Representative image of glacier melt in the Himalayas. Photo: Kiril Rusev/Flickr CC BY NC ND 2.0
Kashmir: In 2020, Abdul Rashid decided to plant apple trees on his land in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district. He used to grow paddy and mustard earlier. But scarce irrigation in previous years had caused him huge losses. “The produce did not even pay for the labour or the seeds,” Rashid said.
Rashid is not the only Kashmiri to decide to convert his cropland into an orchard. Kashmiris have always relied on growing crops like rice, maize and wheat which require a lot of water. As glacier-fed streams dry up in this Himalayan region, farmers have no choice but to switch to drought-resistant crops or convert their croplands into orchards.
“I do not have to wait for my turn now to irrigate the land. It will take some time till these trees yield fruit, but it is better than seeing the crops perish,” said Rashid.
The Kolahoi glacier is the biggest in Kashmir and is the main source of water for the river Jhelum. But a study has shown that the glacier has lost 23% of its area since 1962 and has fragmented into smaller parts. “The snout retreat rates also suggest that the glacier has been in an imbalanced state between 1962 and 2018 and is not approaching equilibrium,” the study noted.
Several studies have suggested that glaciers in the Himalayas are retreating rapidly, affecting the water availability downstream. The glacial runoffs from the Hindu Kush and Himalayan mountain ranges that stretch from Afghanistan to China, also referred to as the Third Pole, feed Asia’s key rivers, which provide water for drinking, irrigation and hydroelectric energy. Over four billion people depend on glacial runoffs from these mountains.
A 2019 study reveals that glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region – which contains the world’s third-largest glacial ice cap and is home to ten major river basins and mountain peaks, such as Mount Everest – could lose more than a third of their volume by the end of the century even if world nations meet their most ambitious climate targets.
Similar impacts of Kolahoi glacier’s retreat trickle downstream. Experts said the glacier recession affects the irrigation of agricultural land.
A team led by Irfan Rashid, assistant professor of geoinformatics at the University of Kashmir, carried out an experiment to study how glacier depletion affected the downstream land use changes in the Kashmir Valley.
He said that around 30% of respondents in their survey attributed the shrinkage of agricultural lands and their subsequent conversion to apple orchards to depleted stream flows.
The team measured the glacier-fed streamflows at five sites and found statistically significant depleting trends that have been a factor in forcing extensive land system changes downstream.
The study found that the area under agriculture in the river Lidder watershed shrunk by 39%. At the same time, “there was a massive expansion of 176% and 476% in orchards and built-up areas, respectively, from 1980 to 2018,” Rashid added.
The results were indicative of the upstream-downstream linkages in the Himalayas. “Any changes in glaciers upstream shall have consequences on downstream land uses and associated socioeconomic sectors,” he added.
Around 70% of Kashmir’s population earns livelihood through farming. Most of the region’s agricultural land depends on the snowmelt that feeds streams and rivers. Therefore, the recession of glaciers translates into a direct impact on the socio-economic sector of the region.
Last year, the administration in some districts of Kashmir advised farmers against sowing paddy owing to water scarcity. The irrigation department of Kashmir in an advisory said “the accumulated snow (over mountains) is melting fast owing to high temperatures. The melting of snow indicates that this year the water level can get very low in summers which can create difficulties in this year’s irrigation season.”
Kashmir has lost 30,000 hectares of agricultural land in the last decade. Official records show that in 2012-13, the land under paddy in Kashmir was 162,309 hectares. In 2021-2022, the land under paddy cultivation was 134,067 hectares.
In central Kashmir’s Budgam district also, several farmers have shifted to orchards (apples mostly) from traditional paddy cultivation. Several farmers said the shift was more profitable.
One such farmer, Nazir Ahmad, said he planted high-density apple trees in what used to be a paddy field. “Our land depended on water from the Doodhganga canal. But it is now drying up. And there are no other irrigation facilities available. So I decided to plant apple trees instead of taking pains to wait for days to irrigate the paddy,” Ahmad said.
Doodhganga originates from glaciers in the Pir Panjal mountain range and irrigates agricultural lands in Budgam and parts of Srinagar.
Profitability also driving change
Ahmad said his earnings from the orchard are better than cultivating paddy. “Given how Doodhganga is drying up, I think others will also have to turn their farmlands into orchards,” he added.
Farhat Shaheen, an agricultural economist at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, said the shift from agriculture to horticulture is also driven by the principle of comparative advantage. “The farmers earn three-four times more from orchards than paddy,” Shaheen said.
Though the comparative advantage and the incentivisation of horticulture by the government have massively contributed to the change in agricultural practices in Kashmir, experts and studies maintain that climate change plays an important role.
If things continue like this, experts said, the Valley will lose a large portion of agricultural land.
Qadri Inzamam and Haziq Qadri are independent journalists. This story has been supported by the Environmental Reporting Collective (ERC).