No snow in the Himalayas, why India should worry

Water in North India's rivers comes only from snow-melt, and while the El Niño effect is natural, the pattern is somewhat different this time

A houseboat on the river Jhelum 
is stranded as water levels 
dip to a 70-year low (photo: Green Stories/ Raashid Andrabi)
A houseboat on the river Jhelum is stranded as water levels dip to a 70-year low (photo: Green Stories/ Raashid Andrabi)

Pankaj Chaturvedi

Kashmir, proverbial heaven on earth, is replete with natural beauty and greenery. The livelihoods of its residents depend largely on the winter season, 40 of whose 70 days — from 21 December to 31 January — are referred to as Chilla-e-Kalan, when the atmospheric temperature is usually several degrees below zero. The subsequent period of nearly 20 days — 1 February to 20 February — is called Chilla-e-Khurd, that is, short winter. The period from 21 February to 2 March is called Chilla-e-Bachha or minor winter.

This year, after 25 days of Chilla-e-Kalan, Kashmiris are worried. On 15 January, the water level in the river Jhelum, lifeline of Kashmir, hit its lowest in history — flowing at 0.75 feet at Anantnag and 0.86 feet at Asham. On a day when the temperature in Delhi was 3.5ºC, the mercury in Jammu was at 10.8 — a full seven notches above normal.

The maximum temperature in Pahalgam, a favourite tourist destination for its snowfall and snow games, was 14.1,while in Srinagar it was 13.6ºC. There are many districts in Kashmir where temperatures dip below zero at night, while going above 10 degrees during the day.

That explains why, this year, there is no snow on the skiing grounds of Gulmarg. And why only dry grass can be seen in areas where several feet thick sheets of snow used to lie this time of the year.

Zojila Pass, situated at an altitude of about 11,800 feet, connects Ladakh to Kashmir. In the last week of December, it usually witnesses 30 to 40 feet of snow. This year, well past mid-January, there is barely six to seven feet of snow to be seen. There has been no snowfall in most of the state, due to which the drinking water crisis is all too evident. The government may show tourist figures as its prime achievement, but the reality is that amid the glittering advertisements, local people are worried about the harm done to farming and horticulture, and the lack of fodder for cattle.

Kashmir is not alone in worrying over the absence of snow and the change in weather patterns. All the Himalayan regions in the country are facing a similar crisis. In Himachal Pradesh, the Kangra valley is experiencing drought after 17 years. Mountains that are usually snowcapped during this month are lying barren. In January, snow is missing from the Dhauladhar mountain range above the lush green Kangra valley. The days are as sunny as summer, but the mornings and evenings are quite cold. A similar situation has arisen in Shimla.

Even in Himachal Pradesh’s neighbouring state Uttarakhand, the situation is not normal. The hope of snowfall has thus far kept tourists waiting in Mussoorie. They waited in vain. There was not a single flake of snow in the last months of 2023. Not even as 2024 began.

No snow in the Himalayas, why India should worry

Famous for winter sports and skiing, Auli and its surrounding hills appear desolate without snow. Winter sports could not be held. The ropeway from Joshimath to Auli has been closed. Troubled by the lack, local people and hotel owners have taken to praying to Lata Bhagwati and Lord Vishwakarma for snowfall.

Where has all the snow gone?

Scientists at the India Meteorological Department (IMD) say a weak western disturbance this year has resulted in the absence of significant snowfall and rainfall in the mountains and plains. The reason for its weakness is said to be the prevalence of El Niño and other meteorological conditions. It is not that western disturbances are not getting created, but they are passing over the northern Himalayas. This is why there is no possibility of snowfall and rain on the Indian side of the great mountains.

According to a study titled ‘Western Disturbances: A Review’, published in the International Journal of Geophysics in April 2015, snowfall in December, January and February results in accumulation of snow on the mountains, which is important for India’s water resources.

Water in the north Indian rivers comes only from snow-melt. This El Niño effect is natural, but this time, the pattern is somewhat different. Global warming may be one of the reasons behind it. This had happened in 2009, when it had caused a drought in the country.

Kunda Pani in J&K’s Bandipora district, 
known for its cold streams, is drying up as temperatures in the Valley have risen by 2ºC over 40 years
Kunda Pani in J&K’s Bandipora district, known for its cold streams, is drying up as temperatures in the Valley have risen by 2ºC over 40 years

Since mountains are extremely sensitive to climate change, lack of traditional forests, cutting of mountains and excessive population have intensified the change in weather patterns in these areas.

