Kashmir is hot. The unprecedented heatwave in Kashmir – the worst after the early 1980s – is taking its own toll on Kashmir. Passers-by in Srinagar’s busy city centre of Lal Chowk has been hiving tea stalls selling plates of sliced watermelon and cold drinks to beat the heat.
The temperature in Srinagar hit nearly 36 degrees Celsius on 17 August, the first time in nearly four decades. In the far-off mountainous region of Kupwara in north Kashmir, the heat has been even more relentless. The frontier district recorded a temperature of 36.7 degrees Celsius on the same day.
Nestled in the relatively cooler Himalayan range, Kashmir’s heatwave hints at a troubling snapshot of the future that climate change might bring about. Experts say that the temperature will continue to soar in the coming years, possibly even breaking previous records owing to global climate change.
“It’s getting hotter with every passing year,” noted Irfan Rashid, an Assistant Professor at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Kashmir. “The temperatures over Kashmir are increasing at an exacerbated pace as compared to other parts of the Himalayan arc.”
Naushad, a mason who has worked in Kashmir for several years but he had never experienced a summer like this in Kashmir. “I come to Kashmir for work because it is relatively cooler here than other places but this summer, the heat is unbearable,” said the resident of the warm plains of Uttar Pradesh. “While working, the rays of sun feel like hundreds of needles pricking your body simultaneously.”
Naushad’s woes are unlikely to mitigate if we are to believe a recent study. The Kashmir Valley may witness a temperature increase of up to 7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century due to climate change, a study published in the journal of Climate Change has estimated.
Prepared by a team of researchers from the University of Kashmir, including Irfan Rashid, the report presents an overview of the Kashmir Himalayas — comprising the Pir Panjal range, the Greater Himalayan range, Kashmir valley — and the Karakoram ranges in the Ladakh region.
Explaining the gravity of the findings, Professor Shakeel Ahmad Romshoo, Dean of Research at the University of Kashmir and lead author of the paper said: “The Kashmir valley has a temperate climate. There are places like Pahalgam and Gulmarg, where you feel cold even in July or August. But as per our study, you will not have this situation. The temperate climate zone in Kashmir might not exist by the end of the century.”
According to the paper, the projected rise in temperatures and a harsh climate is also likely to affect key sectors of the economy in Kashmir—such as agriculture as well, the impact of which is already visible in North Kashmir. Farmers who have worked the land for generations in the region say that they are losing crops to the scorching heat and their incomes are plunging.
Director Agriculture, Kashmir, Altaf Aijaz Andrabi is particularly worried about parts of North Kashmir like Kupwara. “The paddy crop is in a very crucial stage there. Scientifically, we call this the milky stage when the grains are being filled. If the dry spell continues, it will lead to grave consequences”, he said.
Back in Srinagar, the city’s disappearing green belt has been the most talked-about reason for the soaring heat. Over the last few years, poplar trees have been consistently chopped down, en masse, over fears that pollen from the female poplar trees posed health risks.
Earlier this year, the local administration in a memo dated 2 April 2020 ordered “looping and felling” of 42,000 poplar trees in wake of the coronavirus pandemic, much to the dismay of environmentalists. Similarly, wide stretches of green cover especially around the dozen small and big lakes have disappeared having been replaced by concrete jungles.
“Where there once were miles of farmland, the property has been expropriated and sold to the highest bidder for crores- often illegally”, said a Srinagar resident, who lives near the Aanchar Lake in the city’s outskirts. “Earlier cool breeze would flow throughout the day from the trees overlooking the lake. Now both the trees and the lake are shrinking due to rampant construction”, he lamented.
Man-made changes in the ecologically fragile Valley’s landscape have exacerbated what scientists call the “urban heat island effect”—cities tend to register higher temperatures than the surrounding landscape because buildings and pavement often gather heat, rather than reflecting it back toward space.
“Development is okay, but it needs to strike balance with the environment. We can take lessons from Bhutan on how to conserve the environment. Or from Japan, that has 68% country under forest cover,” Dr. Romshoo added. “There should be a complete stop on deforestation.”
However, the administration seems to be following a different path altogether. In the aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370, the Forest Advisory Committee of the erstwhile state of J-K had approved a diversion of over 727 hectares of designation forest land between September and October. Out of it, 33 percent has been earmarked for the use of the army and paramilitary forces.
Coupled with the rampant illegal timber smuggling, forests in Kashmir are increasingly being left bare. But Kashmiris are not entirely to be blamed for. The global temperatures have been rising also due to unchecked combustion of fossil fuels in the industrial cities of Asia.
Best suited to describe the Kashmiri case, Dr. Rashid believes, “it is a cumulative effect of processes operating at a global scale as well as the local ones, I believe is responsible for climatic changes in Kashmir”.
Back on a construction site in another area on the outskirts of Srinagar, Mr. Naushad has now starting to work till late night while taking a break during the afternoon. “This is the schedule many follow in other states to avoid the afternoon sun,” he said of the scorching heat in the plains of the country. “Time might have come for Kashmir to follow it as well.”