In mid-June, as a heat wave swept through North India, many from the plains escaped to Himachal Pradesh, only to find that its hill stations were also in the grip of scorching weather.

In fact, heat wave conditions prevailed in hill stations of the state – an unusual situation, officials from the Shimla centre of the Indian Meteorological Department told Scroll. Two hill stations, Nahan and Kangra, saw the second-highest temperatures they had ever recorded. Nahan recorded 39.9 degrees Celsius, a little lower than the 40.8 degrees recorded in 1995, while Kangra recorded 41.8 degrees, just under the 42 degrees it recorded in 2017.

According to the met department’s definition, in the plains, a heat wave is said to occur in a particular meteorological subdivision either when the maximum temperature is above 45 degrees, or if it is above 40 degrees but is higher than the normal by at least 4.5 degrees. In the hills, a heat wave is supposed to take place when the maximum temperature is above 30 degrees, and is higher than the normal by at least 4.5 degrees. Further, this criteria has to be met in at least two weather stations within the subdivision for at least two consecutive days.

“We have seen such temperatures for the plains in the state like in Una, Solan and Baddi, but this year we are seeing it in hill stations like Shimla, Mandi, Palampur,” said a scientist from IMD, requesting anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media.

Officials at the IMD’s Shimla centre told Scroll that the state saw 11 heat wave days in May, and eight in June, as of June 14. “The number of heat wave days is slightly more than earlier, which is concerning,” said Surender Paul, director of the centre. The year 2022 was an exception, the scientist said, when the state saw a total of 30 heat wave days in March and April and a rainfall deficit of 95%.

The heat wave’s impact in Himachal has been wide-ranging: paddy transplantation stands delayed, the state’s famed apple orchards are wilting, milk production has gone down, while forest fires have consumed 24,000 hectares of land, nearly three times the area affected in 2022.

No rain for paddy saplings

A lack of precipitation in June has contributed to the heat. “We have seen a deficit of 16-17% in rain, which has led to a continuous dry period,” said the IMD scientist.

In fact, the region has seen a decline in rainfall over several decades. Between 1951 and 2010, a study found, annual average rainfall in Himachal Pradesh fell by 3.26 mm.

Farmers in paddy growing regions are feeling the impact. “We were waiting for the rain so that we could start growing paddy saplings,” said Shanti Devi, a farmer from Kandbari village in Kangra district.

Farmers typically first sow paddy in small nurseries, where they are watered by rains; they then transplant the crop to their fields after a few weeks. This year, farmers waited for rains to start sowing in nurseries – when no showers fell, they began sowing anyway, deciding they would rely for irrigation on kuhls, or community-owned irrigation channels. But for saplings, farmers prefer rain showers, which keep the soil loose – the flow from the irrigation channels tightens the soil, which is beneficial to the crop only after transplantation.

The fields are still lying fallow since the process of paddy transplantation has been delayed this year.

The wait “has delayed the growth of the sapling by ten to fifteen days”, said Julmi, another famer from the village. “Last year by this time, we had almost finished the transplanting of the saplings in our fields.” His wife Raksha Devi added, “Now the crop will also be ready later, and will impact our next crop cycle by almost two weeks.”

Raksha Devi was clearing a part of her field to grow some seasonal vegetables for her family’s consumption. “We are hoping for some rain so that these seeds will grow,” she said. The duo had already grown beans, ladyfingers, chillies, and sponge gourd, but a month earlier most of the crops wilted in the heat. “This is the first time we are seeing heat like this with no rain at this time,” she said. “Baarish bhi ziddi ho gayi hai.” Even the rain has become stubborn.

In its climate bulletins, the IMD has been issuing agricultural advisories based on the temperature and climatic conditions. “In case farmers are at the stage of farming where irrigation is required, we have been suggesting to them to provide their crops with light irrigation, instead of waiting for rain,” said the scientist.

Raksha Devi prepares her field for a few summer vegetables.

Deteriorating apple crops

The lack of precipitation is also hurting apple farmers in the hill stations of the state. Vikas Kumar, an apple farmer from Hamta village in upper Kullu, observed that while the situation was worse in 2022, he had struggled this year too.

