“The fields are hard, like cement,” said Altaf Malik, describing his land in Achabal in North Kashmir’s Baramulla district. Malik owns a 0.4-hectare plot of land on which he grows paddy. It was the last week of March, and he was growing more worried with each passing day. “The irrigation scheme here pumps water from the Jhelum, and the other two smaller schemes pump from this scheme,” he said. “But this year it seems there is no water.”

Periods of dry weather, with irregular rainfall, have been increasing over the years in the Valley, he said. “But this year is exceptionally bad,” said Malik. The sowing season for rice usually starts in early June and ends on June 21, the longest day in the year, after which farmers say, “the sun changes”. This year, Malik said, “the sun has already changed and it is hot here like the plains outside Kashmir”.

In the last week of March, Kashmir’s Irrigation and Flood Control Department issued advisories, via the press and posters pasted in public places, asking farmers in North Kashmir not to sow water-intensive paddy this season due to a water scarcity. Instead, the advisory urges them to sow pulses and other cash crops, which use less water.

Malik said farmers were now confused because the state’s agriculture ministry had not issued a “concrete directive”. “It has caused chaos among farmers who cannot decide whether to grow pulses or paddy,” he said. “Advisories alone and at the last moment will not help and sales outlets should have seeds for pulses. For now, people are preparing to sow rice.”

(Photo credit: Rayan Naqash).

‘Waiting for rain’

Though Kashmir gets a large part of its rain in the spring months and in early summer, a prolonged dry spell in the area in January and February has led to decreased water levels in streams that are vital for irrigation. In January, Kokernag
in South Kashmir, close to a major source of the Jhelum river in Verinag, received 1.4 mm of rainfall as compared to 92.8 mm, which is the normal amount of rainfall the area receives. Similarly, Srinagar received 1.2 mm of rainfall as opposed to the normal of 53.9 mm. In February too, in most places, the rainfall was less than half the normal amount for the month.

Farmers now fear a drought. They depend on the rain collecting in their paddy fields for the planting process, when rice seedlings are transplanted into the fields. To irrigate the crop later, they use water from stream. According to government figures, while 60% of Kashmir’s agricultural fields have an “assured means” of irrigation, 58% of the net area sown in both Jammu and Kashmir is rain fed.

The government advisories regarding rice have been restricted to the traditionally water-deficit districts of North Kashmir: Baramulla, Kupwara and Ganderbal. However, irrigation officials said a similar advisory could be issued in central Kashmir’s Budgam district.

“We too are waiting for the rain,” said an irrigation engineer in Kupwara. The meteorological department in Srinagar has no forecast of widespread rain in the area in coming weeks. The engineer said that the 160 water storage tanks that are used to irrigate the district’s paddy fields for the planting process could not be filled this year. “If we have a 14-foot deep tank, there is only two to four feet of water in it,” he said. “We are trying to fill these tanks with every water source available but so far we haven’t been able to.”

Shabir Wagay with his father Abdul Khaliq in their erstwhile paddy field where they planted apple trees a few years ago. (Photo credit: Rayan Naqash).

Turning to apples

Kashmir’s vast paddy fields have historical significance. Most of its farmers were landless, but reforms starting from 1950, which redistributed land to the tillers, radically improved their lot.

Today, across North Kashmir, farmers are slowly turning away from paddy.

In Wadura village, close to the northern town of Sopore, 40-year-old Shabir Wagay levelled the ground as his father, Abdul Khaliq, watched. These were once paddy fields stretching over 18 kanals, or nearly a hectare. They had planted young apple trees in their fields two or three years ago, much like other farmers in the area.

“There was a similar dry spell in the early 2000s,” Wagay said. “That time, too, we sowed pulses. Since then, the water problem has persisted. It became difficult to grow rice so we recently switched to apples. It is more profitable, too.” Wagay’s orchard has about 150 trees and is expected to bear fruit in the next five years.

