When spring flooding in Kashmir’s Himalayan mountains drowned the mustard crops on Ghulam Hassan’s farm, he knew at least he would have his summer rice harvest to provide food for his family and fodder for his cattle.
But when summer came, the glacier-fed stream he uses to irrigate his crops filled to only a fraction of its usual level. His rice plants died of thirst and the corn and beans he tried to plant instead also perished.
“All this land you see around you was an upsetting sight in summer – farmland is of no worth if water is not available,” Hassan said, as he tied together a bale of grass gathered from around his farm in the village of Goripora, in the south of Kashmir.
Now the farmer is left with the painful choice between feeding his family or his animals.
“See my fate?” he asked. “I either have to sell off my cow and two bulls (to buy rice) or buy the fodder for them for the winter.”
Scientists have long warned that warming temperatures linked to climate change are eating into glaciers and ice sheets around the world, driving rising sea levels, floods and droughts.
In Kashmir, where nearly 70% of the population directly or indirectly makes an income through farming, mountain communities rely on a pattern of seasonal snowmelt to irrigate their crops, making them especially vulnerable when a heating climate brings unexpected rainfall instead of snow and causes glaciers to melt too fast and too early.
A study published in February in the journal Nature Geoscience said the world’s glaciers now contain far less ice than previously thought, having lost roughly 5.4 trillion tonnes of ice between 2000 and 2019.
Farhat Shaheen, an agricultural economist at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, said even marginal shifts in the pattern of snowmelt in the mountains will take a heavy toll as Kashmir’s farmers scramble to adapt.
“This will affect all sectors of the economy in general and farming in particular,” he said.
While there are no reliable figures on how much Kashmir’s agricultural industry has lost to extreme climate events, Shaheen said he has spoken to farmers in the region’s south who have lost up to 70% of their crops in a single season due to dry spells and floods.
Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, a glacier expert who heads the University of Kashmir’s department of earth sciences, has been monitoring seven glaciers in the regions of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh for the past six years.
He said studies by his team show that this year the glaciers have shrunk by an average 5 m (16 feet) compared to the average annual shrinkage of 1 m per year since he started collecting data.
Behind the accelerated melting are the record heatwaves much of the world has experienced over the past year, Romshoo said.
But even in years without exceptional heat spikes, he said, the Himalayas are getting hotter earlier in the spring, melting glaciers faster and sooner than usual and causing sudden intense flooding, which is exacerbated by increased rainfall.
Then, by the summer, when farmers depend on melting snow and ice to fill the area’s streams and irrigate their crops, there is not enough glacier melt available in the mountains, resulting in dry conditions.
If temperatures keep rising and “extraordinary glacier melting” becomes the norm, that could threaten food, energy and water security in the entire region, Romshoo warned in an interview.
Kashmir’s agriculture director, Choudhary Mohammad Iqbal, said his department is trying to help farmers adapt by offering up-to-date information about climate swings and seeks to provide immediate help when droughts or floods wipe out crops.
For example, he said, during a dry spell earlier this year, farmers in south Kashmir’s Dooru area were given five wells to help irrigate 125 acres of rice crops, while farmers in other areas were warned ahead of time to swap from growing rice to pulses, which require less water.
The regional government is also in the process of implementing a national crop insurance scheme that compensates farmers for losses caused by extreme weather events, Iqbal said.
Shaheen at University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology said the government should first focus on collecting better data on what kind of help Kashmir’s farmers need, then use those numbers to implement adaption strategies, such as creating water harvesting infrastructure, building up flood resistance and strengthening early warning systems.
In Chendargund, a tiny village in the foothills of the Pir Panjal mountain range, when villagers talk about the stream that engulfs their farms every two or three years, they say it has “broken our back”.
Saleema Begam, 55, described how, during the latest floods, surging waters cut off her home from the nearest road.
When her husband fell ill, her son had to carry his father on his back up to the main road, where they used a relative’s car to take him to the hospital. He made a full recovery.
A few months later, the stream has reduced to a trickle and is so full of silt that the family can no longer use it for drinking or cooking.
“We have no option but to use this dirty water only for washing dishes,” Begam said as she sat on the veranda of her house.
While their home is far enough from the stream to escape the floodwaters, she said her family worries that the hotter, wetter springs will one day trigger a landslide that could obliterate their house and crops, leaving them with nothing.
Begam gestured to cracks in the walls that she says are caused by the earth shifting underneath the house. Every time there are heavy rains, her family worries their home could collapse on top of them.
“Whenever it rains for several hours at a time in the spring, we often stay awake during the night because of fear,” she said.