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The summer of 2022 was unkind for the 30-odd farmers of Tandi village in Himachal Pradesh’s cold desert. Over 50% of their crops in the village in Lahaul and Spiti district were damaged due to scarcity of water for irrigation.

Romit Kumar, who grows peas and cauliflower on his 20-bigha farm (1.61 hectares) in the village, told Mongabay-India that his earnings from the peas crop last year were approximately Rs 2,00,000. This summer, peas fetched him only Rs 70,000.

Blaming it on the decline in snowfall precipitation and early snow melting, Kumar said that snow melt water from mountains and glaciers is the only major source of irrigation for farmers in Lahaul and Spiti, better known as the “cold desert” of Himachal Pradesh due to the harsh climatic conditions.

Lahaul and Spiti receive scant rain because they lie in the rain shadow region. There is very little to no rainfall during the crop sowing reason between April and May.

Monsoon season in the cold desert largely remains dry with reduced rainfall in comparison to other cities in Himachal Pradesh, said Kumar, conforming to what Himachal Pradesh’s meteorological data indicates.

Between June 1 and August 28 this year, the district’s actual rainfall was 107 millimetres against state’s average rainfall of 569 mm.

Kumar added that until a few years ago, November would bring with it the season’s first snowfall in the Lahaul and Spiti valley. By March, there would be a healthy snow cover of six to seven feet, which would then start melting at the time of sowing by March end or April and ensure enough water for irrigation. “It is no longer the case now,” he added.

In the last two winter seasons, snowfall has been far below normal in the upper reaches of the Himalayas including in the Lahaul and Spiti district, confirmed Himachal Pradesh’s meteorological department’s director Surender Paul.

Sumit Khemta, Deputy Commissioner of Lahaul and Spiti, too confirmed the same, saying that changing precipitation has affected snowmelt water availability in kuhls (traditionally built irrigation channels), in several parts of the district.

Chandrataal, a glacial lake in Lahaul Valley. Credit: Avalok Sastri via Pixabay.

He said kuhls are constructed alongside mountains to harness snow melt water and divert them to the agricultural fields for irrigation. “Since the channels were almost dry this summer, the farms lost moisture during and after sowing, leaving the crops in peril, added Khemta.

Rohit Sharma, the assistant commissioner of Lahaul and Spiti, confirmed to Mongabay-India that severe drought conditions, where crop loss was between 50 to 100%, were reported in as many as 76 villages out of 500 villages in the district this summer. Besides, in more than 50 villages crop loss was between 20%-50% this year.

“We have sent the report to the state revenue department as well as state disaster management authority to officially declare these villages as drought-hit areas and make provision for compensation,” he added.

Krishna, the sarpanch (village council leader) of Jahlma village, told Mongabay-India that in earlier years, snow melt water ran almost the whole year in kuhls, except for a few months in freezing winter.

She, however, added that water availability in kuhls has massively reduced in the past few years ever due to reduced snowfall and warming temperatures.

“This season, there was no water in kuhls, a situation we never faced earlier. As a result, we did not get adequate water to irrigate our fields, thereby causing a massive drop in our crop production as well as its quality,” she added.

The Bhaga River flows through Lahaul and Spiti district. Credit: Timothy Gonsalves, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Geologist Sunil Dhar, who has been studying snow and glacier retreat in Himachal Pradesh, said Lahaul and Spiti district has been struggling for the last two-three years due to less snowfall as well as early snowfall melting.

Dhar, associate professor at the Department of Geology, at the Government Post Graduate College, Dharamshala, said that above all there is continuous receding of glaciers as well, which is not good news, especially for those living in the upper reaches of the Himalayan region.

He said that in Himachal Pradesh, glaciers are receding at the pace of 10-15 metres a year since 2010, which is a matter of deep concern.

Last year, Himachal Pradesh Centre on Climate Change, which works under HP State Council For Science Technology and Environment, released a report, suggesting a 19% drop in snow cover in the state between October 2020 and May 2021.

Holding global warming responsible, SS Randhawa, senior scientist at the HP State Council For Science Technology and Environment, told Mongabay-India that numerous studies have indicated that the upper reaches of hills are becoming more vulnerable to global warming than lower areas.

For instance, this season, precipitation was late in higher reaches of the Himalayan region where Lahaul and Spiti too fall. Then suddenly there was a surge in temperature by five to six degrees Celsius, resulting in early melting of snow.

