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Why Is Kashmir Witnessing A Changing Weather Pattern?

This year, Kashmir Valley saw an unusually prolonged dry spell during Chillai Kalan, the harshest phase of winter lasting 40 days from December 21 to January 29. This dry spell began in November and persisted until the recent snowfall last week.

A houseboat in a waterbody in Kashmir with depleted water level.
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In mid-January, Mohammad Amin Bhat and his young colleague were having Khewa beneath a mountain in the Gulmarg ski resort. Bhat, a farmer in his 50s, brings two kettles of Kashmri Khewa from his home in Tangmarg every winter day to sell it to tourists in Gulmarg, priced at Rs 30 per cup. However, this time, there seemed to be little interest from tourists. Bhat says during the dry season, fewer people crave for having Khewa. In contrast, during the snowy season, tourists eagerly ask for it to warm themselves up. "During the snow season, I used to finish both kettles within two hours and head back home," he says.

More than his economy, Bhat was concerned about the changing pattern of the weather in Kashmir. He'd heard stories from elders about Gulmarg having snow up to five or six feet high. He pointed towards the dry Gulmarg Golf Course, missing its usual blanket of snow, says “It breaks my heart to see the landscape so barren.”

This year, Kashmir Valley saw an unusually prolonged dry spell during Chillai Kalan, the harshest phase of winter lasting 40 days from December 21 to January 29. This dry spell began in November and persisted until the recent snowfall last week.

Throughout this period, the region experienced a significant rainfall deficit of 79%, with only 12.6 mm of rainfall recorded in December 2023, well below the average of 59.6 mm.

The temperatures have been 6-8 degrees above the winter averages. On January 13, Srinagar reached a maximum temperature of 15 C, the highest January temperature recorded in the past two decades and it was hotter than Delhi.

Now the heavy snowfall in Gulmarg and other areas has brought ski tourism back to Gulmarg with the ski resort bustling with the activity, the environmentalists say the prolonged dry spell will have a long-term impact on Kashmir’s agriculture, horticulture and also glaciers.

It was after seven years, Kashmir found itself in the middle of an unprecedented snowless winter leading Imams of mosques to hold special prayers across the Valley.  Experts say the snowfall during Chillai Kalaan is crucial for maintaining the health of glaciers and regulating stream flows. They warn these dry winters could lead to increased loss of glaciers. 

During the dry spell, the Jhelum River, the main river of the Valley, and other streams dried up, causing houseboats to struggle to maintain their balance. The water level of the Jhelum River has plummeted to its lowest point in many years. On January 14, the river's flow was measured at minus 0.75 feet at Sangam marking a level not witnessed since November 2017. 

“Snowfall is very crucial as it provides water to grow agriculture and horticulture crops and also important for the regional water security. The lack of snowfall during Chillai -kalan, the harshest part of winter in Kashmir, is attributed to climate change,” tweeted Prof Shakil Romshoo, well known environmentalist and vice-chancellor vice-chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology, Kashmir.

The annual production of apples in the Kashmir Valley ranges from 1.5 million to 1.8 million metric tons. The valley’s biggest economy, the Rs 10,000 crore apple industry, provides a livelihood to around 3.5 million people in the region.

Over the past decade, Jammu and Kashmir has seen massive floods, frequent landslides, untimely heavy snowfall, and dry seasons resulting in substantial economic losses.

Since the devastating floods of September 2014, people have been increasingly concerned about rainfall patterns in the Valley. That year, Kashmir experienced widespread and unusually intense rainfall, coupled with cloudbursts over a week, triggering floods that caused economic losses of up to Rs 40,000 crores. The river Jhelum, with a water capacity of around 40,000 cusecs, was overwhelmed, flowing at 1.20 lakh cusecs, breaching its banks and devastating Kashmir and its capital, Srinagar.

A houseboat stranded on the dry riverbed of the Jhelum River for months serves as a reminder of the impact sudden weather changes can have. Its owner, Abdul Qadir Guroo, is struggling to repair it and push it back into the water. Guroo says the houseboat not only served as his residence but also catered to tourists. He says in September last year they were abruptly awakened by the receding waters of the Jhelum, forcing them to jump into the river to save their lives. "Luckily, on the night of September 15, when this happened, no tourists were staying in my houseboat," he adds.

Guroo says the disaster occurred due to the government's decision to open a floodgate at Chatabal to lower the water level in the river without announcing it to houseboat owners. He says they used to receive warnings from the government before such actions were taken, allowing them to adjust their houseboats accordingly. However, this time, the sudden opening of the floodgates caught them off guard. "At that time, the water level in the Jhelum was rising. Since the 2014 floods, everyone has been panicking if the water level in the Jhelum rises. Some official, in panic, opened the floodgate, and the water in the Jhelum abruptly receded," he says. “I have lost home. I have lost earnings during peak tourist season. Only because some official panicked,” he adds.

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The valley is gripped by weather-related anxiety, whether it is the long dry spell or heavy rains for a few days. “I don’t know what is it. At times we see rain for days together and at times we see a long dry season. It seems we have sinned too much,” says Bhat in Gulmarg refusing to attribute weather changes to climate change.

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