implement power curtailment measures,” said Dar. 

Kunda Pani in Jammu and Kashmir's Bandipora district, known for its cold streams, is drying up, as temperatures in the Valley rose 2 deg C over 40 years/ RAASHID ANDRABI

An official from Kashmir's irrigation and flood control department, speaking on condition of anonymity, said measurements of water level in the Jhelum were affected by human activities, such as the removal of sand, as were the effects of climate change.

"Urban development has dramatically altered our landscape,” said Muslim. “We've witnessed heightened construction activity and a decline in green spaces, creating a 'heat island' effect in urban areas. This, in turn, affects local microclimates."

Apple Harvest Crisis

Declining water levels, limited rainfall, and soaring temperatures have cast a shadow over the region's famed apple harvest, leaving farmers and traders in an uncertain situation.

Nasir Ahmad Laway, a journalism graduate and apple farmer from Kulgam, 70 km South of Srinagar said the market was “very promising” but the apples did not appear ready. 

“They lack the vibrant colour and the taste that our apples are known for, all because of these two dry and hot months,” said Laway.

Kashmiri apples, traditionally a vibrant red at ripening, now exhibit a noticeable lack of color, as the Valley warms. Farmers reported a 15-day delay in ripening/ RAASHID ANDRABI

In the region of Shopian-Kulgam, known for its bountiful apple harvests, farmers reported a 15-day delay in the ripening of apples in autumn. "Traditionally, by the last week of September, our apples would be radiant and ready to be plucked,” said Laway. “However, the untimely leaf fall has taken a toll on our orchards, affecting even year-old trees."

"This year, our fruits lack the characteristic vibrant colour, juiciness, and they're far from being ready,” said Mohammad Ramzan Bhat, a Shopian apple farmer.

Kashmir is India’s leading producer of apples. More than 3 million people are directly or indirectly associated with the apple industry, considered the backbone of the local economy. The 2017 J&K economic survey in J&K said that half of Kashmir’s population of 6.9 million was directly or indirectly dependent on the apple industry.

Mohammed Amin, a technical officer at Kashmir’s directorate of horticulture said unusual weather had affected the apple harvest. "Hailstorms, followed by a relentless heat wave and drought-like conditions due to the absence of rain, have posed significant hurdles for our apple growers,” said Amin.

"These adversities have led to delayed fruit maturity and hindered the development of the vibrant hues associated with the Red Delicious apple variety," said Amin, who noted that farmers were moving to apple varietals that matured early.

Amin said both a more intense sun made fruit and trees susceptible to canker, a fungal disease that weakens and dries out branches.  Bhat pointed to a surge in pests, typically washed away by rainfall. 

"This year, they stubbornly persisted," said Bhat, who also said he had never seen so many leaves falling from trees.

The apple industry’s woes were made worse by a September decision by the union government to reduce import duties on apples from the US, part of a broader trade agreement granting market access for American steel and aluminum products in exchange for a reduction in tariffs on Washington apples, a US varietal. 

A Kashmiri farmer packs apples, which this year lacked their usual colour and juiciness, as apple trees struggled to adapt to a warming climate. Farmers reported more pests, late ripening and more falling leaves, all worsened by a government policy to reduce duties on apple imports/ RAASHID ANDRABI

From Snow to Scarcity

The autumn of 2023 appeared to be a followup to the change in its winter patterns and water sources that Kashmir has witnessed in recent decades. During a 40-day period called the chillai kalaan, marking the harshest stretch of winter, Kashmir was normally enveloped in snow. That has changed.

Snowfall, especially during the chillai kalaan, has decreased, with more wet snow and less powder snow, especially in Srinagar over the last 30 years. Gulmarg and Pahalgam, two famous tourist destinations in Kashmir show seasonal decreasing trends of snowfall of about 15 mm and 1.8 mm per decade. 

A 2009 study by Shakil Ramshoo, a glaciologist and earth scientist, revealed that the Kolahoi glacier, about 140 km north of Srinagar and a vital water source for the Jhelum, receded by almost 23 percent since 1962 and is now fragmented. 

Satellite mapping has shown a 28.82 % reduction in the glacier’s area between 1980 and 2018, surpassing declines in other Himalayan regions. Glaciers up to 4,200 m above sea level have disappeared, leaving only four “water bodies” with glacier sources.

"A few years ago, we experienced notably wet winters with substantial rainfall,” said Muslim, the environment science professor quoted previously. “However, the current outlook predicts an El Niño year, promising exceptional global heat. We have already witnessed record-breaking temperatures worldwide, and our region is no exception."

Over the past seven decades, El Niño has occurred 15 times, and during six of those instances, India received normal or above-normal rainfall. However, in the last four El Niño years, India faced drought conditions, with rainfall falling below 90% of the long-term average.

Muslim emphasised the amplified impact of the Indian summer monsoon and Western disturbances on Kashmir's weather. It was important, he said, to consider the regional context of larger continental and global climate changes.

Ideally, winter snow accumulates atop peaks in freezing temperatures, gradually melting as summer arrives. Recent trends reveal rising temperatures as early as February, leading to premature snowmelt and water that is not used by farmers because sowing begins later in  April.

Studies confirm that accumulated winter snow is on track to melt prematurely in the coming years due to projected temperature spikes in the basins of the Jhelum, Indus, Chenab and Ravi rivers. This transition may shift the peak of stream flows from summer to early spring, said experts. 

Muslim said the Valley’s changing climate had “repercussions for our water resources, including lakes and rivers, with far-reaching implications for the entire ecosystem”.

(Raashid Andrabi is a Srinagar-based journalist who writes on political, societal, and environmental matters.)

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