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Climate change spells trouble for Kashmiri farmers

February 24, 2022
topic:Climate Change
tags:#farming, #climate change, #drought, #Kashmir
by:Sameer Mushtaq, Suhail Bhat
Freak snowstorms and droughts are wreaking havoc on farms across Jammu and Kashmir. FairPlanet spoke to local farmers and scientific experts who shed some light on why the region is particularly vulnerable to climate change.

Abdul Hamid Ganie, a 50-year-old farmer whose apple orchards are located in the Heerapora area of south Kashmir's Shopian district, suffered grave losses for the past three years. He grew the trees in a conventional manner, and it took about 10-12 years for them to bear fruit, but an early snowfall all but ruined his hard work. 

"This is what we rely on. The orchard was completely destroyed this year due to the snowfall. I attempted to repair the shattered branches and trees by tying them together, but I doubt they will work. They are going to dry up, I believe," Ganie said. 

The apple crate, which could have earned him between Rs 1,000 and Rs 1,200 if the apples had not been bruised and gathered properly, was instead sold for Rs 400-500. "We paid around Rs 1,000–1,200 for the people we hired to harvest the produce. We couldn’t earn anything," he lamented. 

In October 2021, an unexpected snowfall in India-administered Kashmir destroyed apple orchards, resulting in the loss of 40 percent of ready-to-pick fruit in the region. For the third year in a row, apple growers have lost half of their crops owing to early snowfall, and many are rightly concerned about the future of the region's orchards. 

The apple business accounts for about a third of the local economy - 50 billion rupees ($660,000) - and apple farming supports thousands of families in the area.

While the government has yet to quantify the damages suffered by the apple sector this year, the harvest losses in the previous two seasons have been significant. These unprecedented weather events were declared ‘natural calamities' by the local authorities. 

increasingly frequent natural calamities

Ganie added that unusual weather events such as hail storms and severe winds are becoming more common in Kashmir, and indicated that the situation was different 10 to 15 years ago. 

"I am baffled as to why this is occurring. Lately, the weather has become incredibly unpredictable. I have never seen anything like it before. Snow used to fall after the harvest was completed, but now it falls as the crop is being gathered. When we need sunshine, we get rain, and vice versa," he explained.

Sonam Loutus, director of Meteorological Kashmir, echoed Ganie’s statements and told FairPlanet that climate change is as much a reality in Jammu and Kashmir as it is in other parts of the world. His organisation is now trying to assist farmers with accurate weather updates. 

"The consequences of climate change are also a reality in Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. There are numerous signs, such as the extreme intensity and distribution of snow, as well as the strength and severity of meteorological systems throughout time and place," said Loutus. "We are employing technology to predict these weather occurrences ahead of time so we can be better prepared to cope with them."

Are high-density apple trees a solution?

In an attempt to deal with the crisis, the government introduced high-density apple trees that bear fruit early and can endure the harsh weather. Over the past few years, the government has planted these trees on roughly 5,000 kanals (625 acres) of land. Not only did the trees yield fruit before the early snowfall, but the produce has also been of good quality. "To tackle climate change, we have to change our varieties and the fertility of the soil," Aijaz Ahmad, director of Horticulture Kashmir, told FairPlanet. 

Abdul Rashid Bhat, who has been cultivating apples in South Kashmir for the past 25 years, has switched to a new farming technique in order to boost productivity and adapt to shifting weather patterns. Bhat told FairPlanet that he believes this high-density orchard is better for farmers than the traditional orchard, which requires more labour and produces less fruit.

His traditional apple orchard, which was 20 years old and spanned 12 kanals (1.2 acres) of land, would yield 1,000 - 12,000 boxes. "This is our third year of growing this orchard, and each year I receive close to 1,000 apple boxes. As the plants develop and the rates improve, I expect them to yield double as much as before in a few years," Bhat said. 

Saffron faces hardships as well

While the apple sector is grappling with heavy snowfall, saffron, the world's most expensive spice, is suffering from a drought. In the last decade, infrequent precipitation has reduced production by 50 percent, affecting around 3,000 farmers who cultivate the crop on around 3,500 hectares of land in the Southern Pampore area.

India is among a few countries that produce saffron in the world, and much of its production comes from Kashmir. Saffron is in high demand in the domestic market, and due to a drop in output over the years, the country has become reliant on imports from countries such as Iran. Only 10-20 percent of the saffron in the Indian market now comes from Kashmir - a decline of approximately 80 percent.

Adul Majeed, a saffron grower, told FairPlanet that production has declined over the years due to drought-like conditions. "The drought has caused damage to the majority of our seeds. Saffron cannot be grown without irrigation due to changing climate conditions," he said. 

Thousands of saffron growers, such as Majeed, who cultivate the crop, are looking forward to the installation of irrigation wells, which would improve their productivity. 

To combat the diminishing saffron production, the Indian government had launched a $54 million ‘National Saffron Mission’ in 2010: an irrigation sprinkler system which aims to mitigate the area's dry spells. Over the past decade, the government has drilled over 101 borewells for saffron field irrigation, but the bulk of them are lying defunct, as farmers in the region did not have the knowledge of when best to irrigate the saffron fields with the sprinkler system. 

Melting glaciers trigger droughts

According to Shakeel Ramshoo, head of the Earth Sciences Department at the University of Kashmir, Jammu and Kashmir is particularly vulnerable to climate change. "The impacts here are very severe because we are sitting on the water tower of Asia. One of the direct impacts of climate change is the melting of the glaciers in Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh,” he said. 

Ramshoo went on to say that the water that emanates from these glaciers is used by people throughout South Asia, and around 200 million people are benefiting from these glaciers. 

"Every year you go to a glacier, you see it has retreated by 20 meters. The thickness of the glaciers has reduced to almost a meter, and this has affected the water resources," he said, warning that the region would face a severe water crisis if climate change is not taken seriously. 

"People living downstream on the Indus in Pakistan are already facing a lot of water scarcity, so it is only a matter of time before we have water problems here as well. As per our research, we have predicted that we will have significant unmet water demands beyond 2050," he said.

Image by Sameer Mushtaq.

Article written by:
Sameer Mushtaq
Sameer Mushtaq
Suhail Bhat Picture
Suhail Bhat
Adbul Rashid removes snow from apples to reduce harm In the Shopain area of Southern Kashmir.
Adbul Rashid removes snow from apples to reduce harm In the Shopain area of Southern Kashmir.
A heap of damaged apples lies in an orchid in southern Kashmir’s Kulgam area.
A heap of damaged apples lies in an orchid in southern Kashmir’s Kulgam area.
A view of a derelict irrigation well in the Pampore area of Pulwama district in southern Kashmir.
A view of a derelict irrigation well in the Pampore area of Pulwama district in southern Kashmir.
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