“This year also, it has rained less than usual and even the snowfall was less,” he said. He added that typically snowfall begins in late November, but that this year, it began only by February.

In Shimla, too, winter snowfall was minimal. “Because of that, there is barely any groundwater recharge,” said Pranav Rawat, an apple farmer from Khoni village, Shimla. The recharge keeps the soil moist, and is thus important for adult apples, which have roots deep in the ground.

Rawat added that similar drought-like conditions had occurred in 2022, but that this year the heat seemed more prolonged. “Even in 2022, while it was hotter than usual, it had rained by May 24-25,” he said. “This year so far, there has been very little rainfall, which is impacting us, since rainfall is our only source of irrigation.”

As a result, Rawat’s apple crop has been suffering. He said that newer saplings and weaker apple crop have suffered the most, along with apple crop on south-facing slopes, which in the Himalayas receive the highest exposure to the sun.

Health centres and schools

In a primary health clinic in Kangra district, a doctor told Scroll that in early June, all government doctors in the district were part of an online meeting chaired by the district’s chief medical officer, who instructed them to be prepared for heat-related illnesses. They were also briefed on the symptoms of heat strokes, and methods of preventing them. “We have stocked up with IV fluids, in case a need arises for a patient,” the doctor said. So far, no patients have come to him with heat-related illnesses.

The meeting was held under the aegis of the National Programme on Climate Change and Human Health, which was launched in 2019. The chief medical officer also instructed doctors in the state to prepare a daily report, listing information about any patients who suffer from heat-related illnesses. “These are all new steps and did not happen earlier,” the doctor said.

The heat wave has also affected schools. On May 29, the district collector of Kangra issued a circular, which Scroll has seen, instructing officials to close schools and anganwadis till May 31, stating that “heat wave can increase heat related illnesses” and that “for the safety of students” there is “an urgent need to take preventive measures.”

The principal of a government school near Palampur noted that they had “shifted the school timings from 9 am to 3 pm, to 7.30 am to 1 pm and have completely halted any sports activities. The sports period is not being observed.” He described such measures in view of heat waves as “very rare.”

It isn’t just humans who are struggling as a result of the heat. Government advisories have suggested to farmers that they protect their livestock by splashing water on their bodies twice or thrice a day, and ensuring proper ventilation in animal sheds. A government veterinary doctor in Kangra district noted that in some places, mock drills had been conducted among people to spread awareness of methods to help prevent heat stress to livestock.

While he has not yet received any such cases of heat-related illnesses in animals, he explained that some farmers who visited him for veterinary services had complained that their milch animals were producing between half a litre and one litre less milk than usual. “This could be because of high heat exposure, or because of ecto-parasites,” the doctor said. This group of parasites includes organisms like ticks and fleas that live on the skin of the host animals, and whose infestation can reduce milk production. “They populate the most in monsoon, followed by the summer season,” the doctor said.

Forest fires

“With lesser moisture and dry soil, forest fire incidents have been on an increase this year,” the IMD scientist said. The worst affected districts have been Shimla, which saw over 3,300 hectares damaged by forest fires, and Mandi, which saw over 3,200 hectares damaged by forest fires.

The extent of fires has been dramatically higher than over the last three years. In 2023, around 800 hectares of forest were damaged in fire, while 2022 saw over 8,000 hectares damaged, and 2021 saw 85 hectares damaged.

Locals are witnessing a seasonal change in the incidence of forest fires. “Usually towards the Shimla side, the maximum incidents of fires happen in December or January, which is when the autumn has left dry leaves,” said Rawat. ­

This year, a high number of fires had broken out in summer because the region saw a continuous dry period. “This year, the pattern has changed because it has been dry in May-June, which is when very few forest fires used to happen,” said Rawat, who had helped douse a forest fire in his village just the night before.

Locals remain concerned about the extremities of the climate in the region – while this year is dry, last year, Kullu and Shimla saw devastating rainfall that impacted apple orchards. “The climate is becoming more and more extreme, the balance is gone,” said Vikas Kumar, the apple farmer in Kullu.