Water Stress in Kashmir

kashmiri family
Published in
May 2009

In the green mountains of Indian Kashmir, just a few miles from the Pakistan border, is a glacier called Kolahoi. It lies at the top of the valley it has gouged for thousands of years into the earth, a valley rippled and scarred by ice and cluttered with boulder fields. The story carved into this landscape tells us the icy tongue of Kolahoi once reached for many miles; even within living memory, according to local inhabitants, it stretched about half a mile further down the valley.

But today, little of that remains. Over the course of the past few decades the glacier has steadily retreated, like a snail pulling its head back into its shell. And now, it can retreat no further. There’s only the last slope of ice, backed up against the rock of the mountain behind.

I’m standing halfway up Kolahoi, having completed an exhausting scramble over loose, unsteady moraine, the debris of rock unceremoniously dumped by the melting ice. The glacier has a wrinkled, rotten look, reminiscent of congealed fat. It is not white, but mottled and blotched with dirty browns and greys. I’m accompanied by Dr. Ghulam Jeelani from the University of Kashmir, an energetic, cheerful geo-hydrologist, who explains to me exactly what it is we’re seeing.

‘There should be two parts to a glacier. Accumulation and ablation.’ Accumulation is the built-up snow that packs down into rock-hard ice, while ablation is the opposite, the area of melting. It’s the equilibrium between these two zones that keeps the glacier stable. ‘But here, the whole accumulation period has converted into ablation. I think if this present trend continues, in ten years there will be no Kolahoi glacier.’

According to one definition, the name Kashmir originates from ‘a land desiccated from water,’ recalling the legend of how the valley was reclaimed from a vast primordial lake that long ago covered the earth. This is a fitting creation myth for the valley that many call Paradise. Its system of lakes and serene waterways irrigates luminously green rice paddies and orchards of apples and apricots, abundant fields of wheat and prized saffron. There are elegant gardens, and floating markets selling vegetables of outlandish size. The contrast between this land of plenty and the neighbouring Himalayan region of Ladakh – a virtual moonscape of barren mountains and high-altitude desert – could not be starker.

This, of course, is one of the reasons the region has been so bitterly contested, controlled by Afghans, Mughals, Sikhs, and more recently split in two by India and Pakistan. Tens of thousands have died in the conflict, and today the disputed border is one of the most heavily-militarised regions on the planet. During the few weeks I spend in Kashmir, violence erupts once again. A dispute over a small patch of land leads to strikes, riots and renewed conflict between the valley’s Muslims and Hindus, unravelling a decade of tentative progress towards the peace that Kashmiri people crave.

But in the clamour of communal unrest, Kolahoi’s story goes unheard. Ultimately, this green ‘Paradise’ – like the rest of the world, in fact – faces a threat far more profound than militancy or terrorism. The natural beauty and fecundity depend entirely on water; and the water supply largely depends on glaciers such as Kolahoi, which are melting at an unprecedented rate.

‘The first effect of global warming is on water,’ explains Dr. Jeelani. From our vantage point we can see the glacial river bursting forth below, milky with ice sediment, rushing down into the valley where it will form the Lidder River and eventually merge with the mighty Jhelum, Kashmir’s main waterway. ‘Kolahoi is the only permanent source of water for the valley. After the snows melt in May or June, that water source is exhausted. What is left? The glaciers only. If Kolahoi permanently disappears, there will be no surface water in late summer. Even the groundwater will be affected. This could go from being a water-rich area to an area of water stress.’

To anyone who’s seen the lushness of Kashmir, this is staggering to comprehend. It seems impossible that such natural beauty could simply wither away. But this is a threat every bit as real as the ongoing conflict in the region, and until recently it’s been overlooked – or ignored – by the authorities. Incredibly, despite the crucial importance of the glacier to the valley’s ecosystems, its visible decline has never been formally studied until now.

‘The problem in the Himalayas is that no data has been collected,’ says Professor Syed Iqbal Hasnain from The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), the sustainable development foundation coordinating this expedition. ‘There is a dearth of information in India, and in South Asia in general. We have to establish a scientific link.’ In Kolahoi’s case, that dearth of information is particularly pronounced. The Lidder Valley is a favourite infiltration route for militants sneaking over the border from Pakistan, and until recently it simply hasn’t been safe enough to establish scientific monitoring here. It’s a reminder of how human conflict and environmental disaster often go hand in hand, or at least feed off one another, to mutual detriment.

Glacial science is a complicated business, highly dependent on local variants, and at this point TERI can’t say for sure why glaciers like Kolahoi are disappearing so fast. Likely culprits include rising temperatures, increasing local carbon emissions, deforestation, decreasing snowfall, and possibly Asian Brown Cloud (ABC), the polluted smog that drifts as far as the Southern Himalayas in the summer. But whatever the toxic blend of causes, Kolahoi’s melting clearly fits a general pattern of glacial retreat observable from Pakistan to China. Satellite images tell us that Himalayan glaciers are melting at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world. These glaciers contain the largest store of fresh water outside the polar ice-caps, feeding the mighty Asian rivers – including the Indus, the Brahmaputra and the holy Ganges itself – that have allowed civilisation to flourish, and on which up to two billion people depend.

Professor Hasnain will return in some months to build a weather station here, recording Kolahoi’s mass balance and hydrology, plus possible effects of ABC, along with several discharge stations to measure river flow. TERI’s ultimate plan is to create an index of benchmark glaciers that spans the Himalayas from east to west, part of a long-overdue attempt to monitor the rate of glacial decline right across the range.

This will certainly add to the sum of human knowledge, increasing our understanding of the causes behind a looming environmental and humanitarian catastrophe. Sadly, though, it’s too late for Kolahoi. Kolahoi can’t be saved. Looking at the doomed glacier now, its grubby slopes trickling with water, I try to imagine how this valley will look when all the ice has gone. In ten, twenty, fifty years from now – certainly, it seems, within my lifetime – the rock will be bare, the water diminished. The densely-forested valley below, and the fields and waterways beyond, may no longer resemble the green Paradise over which men have clashed for so long.

‘This glacier is gone,’ says Dr. Jeelani, simply and without drama. We take one last look and then start our descent, turning our backs on Kolahoi, a once-beautiful vastness of ice that now resembles a slab of meat going bad in the sun.