On Sunday, residents of Srinagar thronged the Jhelum to watch fish rise up to the surface near the banks, some floating dead. Soon, videos were circulating on social media showing men ecstatically grabbing handfuls of fish from the river, gutting and packing them in sacks and cardboard boxes.
What caused the fish to surface? Rumour had it the fish were infected or poisoned, and announcements were reportedly made in Old City not to consume the catch.
In the evening, the deputy commissioner of Srinagar asked the people “not to panic”, saying fish and water samples had been collected for an investigation. On Monday, the fisheries department released the findings of its preliminary investigation. The fish were driven to the surface by depleting levels of oxygen in the water, the department said in its report. To substantiate this, the report pointed out that only one of the two common species of fish found in the river, Schizothorax, was affected.
As to why the oxygen content has dropped, the report blamed the lack of adequate rainfall this season and the release of stagnant water with “high concentrations of nutrients and pollutants” into a stretch of the river. The report noted that fish in the relatively cleaner upper stretches of the river were not affected.
“Physical examination of gills and general body condition of samples rule out any sort of use of poisonous substance,” the report concluded.
Kashmir has received little rainfall this autumn. According to a report in The Third Pole, September witnessed barely 14 mm rainfall as against the average of 32 mm. As a result, the Jhelum’s water levels are the lowest ever recorded. Last year, too, September and October were the driest in over a decade and half.
Shakil Romshoo, who heads the Department of Earth Sciences at Kashmir University, told The Third Pole that low discharge in the Jhelum during October was not abnormal as it is generally a lean month. Romshoo noted that low water levels in the Jhelum affect agriculture downstream during spring and summer, but low levels during autumn and winter are no cause for concern given that water requirement during these seasons is not much.
“However, if you look at the time series of the observed discharge for the Jhelum since the 1960s, there is significant decline in the discharge of the Jhelum since 1990s and this is attributed to the loss of glacier mass in the Kashmir basin,” Romshoo said. “Keeping in view the changing climate in the region, we expect that the trend will continue in the future.”