Receding glaciers and decreasing rainfalls are hitting sustenance farmers hard in Kashmir
Zareena Bano has had to skip school 17 times this year to help out on her family’s farm in Tangchekh, Kashmir of northern India. Her teachers say she has the potential to be a brilliant student, but warn that if she keeps missing school she will not go far.
Never before has the 15-year-old had to sacrifice her education in order to support her family. But an acute water crisis in this Himalayan state has made irrigation a constant worry and severely disrupted the way of life for thousands of farming families like her own.
“Sometimes, when water is in extremely short supply, we have to store water in small ponds that we dug ourselves and plastic containers,” says her father Gaffar Rathar. Troubled though he is by the toll the extra labour is taking on his daughter’s schoolwork, Rathar says he needs all the help he gets to work at his 2.5 acre paddy and walnut field.
Most residents of this lush valley are unaccustomed to drought. For generations, subsistence agriculturalists like Rathar have relied on steady rainfall and glacial rivers to irrigate their farmland.
But now the region is feeling the pinch of climate change. The most recent State of the Environment Report (SOER), released by the Directorate of Ecology, Environment, and Remote Sensing in Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar, says that all its monitoring stations across the state – except in Jammu, located in the plains 290km southeast from Srinagar – recorded a decrease in rainy days.
Jhelum, the largest river in the region, originates in South Kashmir and is fed by glaciers in the upper reaches near Pahalgam town. Jhelum’s primary tributary, the Lidder, is fed by the Kolhai glacier, which is receding fast.
Quoting a study conducted by Kashmir University’s geography department, Department Head Mohammad Sultan Bhat informs precipitation has decreased by 1.2cm in the lower regions and 8cm in higher altitudes since 1975.
According to figures in the most recent Kashmir Economic Survey, only 42 percent of agricultural land in Kashmir is covered by irrigation facilities like canals and lift stations, while the remaining is entirely dependent on rainfall.
Following the enforcement of the Big Landed Estates Abolition Act in 1959, over 9,000 landowners were stripped of over 100,000 hectares of land, which was transferred to peasants. This created an agrarian-based economy in Kashmir, upon which 80 per cent of the population is dependent.
Three out of four Kashmiri farmers cultivate paddy and these are the ones likely to be hit the hardest. They earn an average of $1,900 a year and produce up to 4000 kilos of paddy per hectare annually.
Earlier this year, scientists at Kashmir University had predicted increases in temperature and reduction in rainfall, and said rice production would decrease by 6.6 per cent in the next 25 years.
Already countless families are feeling the pinch of decreasing water supplies. Nasreena Begum, a mother of three children living in the village of Surigam in the northern Kupwara district, makes several treks a day to fetch water from a stagnant pond after the stream that once bordered her village has completely dried up.
In addition to drinking and washing water, she must also ensure that the family cow is properly watered, since her children rely heavily on the cow’s milk for nourishment. The five litres of milk she sells earns valuable income and supplements her labourer husband’s meagre earnings.
As the rains become thinner and the glacier-fed rivers slow to a trickle, she and many other farming families will be forced to hunker down to weather a hotter and drier Kashmir.