“As a result, there was very less or no snow melt water available in traditional irrigation sources when crop sowing began in April,” he added. On what can be possible solutions to these problems, Randhawa said, “We must go for conservation efforts and adapt fast to the changing climatic conditions.”

There are other extreme weather events too, affecting the livelihood of farmers, Krishna explained. She said for instance, there was a flood last year in July due to unprecedented rainfall, which they had not experienced earlier.

The flood washed away most bridges in the district, halting the district connectivity with the rest of the Himachal Pradesh for several days. As a result, vegetables grown by farmers could not be transported in time and perished in a few days, causing losses to farmers, she added

Changing crop patterns

A new study on sustainable agriculture in Lahaul and Spiti notes while glacier retreat and a decrease in snowfall imperil farmers’ livelihood, there was more to the problem.

The paper stated that over the last 20 years, there has been a shift in cropping patterns in the district from traditional and water resilient crops like barley to economically rewarding cash crops like cauliflower, cabbage and potato.

“But the water-intensive nature of these cash crops makes the cultivation climatically unsustainable, given that irrigation and water sources are already drying up fast in this region,” the authors wrote in the paper.

The paper, based on the primary survey of two villages – Ghoshal of Lahaul valley and Losar of Spiti valley – in the context of irrigation facilities, revealed that there was a significant increase in area, production and yield of cauliflower and cabbage in both these villages mainly due to their better returns as compared to green pea.

The rest of the district showed a similar trend. For instance, in 2005-06, the area under cauliflower was 33 hectares, which increased to 658 hectares in 2016-’17, almost 15% of the total cultivated area. On the contrary, barley crop came down from 608 hectares to 400 hectares during the same period.

On the other hand, around 60% of farmers interviewed in Ghoshal and 90% of farmers in the Losar said that lack of proper irrigation facility was a major constraint faced by them due to receding snow meltwater from glaciers and mountains in kuhls.

Study co-author Anupama Shashni from Panjab University, Chandigarh told Mongabay-India that households take turns to access and use the kuhl snowmelt water (called bari system). Every household is allotted fixed hours every day to use kuhl water as per the size of their farm and irrigation requirements.

Losar in Spiti. Credit: Timothy Gonsalves, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

But conflicts in villages have arisen due to drying kuhls as everyone is desperate to get their share of the water. While conflicts are still resolved at the community level since local communities in Lahaul and Spiti still heavily rely on one another, the crisis nonetheless is increasing, said Shashni.

The study calls for exploring water-saving irrigation methods in Lahaul and Spiti besides introducing new varieties of crops with greater tolerance towards drought conditions.

Shashni said it is difficult for farmers in Lahaul and Spiti to switch from water-resilient crops like barley to highly rewarding cash crops like cauliflower, cabbage and potato because of the economic gains arising from growing such crops.

“We, therefore, need to invest more in new varieties of cash crops that are water resilient besides exploring other means of irrigation sources,” she added.

The study also calls for timely repair of cemented kuhls and construction of storage tanks to avoid the wastage of water through leakage.

As per the study, policymakers should also check the feasibility of constructing innovative water harvesting structures like “artificial glaciers” and “ice stupas”, which have been built in Ladakh.

“Both aim at storing the glacial water in frozen form during the winter months and discharging the water to the fields during the sowing season in March and April when water is scarce for irrigation,” it added.

Desperate attempts

In a few places in the district, farmers have taken matters into their own hands by exploring alternative sources of irrigation. For instance, Tandi village has spent almost Rs 20 lakh by laying over a kilometre-long pipeline and building a pumping station to draw the water from the Chandra river flowing not far away from the village.

Kumar of Tandi village told Mongabay-India that all 30 households in the village contributed Rs 80,000 each. The trial run of the system took place last month and it was successful, he said.

“It was an expensive affair. But we had no other option. With water availability in the traditional kuhls uncertain, we can’t leave our crops to die one season after another. Also, it is a matter of our survival. Agriculture is the only source of living for us,” he added.

Residents of neighbouring villages have visited them following the success of the new system. Even the local politician visited the site and promised a grant to the village.

On how the local administration is planning to help farmers in overcoming irrigation problems, Deputy Commissioner Khemta told Mongabay-India that it is a matter of proper study, which will be taken up soon.

This article was first published on Mongabay.