One day in May 2022, Tasleema Bano was filled with worry. Her father had taken their flock of almost 500 sheep to graze in the mountains and not returned home even as dangerous black clouds were engulfing their village of Haknar in Kashmir.

A little while later, a neighbour told her that lightning had struck the flock on the mountain. When Tasleema Bano and her neighbour got to the meadow, they found that 63 sheep had died. Her brother, Abdul Rashid Chopan, had fallen unconscious but had since been revived. “Everyone’s hands were shaking,” said Tasleema.

Her father Abdul Salam Chopan said, “I have not seen such lightning occurrences before.”

Tasleema and her family belong to the Chopan community. The Chopans, along with the Gujjar and Bakarwal communities, are nomadic herders who spend six months of the year grazing sheep and goats in Kashmir’s meadows.

Abdul Rashid watches his flock. Credit: Rajeev Tyagi.

They are desperately poor, surveys show. Infrastructure projects are constantly disrupting their migration routes and displacing them from traditional grazing grounds. Their shifting residence patterns mean that their children do not attend school regularly.

Now, climate change-induced extreme weather events such as more frequent lightning strikes are posing a significant threat to their livelihood.

According to the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, the number of lightning incidents in Jammu and Kashmir has risen from 65,666 in 2019 to 174,332 in 2022 – an increase of 172%.

The administration does not keep statistics specifically for lightning incidents but 6,541 livestock deaths due to natural calamities were reported in 2022-’23, said an official in the Sheep Husbandry department who asked to remain unidentified.

Across India, lightning strikes increased by approximately 25% from 1998 to 2014, according to scientists from the Divecha Centre for Climate Change at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. Between 2020 and 2022, a 34% increase was recorded, according to the Annual Lightning Report 2020-2022.

In 2021, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, lightning incidents claimed 2,800 lives across India. Lightning incidents accounted for 35.8% of deaths in India caused by forces of nature in 2022.

In Kashmir, the lack of data collection and reporting mechanisms suggests that lightning-related incidents are being undercounted, experts say.

None of the governmental organisations contacted for this story – the Animal Husbandry Department Kashmir, the Directorate of Sheep Husbandry Kashmir and the Department of Disaster Management – were able to provide data on the deaths of sheep or goats in lightning incidents.

Dr Khalid Omer, an assistant veterinary surgeon in the Department of Sheep Husbandry Kashmir, said that his unit does submit reports to their supervisors on the cause of deaths of livestock. But this data does not make it to the final records.

The government official responsible for the inspection of the livestock said that he had limited knowledge about the science of lightning. Most often, the cause of sheep that die in such incidents is attributed to a cloudburst, he said, because the Kashmiri words “trath” or “narah trath” describe both cloudbursts and lightning strikes.

The incident in May was not the Chopan community’s first brush with lightning strikes. In 2015, Mushtaq Ahmad Chopan said that his father, uncle and brother were left unconscious by a lightning strike in Dabipora village in Budgam district, “After a few minutes everyone got up, except my brother,” he said.

His father, Gaffar Chopan, said that after he gained consciousness, he reached out to give his son some water. “His last words were that he was dying.”

After almost one-and-a-half years, the compensation process was completed. Gaffar Chopan said, “During the entire process we spent our own money… we received compensation for our brother’s death but not for the five sheep that died.”

The Union Territory’s guidelines for supporting livestock farmers in case of disasters say that the government will provide compensation by replacing the lost sheep or goats. However, there is a limit to this compensation, with a maximum of 30 animals per beneficiary.

But many believe that the compensation is inadequate. Tasleema Bano in Haknar said her family received only Rs 3,000 rupees per dead sheep from the Animal and Sheep Husbandry Department of Kashmir even though it costs Rs 15,000 - Rs 20,000 per sheep or goat.

“We were mourning as if one of our family members had died,” said Tasleema Bano. “These sheep are everything to us.”

Mushtaq Ahmad Chopan and Gaffar Chopan return after a long day of grazing. Credit: Rajeev Tyagi.

Occupational hazard as incidents increase

For Kashmir’s nomadic herders, lightning incidents will increasingly become part of the occupational hazards they must take into account. Around the world, the frequency of lightning could increase by 10%-25% by the end of the century and their intensity could spike by 15%-50%, according to a study in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics in 2021. A report in Environment Journal suggests that lightning incidents will increase by 12% with every 1 degrees Celsius rise in the Earth’s temperature.