Khaliq pointed to a dry canal adjacent to the orchard, cutting through the fields. “This is not supposed to be dry at this time,” he said. The warm weather was good for fruit, he said, but even they needed water. “We would apply pesticides to these trees but there is no water for that either. For now we are simply watering them.”

Khaliq owns another 25 kanals (1.26 hectares) of land where he plans to sow rice. “The government will bring water somehow,” he said, hopefully. But he is also increasingly disillusioned with paddy farming. “Earlier there was abundant rain, and everyone would pitch in for the work. The rice then tasted good too. Today, with so much work and new machines, the produce is little and does not suffice.”

Shabir Lone, a college student and farmer in Baramulla’s Sheeri village, is also losing the will to continue paddy farming. “Farming is not enough to sustain families,” he said. Lone has around eight kanals, or 0.4 hectares, of fields where he grows paddy. “Earlier the produce would suffice but today expenditures are higher and profits meagre,” he said. “I want to quit farming and this [increasing water scarcity] just reinforces the thought.”

Demand for rice

Rice is the staple food in Kashmir. At present, rice is grown over 1.41 lakh hectares in the Valley. In 2017, 9.51 lakh metric tonnes of rice were produced in Kashmir, according to Altaf Andrabi, the director agriculture. But most of this is consumed by the cultivators themselves. The rest rely largely on rice imported from other states and the Public Distribution System. The state has seen a steady increase in the import of rice since 2000-’01 (0.79 lakh tonnes) till 2015-’16 (5.33 lakh tonnes), according to figures from the state’s Directorate of Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution.

Thus, even if farmers sow pulses, there will still be a demand for rice.

“In November-December, if there is not enough rice, people will be out on the streets,” said Malik. In December 2015, when the National Food Security Act was implemented in Jammu and Kashmir, limiting the amount of rice handed out by government to 5 kg per person per month, instead of 35 kg per family, protests broke out in parts of the Valley. “We will have to import whatever we will not be able to grow,” Malik said. “It seems there will be chaos by the end of this year.”

Andrabi said water scarcity was a “serious issue” in the state but the only way to address it at present was to avoid paddy cultivation.

The crisis is not restricted to irrigation. By January, according to local reports, more than half of Kashmir’s 1,600 water schemes, including drinking water supplies, had been badly hit.

Rice is a water-intensive crop. (Photo credit: Reuters).

‘Why blame nature?’

But Shakil Romshoo, who heads the earth sciences department at Kashmir University, said the situation was not as alarming as many believe it is.

With 8,000 glaciers, heavy snowfall and highest per capita water availability in South Asia, Jammu and Kashmir was known as the “water tower of Asia”, he said.

“We also have to keep in mind that 40% of the Valley’s precipitation occurs during the spring, in March, April, and May” he said, adding that glaciers melting in May and June would also replenish streams.

He agreed that water resources in the Valley have significantly depleted over the last 50 years, but said that the region was unlikely to be water scarce for the next 50 years. By the end of the century, he said, snowfall would decrease between 30% and 70%, which could have an adverse impact on irrigation.

Romshoo was of the opinion that the current scarcity stemmed mainly from the mismanagement of resources. “The government has not put the adequate water infrastructure for optimal water utilisation and management,” he said. “They are putting the blame for their laxity on nature.”

Emphasising that the water scarcity would not last, Romshoo said: “Satellite images show that a significant part of the state in the upper reaches is under snow and glacier cover. So, there should not be any water scarcity in the Valley.”

Rayees Ahmad Pir, a scientist with the Central Water Board, pointed out that the state had groundwater resources that were largely untapped as the thrust of consumption was on surface water. “Groundwater is largely unexplored and the entire state comes under a safe category,” he said. “To focus on groundwater and its exploration is the need of the hour.” He added that unlike most states, Jammu and Kashmir lacked a groundwater board, and establishing one could be a good step in this direction.