April was a cruel month in Himachal this year. Around 20 acres of ready-to-harvest wheat crop went up in flames in a devastating fire at Jawali in Kangra. Over 9,200 hectares of forests were reduced to ashes in 900 cases of forest fires. Blossoms in a third of the state’s apple orchards perished before full bloom, while capital Shimla underwent stifling water rationing with supply restricted to every alternate day.
These are just a few of the signs of the impact of this year’s heatwave, even as the state’s Centre on Climate Change (HPCC), established to monitor the phenomenon in micro and macro environments, gets ready to file its 2022 report.
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“Himachal is second in the number of heatwave days (21) in March-April 2022, after Rajasthan (25). This is unusual, and can’t be overlooked for its long-term impact on the environment,” says Kunal Satyarthi, joint secretary, NDMA (National Disaster Management Authority), New Delhi. Satyarthi, a senior IFS officer, earlier headed HPCC, Shimla. In comparison, Punjab had just seven heatwave days, while Bihar and Odisha had two and one, respectively. Between April 11 and 22, the state’s India Meteorological Department (IMD) centre recorded an all-time high of 28.6°C, which was 4°C higher than the April average.
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Along with the ever-rising tourist influx, prolonged dry spells and sudden heatwaves—inevitable fallouts of climate change—are bound to have an impact on agriculture, water availability, melting of glaciers and eventually, the hill ecology. Climate change is evident more starkly in the mountains. Scientists don’t rule out its effect in terms of extreme weather conditions and natural disasters—heatwaves, forest fires, water scarcity, unseasonal and excessive rains, flash floods, droughts, glacial lake bursts and landslides.
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This is also linked to the destructive development model being pursued in high altitudes. The rise in temperatures has a significant effect on human activities. This, despite a third of Himachal remaining snow covered, with large and small glaciers, forests, rivers and cold deserts abounding. Over the last few years, environmentalists have recorded a rising trend of high temperatures at higher altitudes compared to the lower reaches.
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Monsoon rains, which were unknown to Lahaul-Spiti, caused flash floods that killed over 10 people in a single incident. Twice—in 2015 and again in 2021—Kinnaur faced nature’s fury in flash floods.
Says environmentalist Manshi Asher, who works in Himachal and Uttarakhand, “Snow cover and glaciers, which are the main contributors to surface and groundwater discharge, are impacted by the rapid warming and heatwaves. Strangely, higher altitudes—which are in the low probability of a heatwave zone—show an unusual trend.”
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Asher explains that summer came very early this year. The higher reaches, which are arid and have a single crop season due to the prolonged snow cover, are bearing the brunt more than the lower altitude areas, which have 2-3 crop seasons a year. The impact of the heatwave is more severe in the higher altitudes than elsewhere.
A study conducted jointly by HPCC and ISRO’s Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad, has revealed the state has witnessed an 18.5 per cent decrease in snow cover in 2020-21. There is an overall decrease in the area under snow in winter 2020-21. The Sutlej basin (which includes the Spiti basin)—the high altitude tribal belt; and the Ravi basin—the southwestern side of the PirPanjal range, have seen the maximum loss of snow cover—up to 23 per cent—against 2019-20 levels. The Beas basin has seen a 19 per cent fall, while the Chenab basin recorded a nine per cent fall.
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“We have just completed a new study. The data is being analysed across different models to reach realistic conclusions. Snow cover has shrunk further. The number of glacier-induced artificial lakes has also risen to 1,632 from 1,300 in 2020-21,” said S.S. Randhawa, senior scientist at the Council for Science, Technology and Environment, Shimla.
As per an IMD report, the heatwave started on March 11, and till April 24, impacted 15 states and UTs. Only last week, Shimla and neighbouring towns witnessed a sudden change in the weather, bringing much relief to the region that had been suffering from forest fires and water shortages.
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Shimla, which had witnessed an unprecedented water crisis in 2018 that became headlines in the New York Times and Washington Post, was once again hit by water scarcity. The daily availability of drinking water in the town dropped to 31 million litres per day (MLD), against 46 MLD. “Several parts of Shimla district went without regular supply for almost 3-4 days, while rationing was introduced in the main town. It reminded residents of 2018, when there was no water for eight days, forcing the government to augment supply. Besides distribution issues, climate change is making things worse,” says former mayor Sanjay Chauhan.
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The state recorded 92.8 per cent rainfall deficit in March-April, severely affecting water supply. Rivers and streams have dried up. More than 500 drinking water schemes have become defunct due to drying-up of rivers and natural water sources. With 92.4 per cent rainfall deficit, crops in some wheat-growing districts withered away, admits the state’s Jal Shakti minister Mahender Singh Thakur, attributing it to climate change. He says 550 drinking water supply schemes in the state have been affected by falling water levels. The state has a total of 9,526 such schemes.
Apple orchards, which generate Rs 5,500 crore for the state exchequer, are feeling the heat. Though the state received good snowfall that provided ample periods of chill—crucial for apples—the sudden heat wiped out a large part of the blooms.
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“Last week’s rains were a relief, but the heatwave already took its toll on apple blossoms. Our teams are closely studying its impact on some older varieties like Red Royal and Red Delicious,” says S.P. Bhardwaj, head of environmental sciences at the University of Horticulture and Forestry (UoHF), Nauni, Solan. He admits that heat spoils the taste, colour and quality of fruit.
Bhardwaj admits that over the years, apple growing itself has shifted to higher reaches. Conditions have become too unpredictable for orchards in lower altitudes, which had prospered for 50-60 years. Growers are also shifting to high-density plantations, to escape the adverse impact of heatwaves and shorter spans of chill. He says most of the state’s agriculture is rain-fed, while the area under assured irrigation is barely 20-25 per cent. Thus, the impact of the heatwave is enormous.
In the words of the Ladakh-based innovator and Magsaysay awardee Sonam Wangchuk, “Climate change is a reality, but we need to use traditional wisdom and social capital to adapt and secure our mountains against its adverse impact.”
- 20 acres of wheat crop went up in flames at Jawali in Kangra
- 9,200 hectares of forests were reduced to ashes
- 900 cases of forest fires were recorded
- 1/3 of orchards with Red Royal & Red Delicious apples perished
(This appeared in the print edition as "Fire and Brimstone")