Dealing with disasters in the Valley

Frequent disasters the Kashmir Valley witnesses are both man-made and natural. What’s the solution?
Destruction caused by September 2014 floods at a posh locality in Jammu and Kashmir, Rajbagh.  Over 300 people lost their lives, thousands were rendered homeless and property worth billions was damaged during the floods. (All photos courtesy: Afsana Rashid)
Destruction caused by September 2014 floods at a posh locality in Jammu and Kashmir, Rajbagh. Over 300 people lost their lives, thousands were rendered homeless and property worth billions was damaged during the floods. (All photos courtesy: Afsana Rashid)

Witnessing a multitude of disasters from destructive floods to catastrophic earthquakes, the vulnerabilities arising out of natural disasters are ever increasing in Jammu and Kashmir. Intensified cloudbursts, frequent flash floods, recurring landslides and avalanches pose a serious threat not only to the state’s sustainable development but human survival as well. 

Environmentalists here raise alarm over a significant rise in maximum temperature, unpredictability of western disturbances with unusual distribution of rainfall, changing patterns of precipitation and sustained deficit of snowfall, inability of the snow to freeze owing to higher temperatures causing faster meltdown, shifting of actual time-period for snowfall from December-January to February-March, drying up of hundreds of natural springs and disappearance of small glaciers.

The Kashmir Valley, according to environmental expert Gurcharan Singh, is impacted by global warming wherein it is found that most of the snow that comes during winters melts fast and the water cannot be utilised for irrigation. “Small little rainfall in the catchment results in the big run-off because of forest degradation. This results in floods as was experienced during the September deluge,” says Singh. He adds that the total precipitation of the Valley is around 30 inches per year, most of which is in the form of snow and the Valley gets localised rain from July-August. The Valley is known for its microclimate where a little rise in temperature would result in localised rain.  

Drastic climate change is quite evident in Kashmir since last several years with widespread changes in the environment, says technology expert Huneef Mohammad. He says that flash floods have become the norm and snowfall pattern has changed with very less snow which has shifted to early spring. With reduced snowfall, glaciers are fast receding at a cataclysmic rate that is going to impact water bodies, irrigation system and the water table creating a context for drought-like situations, he adds. 

Being a multi-hazard prone zone, natural disasters keep haunting the region. While the entire state falls in seismic zone IV, most parts of the Valley fall in seismic zone V. Landslides along the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway are the order of the day and floods or avalanches have devastated life and economy of the state quite frequently. The state is very distinct from the rest of the country given its unique geographical and geo-climatic setting. A snow blizzard at Waltengu Nad in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district on February 18, 2005, claimed 175 lives and in many cases, entire families got wiped out. On October 8, 2005, a devastating earthquake of magnitude 7.6 resulted in over 900 deaths in the state (also more than 80,000 deaths in Pakistan occupied Kashmir). This was one of the deadliest earthquakes in the sub-continent. 

Receding of glaciers

Climate change is drastically eating away glaciers in Kashmir, setting alarm bells ringing among the environmentalists, who apprehend that melting of glaciers, Kolahoi, in particular, would severely affect Kashmir Valley where a majority of the population uses water from springs for drinking and farming. Glaciers are nature’s renewable storehouse of freshwater from which hundreds of millions of people downstream benefit. According to a team of University of Kashmir scientists, who visited the area in August 2008, Kolahoi glacier could “completely disappear within the next 10 years”. The glacier, according to them, has abnormally shrunk from 13 sq km to 11.5 sq km in the past 40 years and is receding at a rate of nearly 10 feet a year. Sadly, Kolahoi isn’t the only glacier succumbing to global climate change. Fifty years back, the Chenab basin used to have 8,000 sq km under glaciers, permanent and ephemeral, which has now been reduced to 4,100 sq km. Similarly, Thajwas glacier, situated seven kilometres from Sonamarg, has alarmingly shrunk over the years because of its fast meltdown. Environment scientists say the glacier could be melting fast to become a thing of the past and human interference is squarely responsible for it.Plastic finds its way into Manasbal Lake.

According to the Draft J&K State Disaster Management Policy 2011, Department of Revenue, Relief and Rehabilitation, (attached below) glacial melting due to global warming is one of the major causes of flash floods. The major glaciers in the higher mountains are receding at an alarming rate. Glaciers in Jammu and Kashmir are receding at a faster rate compared to other glacial regions in the world. In Suru basin alone, about 16 percent of glaciers have been lost in the last 40 years. Similarly, 18 percent of the Kolhai glacier, the main source of drinking water and irrigation in the Valley, has been lost during the same period. It added that recently Kashmir has been witnessing a drastic decrease in snowfall. This reduction in snowfall together with fast receding glaciers has resulted in water scarcity for irrigation and hydropower generation in some seasons. The data shows that the magnitude and frequency of flooding have increased in the Valley during the last few decades. Coupled with unplanned urbanisation and mismanagement of the Jhelum floodplains, the situation is going to be alarming in the near future. The future scenario can be well imagined with most of the wetlands that used to act as a sponge during flooding, being urbanised and converted into concrete landscape. 