Warnings disappear in the red bag

In 2010, the LBS Academy, Mussoorie, had stated in a research paper that resources in Mussoorie had hit their peak capacity. The population of this hill station is only 30,000, of which almost 8,000 people live in houses that face the threat of landslides. The arrival of about five lakh tourists every year in such a small place causes an excessive burden on water, electricity and sewerage systems.

In a workshop on the challenge of development in Himalayan cities organised by the department of urban development at Uttarakhand Administration Academy (ATI) on 6 April 2023, Dr Vikram Gupta, senior scientist at Wadia Institute, Dehradun, said a study conducted in the last four years under the Indo-Norway Project had concluded that the load-carrying capacity of Nainital, Mussoorie, Shimla and other hill stations had been exhausted long ago.

The report ‘Environmental Assessment of Tourism in the Indian Himalayan Region’ released by the Govind Ballabh Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment (GBNIHE) in June 2022, stated in strong words that increasing tourism in the Himalayan region had increased pressure on hill stations.

Besides this, the change in land use is a big problem in itself. The increased destruction of forests has a huge impact on the ecosystem of this region. The report had also pointed out the destruction of wildlife habitats and the adverse impact on biodiversity owing to tourist vehicles, and roads being built in Himachal Pradesh.

The report was sent to the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEF&CC) on the orders of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), to no avail.

Sensitive mountains of Himachal

The Himalayan region in India is spread over 13 states and Union territories, viz. Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, Assam and West Bengal.

The end-to-end length of this mountainous ‘Crown of India’ region is approximately 2,500 km. About 50 million people have been living in the lap of the snowcapped mountain ranges for centuries. The rivers that provide water to most of India originate in this region. The glaciers here control the warming of our planet. That is why it is the most sensitive region from the point of view of climate change.

The mountains in the Uttarakhand region are among the entities most affected by climate change. About 12,000 natural watersheds and aquifers in the mountains, where eternal rivers like the Ganga and Yamuna originate, have either dried up or are on the verge of drying up.

Manali turning into a drain

A study conducted in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, showed that the built-up area there had increased from 4.7 per cent in 1989 to 15.7 per cent in 2012. Today, this figure has exceeded 25 per cent. Similarly, between 1980 and 2023, a shocking increase of 5,600 per cent has been recorded in the number of tourists in Manali.

This has directly impacted the ecosystem of this area. With the number of hotels increasing, the demand for drinking water and the burden of disposal of dirty water has also gone up. Today, Manali is on the verge of sinking.

In the Himalayan region, snow is a matter of life and death
In the Himalayan region, snow is a matter of life and death

What happens if there is no snow?

For tourists, cold weather and snow are a matter of joy, but for those living in the Himalayan region, this snow is a matter of life and death. In Uttarakhand, the weather remains dry owing to lack of snowfall and rains above Mussoorie. Crops are dying due from lack of rain and frost. Farmers in Chakrata depend on cash crops like ginger, tomato, garlic and peas. All these crops are in dire straits for want of water.

With the lack of snow in the hilly areas, farmers growing apples, peaches and apricots have been praying for rain as their only hope. Snowfall is also essential for apples and saffron in Kashmir.

Agriculture is at the core of the Indian economy, and farming cannot happen without irrigation. For irrigation, it is essential that the water flow in the rivers remains uninterrupted. The responsibility of releasing water to the rivers lies with those ice mountains which gradually melt in summers. It is clear that in the coming days, there will be a water crisis not only in Kashmir and Himachal, but in the entire country.

A water crisis brings with it agricultural losses, lack of employment, inflation and migration. It has to be understood that increasing migration towards big cities and resultant urban slums are the biggest visible results of climate change.

What should be done?

We must understand that the western disturbance, or El Niño, is not a new phenomenon affecting climate change. We have been turning our backs on those factors that have made the situation lethal. A closer look reveals that whenever and wherever crowds increase in the name of tourism, the environmental balance gets disturbed. With no measures to check it, this imbalance deepens.

Second, the increased use of concrete in the mountains leads to higher temperatures. The destruction of mountains and forests for roads and other construction projects is a reason that even school-children understand, but no one does anything about it because of skewed perceptions of ‘development’.

This article was originally published in the National Herald on Sunday edition of 21 January. Kashmir Valley has since experienced light snowfall, ending a two-month dry spell. The meteorological department forecasts moderate snow and rain until 31 January

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