With global warming, Jammu and Kashmir will be especially prone to lightning strikes, cloudbursts and other extreme weather events, experts said. This is due to the nature of its topography, which creates a natural upward lift of moisture-laced air.

“The increase [in extreme weather events] can be attributed to the unstable atmosphere, primarily due to increasing temperatures and cutting down trees in the region,” said Dr Mukhtar Ahmed, director of Srinagar’s weather station.

However, Ahmed noted that the number of deaths due to heavy rain and snow have decreased in Kashmir in recent years as a result of better early warning systems, weather forecasts, and improved disaster management strategies. But these initiatives have not safeguarded communities against the threat of lightning strikes.

India has several ground-based lightning detection networks to monitor and disseminate lightning warnings, as well as some satellite-based systems. These networks are managed by organisations such as the India Meteorological Department, the Department of Space and the Indian Air Force.

Mohammad Hussain Mir, a senior meteorologist at the Meteorological Department’s Srinagar station, said that the input from the radar indicates in which area a lighting incident is likely to occur. The department generates alerts, but it is the responsibility of the National Disaster Response Force and State Disaster Response Force to act on these alerts.

“They have teams at every district and block level,” Mir said. “We notify a specific area and all mobiles automatically receive an alert.”

In 2022, the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology developed an app called Damini to monitor lightning strikes and provide global positioning system-based notification alerts to people in a 20 km-40 km radius.

In the case of Kashmir and other hilly regions, Anirban Guha, who teaches in Tripura University’s physics department, explained that topography plays a significant role in lightning detection. The mountains and diverse terrains affect electromagnetic wave propagation, complicating the process of locating lightning strikes.

“Many factors come into play when trying to locate a lightning strike,” Guha said. “These include interference, diffraction, phase delay, the inclination of the electric field, and changes in polarisation.”

Of course, these apps and early warning alerts have limited effectiveness when cellular network availability is variable. In addition, many shepherds do not have smartphones.

Tasleema recounting the incident from 2022 when they lost 63 sheep to a lightning strike. Credit: Rajeev Tyagi.

Tasleema Bano said the government has the technology to predict and send alerts about bad weather but members of her family and others from the community are in the mountains where there is no network. “We should at least be informed about when and how the weather will deteriorate,” she said. “No one tells us when the weather will be bad.”

According to a study by Chandima Gomes, a professor of high-voltage engineering at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and Mary Ann Cooper, managing Director of African Centres for Lightning and Electromagnetics Network, “safe shelters” are important lightning safety measures for low-income communities in volatile environments. Repurposed materials like cargo containers offer sturdy, weather-resistant shelters and can protect against lightning.

Local solutions have to be adapted to local contexts. In the United States, Cooper noted, residents are advised, “When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!” However, she acknowledged that this is not always feasible in the case of India, as a significant population is involved in agriculture, construction, or other labour-intensive jobs which involve working in the open.

Sanjay Srivastava, who started the “Lightning Resilient India Campaign” in 2019 with the support of several government agencies, suggested other measures would be more effective. He advised residents to identify safer spaces in which they could take shelter during lightning strike alerts. These include spots at a lower elevation on a hill, caves, and dense forests that provide natural protection. He also said that people in lightning storms would crouch in a ball-like position with their heads tucked down and hands over their ears.

Communities could use locally available materials like charcoal, mud, sand and bamboo sticks to create basic lightning protection systems.

Abdul Salam Chopan, the father of Tasleema, sits inside his kutcha house. Credit: Rajaeev Tyagi.

However Kumar Margasahayam, a lightning detection, and early warning systems expert in Bengaluru, said that lightning protection measures should adhere to internationally recognised standards, such as the ones framed by the International Electrotechnical Commission.

He warned that some local-level options being discussed could even be dangerous.

Dr Khalid Omer, from Kashmir’s Department of Sheep Husbandry, said that the government has already started to build weatherproof shelters for people living in high areas and their animals. But he noted that it was essential to equip shepherds with tracking gear and other equipment to deal with extreme weather events.

The Ganderbal district health department said it was conducting health awareness camps with a focus on educating the community about extreme weather events such as snow avalanches and lightning strikes.

Dr Bushra Yousuf, the district’s chief medical officer, said that their staff was educating communities about what to do during extreme weather events, but admitted that disasters such as avalanches typically receive more attention from the government.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.