More than 40 lakes in the Himalayas, formed from rapidly melting glaciers, are expected to burst their banks in the next five years, sending millions of gallons of water and rock cascading onto settlements in the valleys below,” says a study by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), February 2010. Himalayan glaciers have been melting at an unprecedented rate in recent decades leading to major changes in freshwater flow regimes and are likely to have a dramatic impact on drinking water supplies, biodiversity, hydropower, industry, agriculture and others, with far-reaching implications for the people of the region and the earth’s environment. The UNDP India report in November 2009 mentioned that melting of glaciers would increase flood risks and there can be no replacement for water provided by glaciers that could result in water shortages on an unparalleled scale. Floods and droughts were projected to multiply as a consequence of climate change that would lead to huge crop loss and leave large patches of arable land unfit for cultivation thus, threatening food security.

Flash floods and cloudburst

Flash floods occur rapidly with little lead time for warning and transport tremendous amounts of water and debris at high velocity. They are more devastating and affect thousands of people (their lives, homes and livelihoods) in the Himalayan region every year along with expensive infrastructure. Flash floods can be due to intense rainfall floods (IRF); glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), landslide dam outburst floods (LDOF) and flash floods caused by rapid snowmelt (RSM) and ice etc. Usually, hilly areas are prone to flash floods while as most of the low-lying areas across the state (Sonawari, Awantipora, Srinagar, along with parts of Jammu) are prone to floods. Upper catchments of all the tributaries of the Jhelum, Indus, Chenab and Tawi rivers are prone to flash floods. Besides, all hilly areas of the state are prone to cloudbursts. 

Kashmir was hit by one of the worst-ever floods in a century on September 7, 2014. Over 300 people lost their lives, thousands were rendered homeless while property worth billions were damaged. Leh witnessed a devastating cloudburst followed by flash floods on the intervening night of August 5–6, 2010 that resulted in the death of over 250 people and damage worth crores of rupees. The areas in and around Leh, especially Choglamsar, where people had constructed houses along the dry watercourse had no idea that the stream could get flooded and wash away everything whatever came in its way.

Freshwater resources

Nature has bestowed the state with rich freshwater resources especially snow and glaciers and the state is mostly dependent on water resources that have a tremendous impact on its socio-economic development. There is a good network of river system in the state, which finds their resource mainly from snow and glacier melts runoff from the upper Himalayan region. But experts and studies suggest that all these rivers are diminishing in annual discharge year after year due to the retreat of glaciers and snow line because of increase in temperature and other ecological imbalances. This has also given rise to a number of societal concerns particularly related to drinking water and irrigation network. It is ironic that river Jhelum, called the lifeline of the Valley, has been converted into a drain as almost the entire Valley is located on the right and the left banks of the river and the raw effluents from all major towns find their way directly into the river that has severely affected its water quality. River Tawi in Jammu city faces almost the same fate as the sewage from the entire city finds its way directly into the river.World famous Hokersar wetland faces threat of encroachment.

Singh informs that there are around 1250 water bodies in the state in the shape of wetlands, lakes etc. Most wetlands or water bodies lie in central Kashmir. While Wular Lake, Dal Lake, Manasbal, Hokersar, Neelbugh, Anchar, Neelnag etc are among the prominent wetlands, most of the other lakes are glacier links in the upper region of the Valley. Most of the rivers and nallahs in the Valley are fed by prominent glaciers; Thajwas and Kolhai. While Kolhai feeds river Lidder, Thajwas feeds Sindh nallah. All other small rivers are also fed by glaciers and ultimately they fall into river Jhelum. 

Groundwater resources

Exploring groundwater resource for drinking, irrigation and industrial purposes has been immensely felt as the surface water is diminishing. Jammu and Kashmir is said to be rich in groundwater potential, but groundwater has not been explored and exploited in the state as it should have been, emphasises the (Draft) J&K State Environment Policy 2018, Department of Ecology, Environment and Remote Sensing. The water table, it says, is rapidly falling in many areas of the state due to the recession of permanent snow and glaciers. In addition, contamination of groundwater is also caused due to leaching of stored chemicals, leaking underground storage tanks and the use of agricultural chemicals especially, pesticides and open dumping of municipal and industrial waste. 

