» Kashmir »
Nature's White Out
Though the people of Kashmir have been assured that their tsunami of snow has passed—only moderate snowfall is predicted now—booming avalanches, which have taken hundreds of lives in their wake, continue to strike terror. Since the forecast is that avalanches will continue until the snow melts, the worst is not yet over.
Heavy rain and snowfall since February 6 have killed almost 500 people so far. Many have been reported missing, while others need serious aid. Such heavy snowfall—up to 15 feet in some places—had not been seen in the Valley for decades.
Avalanches are now sweeping away entire villages. On Wednesday evening, eyewitnesses saw a mountain of snow crumbling down on the Waltengo Nar village in the Pir Panjal. "It roared like 50 trucks and then there was no village," headlines quoted survivors as saying. Other villages struggled to survive.
While villagers are digging helplessly in the snow to find their relatives, aid is yet to reach many people. The damage to property and livestock is impossible to quantify at this stage. Survivors live in constant fear of being killed by fresh avalanches while fighting food, shelter, water and fuel shortages. As NH1A—the Valley's lifeline—remains closed and is likely to remain so for 10 more days, there seems no early respite.
Meanwhile, tales of death and destruction—and the rare story of survival—keep pouring in. And with no space for burial, dead bodies are piling up. Baltengu in South Kashmir, still reeling under white terror, is one such hamlet. "I have lost my family in one go—my three daughters are gone. What's the use of being alive?" asks a devastated Aziudin, who trekked 20 km from his village to reach Qazigund.
When reporters reached Baltengu, after trudging through snow for three hours, no government relief was to be found there. "The army is our only hope, we have run out of food and shelter and the government is sleeping," says Din Mohammed, whose house was destroyed by an avalanche this week.
Some areas are still cut off. Government sources say it might take days before communication is restored and supplies can be delivered. Says Ghulam Ahmed Mir, senior Congress leader and minister for works, "The snowfall took us by surprise. The damage is unprecedented. Entire villages have been wiped out. We are working day and night, but relentless snowfall has hampered relief operations. We could have done better." His assembly constituency of Dooru is the worst hit.
The first major official response to the crisis was perhaps Sonia Gandhi's trip to Srinagar. She accompanied Union defence minister Pranab Mukherjee, who ordered the army "not to wait" for orders but to act on its own. Col V.K. Batra, defence spokesman, calls the army operations "an absolute act of faith under these conditions." But while people died or fought to survive, the state government maintained that everything was "under control". Entirely consistent with this "official response" are the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) officials, who say the hue and cry about the weather in J&K "is media-created" and evidence of "poor public memory."
"There is nothing unusual about what's happening in Kashmir," says Omkari Prasad, director at New Delhi's Mausam Bhavan. They somehow overlook that the extent of damage—of life and property—is hardly normal. IMD records indeed say that such precipitation in the region in the month of February cannot be called unusual. However, climate scientists are calling the conditions in Kashmir "an extreme weather event" as very heavy snowfall was recorded within a very short span—just six days.
Between February 17 and 19, Banihal received 258.6 mm of snow, Qazigund 184 mm and Srinagar 104 mm. Srinagar received 38.1 mm in February last year.Says Rupa Kumar Kolli, head of climatology at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune: "In that sense, what happened is definitely an anomaly".
Can such anomalies be predicted and lives saved? Possibly not, as the regional models for tracking climate patterns in the tropics are weak and much of it is still beyond our understanding. So, while the Met department put out forecasts, it was either tentative, too late or did not reach the people in remote areas.
Meanwhile, scientists are still trying to understand the climatic conditions that led to this situation. R.D. Singh, who forecasts north Indian weather from the Safdarjung airport station of the IMD, explains: "Heavy and active western disturbances (WDs) approached J&K on the night of February 15 and became quasi-stationary as a result of which the area received heavy snowfall between February 16-19." (see box)
"WDs hit J&K really hard as the frequency and intensity of the disturbances were very high," says scientist Akhilesh Gupta, secretary of the Indian Meteorological Society. Whereas the normal frequency of a WD is once a week, there were six since the beginning of February and 14 since January 15 over J&K.
The heavy snowfall in such a short period is possibly a consequence of this high frequency. The result: before the snow from one disturbance could melt, the next one had set in.
The state administration was totally unequal to the task, and lives were lost. "More damage was done to the goodwill of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and his pdp regime by the crisis than what the National Conference had managed to do in these two years," says a political observer.
As Omar Abdullah, the NC president, put it: "There seems to be a role reversal. The ceremonial head (governor) is playing a more active role than the CM who was busy with a photo exhibition in New Delhi when Kashmir was faced with this grave crisis."
Although the Mufti's daughter Mehbooba, an MP, did try some damage control, the slack administration failed her as well. "Before you blame the government, you have to understand the weather conditions too. How can you clear roads while it is snowing heavily? The supply routes are cut and the weather isn't helping either," says Mehbooba.
Sure it isn't. But the question is if an extreme event like this is a pointer to global climate change. And is mitigation possible? Senior scientists say the heavy snowfall in J&K could be part of climate variability rather than an effect of global climate change.
But it is now recognised that extreme weather events such as droughts, cyclones, heat and cold waves have gone up due to global climate change, particularly in Asia. Even so, experts are cautious about reaching conclusions as to whether Kashmir is a pointer to climate change.
Until that has been clearly established, experts are focusing on the here and now. IMD's daily forecasts say "the trend will continue for another two to three days." Says Rajeevan Nair, director, National Climate Centre, Pune, which prepares long-range forecasts valid for three months: "We expected winter precipitation (Jan to March) over Northwest India (including J&K) to be on the higher side. Dynamic predictions from major climate prediction centres also suggest above normal activity till March 2005."
Sanghamitra Chakraborty In Delhi And Zafar Meraj In Srinagar