After a hard climb up the eastern flank of the Kolahoi glacier, Ghulam Jeelani, a geo-hydrologist from the University of Kashmir, catches his breath. This is the Kashmir valley’s only year-round source of water. But it is melting at an alarming rate. The glacier is a dirty brown colour, wrinkled with crevasses. It looks more like an enormous mudslide than a frozen reservoir of fresh water. Mr Jeelani says that the glacier is in “ablation”—shrinking through melting. If present trends, which are blamed on climate change, continue, he concludes with a shrug, “In ten years there will be no Kolahoi glacier.”
This threatens the livelihoods of millions, and the Kashmir valley’s reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful places, made ugly only by decades of human conflict. The region, disputed by India and Pakistan, is riven by a bloody insurgency. The reopening this week of lorry trade across the “line of control” dividing Indian- and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir was a rare moment of optimism. It followed months of anti-Indian protests that have reinvigorated the valley’s secessionists.
The political tensions in Kashmir help explain why no one seems to have paid the alarming shrinkage of the Kolahoi glacier much attention, until now. According to villagers in nearby Aru, in 1985 the glacier’s snout stretched half a mile (800 metres) further down the valley. The traces are still there: a dark tidemark on the valley’s lower slopes, where trees and plants have not yet rooted. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of reliable scientific data on the region. Kolahoi lies just a few miles from the line of control. These densely forested mountains and valleys are an infiltration route for fighters sneaking over from Pakistan. Until recently it had not been safe to establish regular monitoring.
But Kolahoi’s melting has profound implications for the valley. The glacier feeds the Jhelum river, which drains into the glorious Dal lake in Srinagar, and makes the valley so fertile. With its abundant rice, wheat and corn, its prized apple orchards and fields of saffron, the valley is a stark contrast to neighbouring Ladakh, a moonscape of barren mountains and high-altitude desert.
This, of course, is one reason the valley has been so bitterly contested. But its natural fecundity depends on water, and the water supply depends on glaciers such as Kolahoi. After the snow melts in May and June, the glaciers are the only source of water. If they disappear, says Mr Jeelani, Kashmir, long a water-rich area, could become one of “water stress”.
Syed Hasnain, of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), the Delhi-based development think-tank that arranged this expedition, accuses the government of being less interested in environmental problems than in playing politics with Pakistan. But unless both governments set politics aside, an environmental disaster looms. TERI plans to include Kolahoi in an index of benchmark glaciers that span the Himalayas, part of an overdue attempt to monitor the rate of glacial decline in the range. That decline threatens, all too soon, to visit another sort of curse on a valley famously likened to paradise.