Moreover, UNDP India report in November 2009 points towards the dominant use of groundwater during the last three decades. The groundwater, it says, has become the main source of irrigation as surface irrigation systems already created are lying wasted because canals or other systems are hardly maintained due to the inefficiency of large water irrigation systems. Thus, a bulk of Indian agriculture not only remains rain-fed but depends on groundwater, which is worrisome in the current context of increasingly variable rainfall. Due to excessive withdrawal of groundwater, groundwater use exceeds the rate of groundwater recharge. As a result, the government has classified nearly 30 percent of the development blocks in the country as semi-critical, critical or overexploited in terms of groundwater depletion. The report further adds that as there is no effective control over digging of tube wells in water-scarce regions, farmers are borrowing money from informal sources at high-interest rates for it. Many such borings fail due to the non-availability of groundwater leading to indebtedness and even suicides. Since sinking a borewell involves heavy upfront investment, only the affluent farmers go for it. Small farmers continue to depend on the shallow dug well that has been in existence for decades. The existing problems of poor farmers, if not addressed in time, will become more acute due to global warming induced climate change.

Adaptation strategies

Even if managing climate-related disasters remains a significant challenge, the call for action intensifies and becomes more strident. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has rightly pointed out in the 2017 annual report that climate change is the “defining challenge of our time, yet it is still accelerating faster than our efforts to address it”. The UN Climate Change executive secretary Patricia Espinosa in the same report termed climate change as the single biggest threat to life, security and prosperity on the earth. Once a freshwater lake, Wular now struggles for survival.

Climate change has been recognised as one of the most important and urgent issues of the 21st century. As such, it is high time for planners, policymakers, environmentalists and others to put their heads together to devise strategies to bring desirable change. The need for a well-orchestrated media and civil society campaign, well-planned strategies and well-devised programmes and well-framed technologies ought to be formulated to have a long-term and positive impact not only in terms of sustainability but on environmental front as well. The mitigation and prevention of climate-related disasters cannot be ensured unless people living in vulnerable areas are sensitised and made aware of it. Besides, technology is the key both for mitigating climate change and adapting to it. Consequently, there is a need to develop new and cost-effective technologies and train human resources accordingly. 

Huneef Mohammad emphasises the need to take significant steps to reverse climate change-related damages. “At the forefront, it is essential to realise that climate change reversal is a collective problem of all countries and a collaborative, broader approach has to be formulated to contain it. Central to this realisation must be a consensus-building exercise where a climate change study group is jointly formed by participating countries to study the causes for such a diverse climate change and accordingly, arrive at solution pathways. Actions coming out of research findings should have funding from all countries in addition to institutions like the World Bank,” he suggests. 

Among the actions identified for reversing climate change, it is imperative that countries that have contributed to this climate change in terms of their emissions must contribute towards compensation of countries or regions which have been left disadvantaged,” says Mohammad. “As this effort takes place, it is essential that electric vehicle technology programmes are boosted across all nations so that in the next few decades, we have a significant amount of vehicles without any emission,” he adds.

Since climate-related disasters are not confined to borders or boundaries, coordinated efforts and strategies need to be devised to effectively deal with the risks emerging out of these natural hazards. A joint and coordinated management can be framed to look into the issues arising out of these disasters. Furthermore, capacities of global, national and local institutions need to be developed to strengthen resilience to climate change. 

Capacity building of various stakeholders related to the causes and consequences of climate change need to be well-planned together with organising mock drills related to climate change-induced disasters at the community or school level. Linkages ought to be built at the community level to address climate change-related issues. Preparing a disaster management plan at the local level in consultation with various stakeholders need to be taken up by regular follow-up meetings to stay focused and updated. Devising a separate national or state policy related to climate change risk management with the focus on short-term and long-term measures need to be adopted together with generating awareness and imparting education and training to various stakeholders to minimise the impact of disasters. 

Training has been found to be the most effective tool for reducing vulnerabilities. As such, it should be the endeavor of the government to create a pool of local experts and provide them regular and focused training so that they could be used as an immediate response force in case any disaster strikes. Such task forces can be created at local, district and state level. 

Afsana Rashid currently teaches at Media Education Research Centre, University of Kashmir. She was in the field of journalism from 2002 to June 2018. During this period, she has been associated with many national and local media organisations (Milli Gazette, the Tribune, Dainik Bhaskar, ETV News (Urdu), the Kashmir Times and Kashmir Images) and international news websites (Global Press Institute and Women International Perspective). She has also been a recipient of many awards and media fellowships and participated in many seminars/workshops at international, national and local level.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of India Water Portal.




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