Indian rescue workers and police look for survivors in the rubble of a collapsed house after flash floods in Thatri village in Doda district, 150 kilometers northeast of Jammu, on July 20, 2017. Photo: AFP
Indian rescue workers and police look for survivors in the rubble of a collapsed house after flash floods in Thatri village in Doda district, 150 kilometers northeast of Jammu, on July 20, 2017. Photo: AFP

India’s eco-sensitive Himalayan region of Jammu and Kashmir is no stranger to extreme weather conditions, but the dramatic swings it has been witnessing this year have alarmed both activists and scientists.

Some are warning that urbanization, unchecked construction work, the expansion of highways, power plants on agricultural and forest land and other overdevelopment could cause permanent damage, including the loss of green cover and a decline in food security.

“Large-scale deforestation, dwindling agricultural land, depleted water bodies and denuded landscapes have transformed the processes linked to hydrology, erosion and weather patterns in the Kashmir Valley,” Professor Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, head of the Earth Sciences Department at Kashmir University, told Asia Times.

“The authorities are ignorant, as they have other priorities.” 

Conditions were some of the driest for three decades between January and March, prompting the Jammu and Kashmir government to advise farmers in North Kashmir to sow pulses and other crops rather than paddy rice as river levels fell sharply and water became scarce.

Then a flood alert was declared last month in South Kashmir and Srinagar when the Jhelam River breached danger levels at Sangam, on the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway, after two days of heavy rain.

Climate change undoubtedly is having a bigger impact: On March 31 Srinagar recorded a maximum temperature of 28.3 degrees Celsius, an all-time high. This was 10.7 degrees above the norm.

Environmentalists are convinced that much of the fault for climatic changes is human interventions

Warming of the region is threatening glaciers, the main source of water in the bowl-shaped Kashmir Valley. The combined area of nine benchmark glaciers fell from 29 square kilometers in 1980 to 23.81 square kilometers by 2013, the most recent assessment. There have been five floods in that time and a decline in overall snow cover. 

Environmentalists are convinced that much of the fault for climatic changes human interventions, which have led to encroachment in wetlands, a shrinkage in the supply of cultivatable land, damage to forests and floodplains around Jhelum, and the overall mismanagement of resources. Villagers can see the impact firsthand.

Ashfaq Ahmad, 41, who grew up on the outskirts of Srinagar, vividly remembers how his small village was lush-green when he was a child. His family, who live along the embankment on the Jhelum River, battled with flash floods in June.

“The entire place was once a vast paddy field. The concrete jungle has replaced them over the last two decades,” he said.

Some fear that these changes could lead to another flooding crisis on the scale of the 2014 disaster, the worst this century, which claimed 460 lives, displaced a million people and caused estimated economic losses of 1 trillion rupees (US$14.5 billion).

“Considering the [lack of] preparedness exposed during the flash floods of last month, it appears the administration hasn’t learned any lesson,” said Farzana Iqbal, a medical practitioner in Srinagar.

Political instability has not helped. Last month the People’s Democratic Party and Bhartiya Janata Party alliance, which has overseen Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rehabilitation and reconstruction program for the past three years, abruptly collapsed three years before its term was due to end. Unrest, strikes and militancy have been regular features of life in the valley for years.

Farmland shrinking, wetlands vanishing

“There is the least regard paid to environmental laws in Jammu and  Kashmir. When life itself remains at stake, these issues take a back seat,” said Anil Raina, a senior journalist in Kashmir.

The J&K government, then under chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, announced in the Legislative Assembly last year that the state had lost a staggering 53,000 hectares of agricultural land during the past decade.

“The valley’s agricultural land has shrunk to one-27th of [its size in] 1953. Wetlands such as Dal Lake have been encroached on heavily,” Professor Romshoo said. “These were not only part of Kashmir’s ecosystem but also are used to accommodate excess water spilling over from Jhelum.

“The population in Srinagar has also grown 12 times and 23 times in area over the last century. The city has lost 22 wetlands to residential projects since 1972 alone,” he added.

As urbanization spreads, orchards of walnuts, almonds and apples are being acquired for the construction of roads, which will further dent the diminishing green cover.

“There is no land available in Srinagar now. Still, a ring road is being constructed for which orchards are being forcibly acquired by the government,” activist Raja Muzaffar Bhat said.

Nearly 50,000 hectares of prime forest land has been damaged by encroachment, mostly by hoteliers, resort owners, influential people and government employees

Tourism contributes enormously to the state’s economy, but the haphazard development of hotels and related infrastructure in the picturesque hills and dense forests of Pahalgam, Gulmarg and Patnitop has also taken a big toll on the environment.

Nearly 50,000 hectares of prime forestland has been damaged by encroachment, mostly by hoteliers, resort owners, influential people and government employees. A world-famous ski resort in Gulmarg was at risk until the High Court banned construction work in 2015.

“Continued political instability and insurgency have crippled the wheels of progress here, leading to massive corruption in bureaucracy and policy paralysis. The environment is the biggest casualty amid the prevailing situation,” said Farzana Mumtaz, editor of News Kashmir, an online weekly.

Even public infrastructure, such as national highways, roads and railway lines, which would be considered major indicators of development elsewhere, is being questioned in the valley, as it could interfere with the hydrology of the Jhelum basin.

“In a sensitive state like Jammu and Kashmir, there is no incentive for long-term policies. The governments usually rely on short-term projects aimed to benefit contractors or their core constituency,” Professor Romshoo said.

 Flood spill channels from the 175-kilometer-long Jhelum River, which originates in South Kashmir and flows through Srinagar and North Kashmir, has suffered from massive encroachment, for residential, industrial and commercial purposes. Capacity of the Srinagar  floodplain had fallen from 480 cubic meters per second to 110 over the years because of siltation. It was the major reason for the 2014 floods.

A massive dredging project costing US$19.6 million that was undertaken after the floods has boosted capacity to 280 cubic meters per second, and Jhelum and the flood spill channel together are able to hold up to 1,130 cubic meters per second of water in Srinagar. Yet it was not enough to absorb less than 150 millimeters of rainfall in June.

Food security may be under threat

“This is still grossly insufficient, because in 2014 the valley received 650mm of rainfall, equivalent to 0.12 million cusecs [cubic feet per second] of water,” or 3,400 cubic meters per second, said Romshoo. “Sustained efforts, investment and time are required to restore the floodplains lost due to silting and construction.”

Local production of grains such as rice, maize (corn) and wheat has not been able to keep pace with the rising demand. According to the Economic Survey, the state is becoming increasingly dependent on imports.

In the 2012-13 financial year, Jammu and Kashmir imported half a million metric tons of food grains from other states, and the quantity has now risen to almost a million metric tons, according to the Economic Survey 2017. This is approximately two-thirds of the local grains production.

In the past decade, the contribution by agriculture to the state’s gross domestic product has fallen from 28% to 16%, and analysts say the situation is likely to deteriorate if nothing is done. By 2090, according to one study, the maximum temperature in the valley will have risen by 5.4 degrees Celsius and precipitation levels will have fallen by about 16%.

The likely impact? Rice production is expected to decline by 29%.

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