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India's water crisis: Parched winter, followed by prolonged dry spring dashes hopes of Kashmir's farmers

Editor's note: A recent NITI Aayog report on India's water resources presented an alarming state of affairs. The country, according to the think tank, is in the grip of the worst water crisis in its history, with 600 million Indians faced with "high to extreme water stress", resulting in 2 lakh deaths a year. Firstpost will run a series of ground reports from across the country to determine the extent to which depleted reserves have affected daily life.

Read all stories in the series here.

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Srinagar: Mohammad Yusuf Malik, a 52-year old farmer from central Kashmir's Ganderbal district, hasn't sown any crops on his three-acre land. Instead, he is exploring ways to start a small business in his hamlet, along with his son, a graduate in arts.

The reason Malik's looking for new avenues of livelihood in his fifties is the climate change, that has wreaked havoc on the landlocked Valley this year.

The region witnessed meagre snowfall last winter, followed by a prolonged dry spell during springtime. The rivers and tributaries, providing water to the paddy fields, started turning dry, compelling the state government to advise farmers, especially in north Kashmir, to not sow any water-intensive crops this season.

Paucity of water

Malik had a reason to follow the government advisory. "The nearby river stream that used to irrigate our fields during the sowing season has turned dry. It was impossible to irrigate the paddy fields and, therefore, we didn't sow anything this year," he says, explaining that he used to cultivate rice, the staple food of Kashmir, which is sown during the first 21 days of June every year.

Kashmiri farmers water crisis. Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

According to government figures, rice is sown on over 1.41 lakh hectares in Kashmir. Going by the latest Economic Survey, 9.51 lakh metric tonnes of rice was produced in the Valley in 2017.

"It was a profitable harvest last year because the water in the streams was abundant. This year, the paucity of water has led to a dreadful situation and it could take a toll in the coming time," says Malik's son, Ishfaq.

He narrates that he and his father used to sow rice crops that were mostly sold to local dealers, fetching no less than Rs 2-3 lakh. "Besides that, we used to consume the produce and didn't need to buy anything from the market," he says, adding that "now when we haven't sowed anything and the land is empty, we need to find some other mode of income".

The father-son duo isn't alone in witnessing the wrath of the dry spell.

Worst dry winter

Farmers make up 80 percent of the Jammu and Kashmir population and agriculture is the backbone of the economy. The productivity level of paddy, at about 40 quintals per hectare in Kashmir, is the highest in the country. This year, the Valley witnessed the worst dry winter in 30 years, with farmers trained to sow paddy being affected by the paucity of water.

Meteorological Department data showed that against the average of 622 millimetres of snow, mountain ranges in the Valley this year got just 172 millimetres, depicting the worrisome changes in weather pattern between December and March. After the winter, spring in the region too was dry with no rainfall in March and April.

According to the Economic Survey of Jammu and Kashmir, 2017, an estimated 60 percent of the state's agriculture is dependent on rainwater for irrigation.

People in the Valley, especially farmers, were apprehensive of the drought-like situation, and their fears came true when the department of irrigation issued an advisory in the last week of March.

"All farmers are hereby requested that they should not go for paddy cultivation this year as, due to lack of snowfall and rainfall, there is hardly any water in the Jhelum River and the streams," read a notice issued by the Baramulla district wing of the department. "So, please don't go for paddy cultivation this year considering that we won't be able to supply water for irrigation."

Similar notices were issued in districts such as Kupwara, Bandipora and Ganderbal.

Away from central Kashmir's Ganderbal, another farmer, Mohammad Abbas Khan, is facing a situation similar to Malik's. Living in north Kashmir's Kupwara area, bordering Pakistan, Khan remembers vividly how four years ago, the floods of 2014 wreaked havoc on his 0.7-hectare paddy field, damaging all the yield.

"It seems like people have fiddled with the equanimity of nature too much and we farmers are bearing the brunt of it. There are around 50 farmers in my area who haven't sown anything in their fields this year. The reason is that the canal, Lal Kul, that used to irrigate our land has turned dry. There are mere traces of it now," he rues.

The 47-year-old farmer says he has little experience in sowing pulse crops that aren't much dependent on water. "Since the time of our forefathers, we have been sowing the rice crop. Now, all of a sudden, how can we switch to another? The fact is that we have not witnessed such a troublesome situation ever," Khan adds.

'Climate-smart'

For professor Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, head of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Kashmir, the present crises have erupted due to the pathetic functioning of the government.

"You cannot blame nature for everything. It is the government that had to keep adequate water for the sowing season in Kashmir. They haven't, and thus a situation has emerged in which we are seeing most farmers leaving their lands barren," Romshoo says.

He alleged that the department of irrigation did not properly manage water schemes in the state and optimal water utilisation wasn't done. "Otherwise, the state, with around 8,000 glaciers, is the water tower of Asia and there is no depletion of water resources in any way in Kashmir," Romshoo adds.

For Tawseef Mehraj, a Kashmir-based research scholar studying agro-ecology and the system of rice intensification at Hamburg University, the best answer to the present situation would be that farmers switch to "climate-smart agriculture".

According to him, the United Nations, in a 2010 report on the right to food, advocated a shift toward agro-ecological practices for agriculture to adapt to the changing climate and to be able to feed the increasing world population without further ecological costs.

"In December 2017, Nature magazine in an editorial titled 'Strategies for survival' described SRI (system of rice integration) as a unique agricultural strategy where much can be achieved with up to 50 percent less water, with better management of plants, water and soil, and without any change in the plant varieties that we use," Tawseef says.

The author is a Srinagar-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.


Updated Date: Jul 18, 2018 15:40 PM

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