In the vast saffron-growing land of Pampore, a national highway cuts through the middle. Ishfaq Ahmad, a saffron grower, is pondering the future of this land. His eyes are glued to the green twigs coming out of saffron beds. He misses the festive charm that once was a common sight in these vast karewa tablelands.

The soft soils of the karewas sustain Kashmir Valley’s agriculture – Kashmir’s iconic saffron, apples and almonds. These ancient plateaus are also home to fossils of megabeasts and plants that thrived in the region and are clues to Earth’s past. But these ancient formations are now caught in the throes of rapid urbanisation, unplanned development and extractive land use.

Formed around four million years ago, karewas (or wudur), as Indian paleontologist/paleobotanist Birbal Sahni described it in a 1936 article, are “more or less flat terraces or tablelands which cover a great part of the Kashmir Valley, especially on the left bank of the Jhelum”.

Kashmir was home to a huge freshwater lake in the past. But the ancient lake receded as mountain ranges shifted and soil formation known as karewas was formed four million years ago. Credit: Shaz Syed/Mongabay

Karewas are alluvial deposits of different soil and sediments such as sand, clay, silt, shale, mud, lignite and loess. Geologist Godwin-Austen first used the term karewas in the year 1859. The karewas of Kashmir occupy nearly an area of 2500 square kilometres, spread across the Valley.

“Karewas are soft sediments. Normally, they consist of clay and sand. However, some beds may also contain boulders, prints of volcanic ash and coal in some places. The rest of the lithology of Kashmir consists of hard rocks and are identifiable to the naked eye,” said scientist Rayees Ahmad Shah on the difference between karewas and typical mountain ranges of the Valley. Shah works on processes and mechanisms that shape landscapes and geohazards in mountain environments.


Karewas for livelihood

“Karewas also have a significant importance in the economy of the Valley,” said Sringar-based activist Raja Muzaffar Bhat. Born and brought up in Budgam, Bhat called karewas his “second home”.

“This land, dotted with almond and walnut trees, makes up 80% of the Budgam district,” Muzaffar said while looking at an almond orchard. “With these patches of land getting depleted, cultivation of cash crops such as saffron in the Valley has been affected,” Bhat said.

According to Shah, the upper layer, or the Dilpur formation of karewas is very fertile. It consists of loess sediments, largely composed of silt-sized grains and are highly porous. The softness of this soil makes it ideal for agricultural activities. “The saffron corm remains dormant for many months. For that period of time, it needs a limited amount of moisture. So, the moisture-retaining quality of this formation makes it ideal for saffron farming,” said Shah.

The karewas are rich in nutrients and are key to the region’s agricultural prowess in saffron and almonds. Credit: Shaz Syed/Mongabay

Shah looks at karewas from a different perspective. “For me, karewas are like open books. They came up millions of years ago. They are an asset to the scientific community as they contain data of millions of years.” The karewas beds can help study the climatic condition of the period they were formed. Moreover, the faults and folds of karewas are important to know about the tectonic activities that happened in the Valley. “Karewas are our geological treasures that need to be studied properly.”

Shah laments the lack of public knowledge on karewas. “Hardly one percent of the population of the Valley knows about them and their importance. There are very few studies about karewas.”

For the locals of Pampore area of Kashmir, karewas are a livelihood asset. In the chilly autumn mornings, farmers of this area go to their karewa fields to plough the land and prepare it for saffron cultivation. However, according to farmer Ishfaq Ahmad, saffron farming has seen a drastic downfall, with land use change as one of the reasons.

“The conversion of karewas into residential spaces has very much affected our saffron growing capacity,” he said. Bhat added, “If we continue to lose karewas, it will have a major impact on our economy.”

Activist Raja Muzaffar Bhat in a patch of land where karewas were mined. He highlights that karewas need conservation for their geological and ecological value. Credit: Shaz Syed/Mongabay

Threats to karewas

From 2015 to 2016, Shah visited karewas in Nagbal area of Ganderbal district. After preliminary research, it was found that the site contained data that was studied to determine the climate of the last 65,000 years of the Valley.

But “nobody can go to that site again or even see it” because of ‘illegal’ mining, Shah said.

Bhat also corroborates illegal and unregulated mining as one of the major threats to the karewas. “Earlier, the soft soil was used by local potters to make different types of pottery. However, after the induction of demolition machinery by illegal miners, the once-marvelous looking karewas look bombarded now,” laments Bhat.

“From construction to filling of lowlands or setting the base of highways, karewas are being mined tirelessly without keeping in view their importance,” he added.

Queries sent to the District Collector’s Office, Budgam, regarding the mining of karewas remain unanswered at the time of publishing.

The karewas are imperilled by rapid urbanisation and illegal extractive land uses. Karewa soils now line the base of highways or railway tracks and karewas sites are being converted to commercial residential areas. Credit: Shaz Syed/Mongabay

In the saffron town, Pampore, Ishfaq Ahmad said, due to the increasing needs of the people, they have started converting saffron fields into commercial areas. And this will “highly affect this (saffron) business,” he added.

Kashmir is nestled between Pir Panjal Range and the Himalayan Range, making karewas a soft target for land extraction. The topography of Kashmir is such that the surrounding ranges consist of hard rocks, hence making mining difficult.

“Budgam district has seen a rapid multiplication of growing brick kilns. It directly affects the karewas as the soil used for making bricks comes from them,” said Muzaffar Bhat. He said the karewas started crumbling in the 1990s after the Qazigund Baramulla railway project began in Kashmir. The material which has been used for making elevated railway tracks from Qazigund to Baramulla has 90% of the soil extracted from the karewas.

The locals of Budgam believe that the increasing vehicular movement of trucks during night hours has severely affected the air quality. “Our children can’t even study during night hours. These trucks, loaded with soil, not only affect our air quality but also create unbearable noise,” said a local community member. “Most of the mining activities are carried out under the blanket of darkness. They want to mine as much soil as possible. So, every driver remains in a hurry. This has created havoc in our area. The dust is visible even on the leaves of plants,” he further adds.

According to Shah, the loss of karewas is a direct loss to the scientific community. “Western winds dominate our weather. By studying the karewas, we can even predict the future climatic conditions of Europe. But unfortunately, by destroying the karewas our data is getting destroyed.”

Karewas are alluvial deposits of different soil and sediments such as sand, clay, silt, shale, mud, lignite and loess. Credit: Shaz Syed/Mongabay

“As mining is the major threat to karewas and most of the material of karewas is used for construction of highways, including the under-construction Semi Ring Road, the government should look for alternatives,” suggested Bhat. “Instead of karewa soil, they can use the silt from various flood channels. This will also increase their flow capacity.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.