Climate change: Clear and present danger in Kashmir

While the focus has been on tackling insurgency and bringing political stability in Kashmir, environmental issues are taking a toll


Mohammed Muzaffar Bhat, 69, in front of his house that was destroyed by the September floods, in Jawahar Nagar, Srinagar. Photo: Ananda Banerjee/Mint
Mohammed Muzaffar Bhat, 69, in front of his house that was destroyed by the September floods, in Jawahar Nagar, Srinagar. Photo: Ananda Banerjee/Mint

Srinagar/Bandipora: It is early April in Srinagar and the Tulip Garden is resplendent with multi-coloured blossoms, but there is a miasma of despair hanging over the city.

Unseasonal rains in March have left a trail of destruction even as the city is yet to recover from the floods that ravaged it in September.

In March, like in September, the Jhelum, which meanders through the city, overflowed. The city still bears the scars from September’s deluge, which submerged it for a month.

Still worse, the late-March rains have prompted a rash of cancellations by tourists—hitting an important source of revenue for the city’s residents.

One expert says the freak weather in the valley is on account of climate change. It has made people afraid, adds Tej Partap, vice-chancellor of the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology of Kashmir, Srinagar.

“There is hardly a family in Srinagar and surrounding areas which has escaped from the wrath of freak weather ushered by climate change in the Himalayas. Today, an undercurrent of fear has gripped the people who are trying to resurrect their lives on the banks of Jhelum. They fear that the floods will come again as repercussions of unseasonal rain and snow,” Partap added.

Fear of the weather seems to have replaced the muted anxiety about earthquakes; the Kashmir valley is prone to earthquakes.

So much so that the local weather office, “overlooked as a non-essential government institution” according to Partap, is now being “taken seriously”.

Indeed, Sonam Lotus, the director of the weather office, is a household name in the city, with more than 22,000 followers on Facebook. Lotus says: “I can only predict the weather based on models we have created in the office but I cannot say how much it will rain or snow. Climatologically, September is not a rainy season in Kashmir but the interaction of monsoon current and Western disturbances over the state led to heavy rain and flooding last year. A similar Western disturbance was the cause of unseasonal rain and snow in March.”

The larger reason, experts are clear, is climate change.

Government negotiators from around the world will meet in Paris from 30 November to 11 December this year to try and sew up a binding agreement on climate change at the 21st UN Climate Change Conference.

Hot in Kashmir

The Kashmir valley has seen a rise in temperatures over the years, said G.M. Dar, associate professor (rural development), disaster management centre, J&K Institute of Management, Public Administration and Rural Development, Srinagar.

“The rise in temperature is a global phenomenon. We have released excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and even if Kashmiris now venture into large-scale afforestation programme, it won’t change anything,” adds Partap, who is also an ecologist and an expert on mountain environment.

“Even half-a-degree change in temperature in the Himalayan region is enough to cause irreversible changes.”

A report prepared for the state’s department of ecology, environment and remote sensing in 2013 claimed average temperatures in the Kashmir valley had risen 1.45 degrees Celsius over two decades.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body under the United Nations, has proven that emission of greenhouses gases, where carbon dioxide is predominant, has altered weather conditions globally. The atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration in 2013 was 43% above the concentration at the start of the Industrial Revolution. In 2013, global carbon dioxide emissions due to fossil fuel use were 36 gigatonnes. This is 61% higher than 1990. Last year, global carbon dioxide emissions were projected to increase by an additional 2.5% over the 2013 level.

As a result of rising temperatures, in Kashmir, “over the past 50 years, hundreds of natural springs and streams have dried up, prompting people to encroach floodplains. Many areas have witnessed a complete disappearance of small glaciers as the snowfall period gradually shifted from December-January to February-March”, added Dar.

Unplanned development has made matters worse.

Unplanned development

In Srinagar, the devastation of September is still evident in Rajbagh and Jawahar Nagar, once affluent neighbourhoods. Here, water marks are visible on the first floor of houses, like scars that refuse to go away. Those are the houses of the lucky few; many others have had theirs reduced to rubble.

“Houses can be rebuilt, but memories cannot,” laments Mohammed Muzaffar Bhat, 69, standing on rubble that was once his sprawling house. Kulbhushan Singh, 50, Bhat’s neighbour, was planning his daughter’s wedding, which was supposed to have taken place in March, but the flood waters washed away all of the family’s material possessions.

Every family in the colony has a tale to tell. Manmohan Singh, 47, who ran a boutique on the ground floor of his house is under treatment for depression.

Rajbagh and Jawahar Nagar are built upon the floodplains of the Jhelum.

Saleem Beg, former director general, Jammu and Kashmir Tourism, presently member, National Monuments Authority, government of India, claims that during the last big flood in the state, in 1957, there were no human settlements in Rajbagh and floodwaters from Jhelum merely reclaimed the river’s floodplains.

Beg’s comment came in a speech to delegates at a workshop on climate change adaptation in the Himalayas.

Srinagar lies cradled in the bowl-shaped Kashmir valley, surrounded by mountains. The city is teeming with 1.5 million people and every bit of available land has been grabbed and constructed upon. Iftikhar Hakim, chief town planner, Srinagar, blames this haphazard development for the city’s woes.

Human encroachment and tourism activity has reduced the city’s iconic Dal Lake to a sixth of its original size – from around 75 sq. km to 12 sq. km. Similarly the Wular Lake has shrunk from 159.74 sq. km to 86.71 sq. km from 1911 to 2007. Beg refers to these wetlands as Srinagar’s lost saviours.

From 1911 to 2004, Srinagar lost more than 50% of its water bodies because of unplanned urbanization.

The result: excess water from the Jhelum has nowhere to flow; wetlands which were natural sinks are converted into agricultural fields and residential areas.

Kashmir, which once earned the sobriquet “Paradise on Earth” from the Persian poet Amir-e-Khusru Dehluvi, is at the crossroads of an environmental crisis. Climate change has not only hurt thousands of people but has also affected wildlife—for instance, altering hibernation patterns of the endangered Himalayan Black Bears in Dachigam National Park, situated just outside Srinagar.

For now, all eyes are on the new state government and its policies towards mitigation measures. The rest will depend on how the world comes together in Paris later this year.

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