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FOCUS: CLIMATE SOS
Kashmir's climate frontline
Disputed territory faces challenges as impact of climate change begins to take its toll.
Last Modified: 13 Dec 2009 09:58 GMT

Farmers say the Kashmiri saffron harvest is down by up to 40 per cent [Credit: Hubert]

"We used to have good money in saffron," says Ali Mohammed, a weathered 46-year-old farmer, as he looks over the fields of purple flowers ready for the autumn harvest in Indian-administered Kashmir. "But now no rain for months, bad saffron crop this year." 

Used as a spice and for medicinal purposes, saffron has been grown in Kashmir for millennia. Mohammed's family have farmed the crop for five generations, but as the weather patterns in Kashmir change, they wonder how much longer their business can survive.

Kashmir is beginning to recover from two decades of bloody conflict. But the region, once known as "Paradise on Earth" because of its stunning natural beauty and abundant resources, is now facing another crisis - a changing climate.  

The thousands of glaciers in the Western Himalaya Mountains that wind through Kashmir are receding as fast as any on the planet, melting due to increased temperatures.

This causes heavy flooding in the region, which is followed by drought during critical planting times. The early glacier melt, combined with a decrease in rainfall and snowfall, directly affects farmers like Mohammed.

Lack of research

in depth
Like many of the countries in the Northern Hemisphere, Kashmir has felt the effects of climate change over the past decade. But little research has been done to measure the specific effects of the phenomenon in the region. 

"The local people and farmers know the environment is changing, but what they don't know is how they will adapt," says Dr. Shakil Romshoo, a professor in the department of geology and geophysics at Kashmir University. 

"Critical measurements in food security policies and better water management practices must be addressed if the region's horticulture is to be sustainable in the future."   

As world leaders meet in Copenhagen to discuss future carbon emissions and how to minimise the effects of climate change, Kashmir is looking for ways to shrink its own carbon footprint. 

Emissions could be lowered by reducing the number of cars in the state, shifting people's diets to vegetarianism, building a tourism industry that focuses on eco-tourism, and by ending the rampant deforestation throughout the state. 

But this is just a tiny part of a solution to a much bigger problem. If the decisions made at Copenhagen are going to have an impact each nation will have to make changes. 

Resolutions cannot stop the early bloom of crops throughout the Northern Hemisphere, or the recession of Kashmir's glaciers. But they can help people in this region and across the world adapt and make more informed environmental decisions.

Rise in temperatures

Kashmir's farmers face an uncertain future [Credit: Hubert] 

According to the Indian Meteorological Agency, temperatures in Kashmir have risen by over one degree Celsius and are expected to continue rising at .05 degrees Celsius each year. 

Ali Mohammed does not know about the changes in degrees, but knows what he sees when it comes to changes in weather patterns.

"In the past the snow would start falling in December, but now the snow does not come until February and March, and it only snows a few inches," he says.  

The data collected by Romshoo over the last 10 years shows that temperatures were consistently warmer than the average of the 50 years between 1947 and 1998. He says that the warmer winters have led to less snowfall and exponential increases in both the melting of snow and glaciers in the spring and summer. 

"The increase in temperatures will also have an effect on drinking water, irrigation, and hydropower," he says.

Dr. Jim Jarvie heads the Climate Unit at Mercy Corps, an international aid agency. "Countries around the world who find themselves dependent on glacial water systems will have two interrelated shocks in store," he says.

Traditional rainfall water supply practices will have to be revised so that proper irrigation systems can be implemented, he says. He also thinks that long-term glacier recession could lead to the demise of even the most basic water supplies. 

He compares the change in Kashmir's climate to global projections and believes that similar adaptations, like drought resistant crops, should be applied. 

Changing crops

Romshoo agrees. "Though climate change is a global phenomenon, we can combat it by changing our crops from rice paddies that are highly water intensive to crops that need less water," he says. 

Dr. Nazeer Khan, the director of the Central Institute of Temperate Horticulture (CITH) in Kashmir, believes that if diversified crops are used and better horticulture practices are adopted, crops will fare well in the next 20 years. 

"The productivity of some crops is expected to increase with the slight one to two degree Celsius rise in temperature, provided there is sufficient precipitation," Khan says. "As the temperatures rise, apples are already growing in more hilly areas. There are now pears, peaches, and apricots where the apple orchards once were." 

He believes that crops like walnut trees, which require little water and have shallow root systems, are viable options for the future. While this is encouraging, saffron, a water intensive crop, will not fare as well. 

Rainwater harvesting and alternative crop selections are two of the practices that are just starting to be discussed in Kashmir. But Jarvie emphasises that more needs to be done. 

"We need to engage national governments and regional bodies in taking the threat to farming communities seriously, and allocating serious budget streams towards protecting farmers, and overall national food security," he says.

Programmes like this would directly affect farmers like Mohammed. 

Local knowledge key

Though there are climate models that attempt to downscale data to district level, Jarvie believes that the most reliable sources of information on climate change are the local people who watch their environment and livelihoods change.  

"What we do know is that yes, we are seeing a real warming pattern. How that pattern is felt comes largely from anecdotal evidence exactly like the farmers are providing; changes in flowering patterns and bird nesting times; trends in shifts in local rain patterns."

"These two data sources - broad scale climate models corroborated by independent local information - are in agreement and reinforce not only the reality of the problem, but also that the problem is already being felt by some of the world's most vulnerable communities." 

People like Ali Mohammed may have to face the reality that the warming of Kashmir is going to demand a shift in thinking, planning and planting choices. If they do not, then their way of life will, like Kashmir's shrinking glaciers, melt away with the changing climate.   

Rebecca Byerly is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

Al Jazeera is not responsible for the content of external websites.

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