Scarce snow, water: a climate change story in Himachal

Tourists click selfie while enjoying at a snow-capped hill after fresh snowfall in Manali, Himachal Pradesh. PTI

“Dear Guest, please note due to acute water shortage in Himachal, we request you to save water. Washing of clothes is not allowed and a fine of Rs 1,000 will be charged in any room with washed clothes. Please cooperate as the hills are facing acute water shortage.”

Messages like the above one, hundreds of roadside hand pumps with bone dry pits, and hotel tankers carrying water are among the common sights that greet you once you reach the picturesque Himachal Pradesh and step into a hotel these days.

This is scary for a state whose two most important economic activities are horticulture and tourism. While studies had indicated changes in temperature and snowfall patterns in the last few decades, the economic significance of such a climatic change dawned on the administration much later, when the world-famous apple orchards in Kullu valley reported a drop in productivity and fall in quality. The population of honeybees dwindled, adding to the concerns of apple growers.

Independent studies have demonstrated that in recent years, temperature rise in the Kullu valley has been more prominent than anywhere else. The outlook for the valley is severe, as indicated by projections made based on the regional climate model of the Hadley Centre, UK. The projection for Kullu indicates a rise of more than 2.47 °C temperature, accompanied by substantial decline in precipitation during critical months.

With the snow line going up, the orchards have moved upwards, leaving the farmers in Kullu searching for alternative crops like pomegranate. The situation is likely to deteriorate in the future, with several studies predicting a further rise in temperature in the valley, coupled with decreasing rainfall and snowfall.

“Climate change is reality as far as farmers in Himachal Pradesh are concerned and farmers in Kullu valley are the worst-affected. Decrease in rainfall and, particularly in winter, precipitation, coupled with rising winter temperatures have affected the apple belt more than the other valleys. The shift in the apple belt is also more perceptible in Kullu than in other parts of the state,” D C Rana, director and special secretary, Himachal Pradesh Environment and Science Department told DH.

Kullu, however, is not an isolated case in Himachal when it comes to vulnerability due to climate change. The Himalayan ecosystems are predominantly sensitive to climate change and impacts are seen in areas as diverse as agriculture and horticulture to forestry and hydropower generation. The temperature in north west Himalayas has increased by 1.6 degrees Celsius in the last century. Snowfall in Shimla has been decreasing since 1996. While the pine forest invades the heights, common forest species like Kikar, Shisham, Deodar and Ban are on the decline. The flow patterns in the Ravi, Chenab and Beas rivers have changed.

The seasonal snowfall has decreased by 280 cm over the Pir Panjal and by 440 cm over the Greater Himalayas between 1988-89 and 2007-08. Both these ranges define the snowbound catchment of the Beas basin. There is a decreasing trend in the number of Western Disturbances — sudden, non-monsoonal rains driven by the Westerlies winds from the Mediterranean region — and reduction in the number of snowfall days between January and March.

Dhamun village panchayat in Mashobra block in Shimla is one of the worst-affected due to a shift in the snow line. The forests and grassland that was the source of valuable ecosystem services, including natural water resources to the villagers, are now degraded due to a combination of three factors — over-exploitation, forest fires and the impacts of the changing climate. The administration now regularly informs the locals on drought-proofing measures and rainwater harvesting.

The water scarcity risks are the maximum in the sub-mountain areas. The vulnerability assessment for the Yamuna basin suggests that districts like Sirmaur, Solan, Bilaspur, Una, Kangra, Mandi, Kullu and Chamba are at a higher risk of water scarcity, food security and livelihood practices when compared against districts high up in the mountains.

A 2014 study that examined the impact of climate change on water resources showed decreasing trends in every one of Himachal’s agro-climatic zones over the past three decades. The maximum availability of surplus water balance period showed a shift during July to August and registered a decrease of 35.7%.

The low hill regions exhibited water surplus in the kharif (summer) season and water deficit in the rabi (winter) season while mid-hill regions exhibited water deficit in the summer and surplus in winter.

The surface water flow of river Beas at Manali and Parvati at Aut in Kullu district declined in all the months. The flow of Sutlej at Shongtong in Kinnaur district, too, showed significant decreasing trends in winter months. Similarly, the inflow of the Sutlej river at Bhakhra Dam is on the wane.

“The studies clearly indicate that water resources were impacted due to changes in climatic conditions in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh during past three decades,” says a study carried out by researchers at CSK Himachal Pradesh Agriculture University, Palampur.

“With support from the National Climate Adaptation Fund, we are creating a vulnerability profile for each block in Himachal Pradesh and improving irrigation practices. We did the exercise in Yamuna and Beas basins,” said Rana. “Nearly 30,000 farmers
are to be trained on water conservation practices. We are also updating our 2012 climate
change action plan,” added Suresh C Attri, principal scientific officer (environment), Department of Environment, Science and Technology, Himachal government.

According to the new International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.

“The good news is that some of the kinds of actions that would be needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius are already underway around the world, but they would need to accelerate,” said Valerie Masson-Delmotte, co-chair of working group-1 at IPCC, which released the report at Incheon, South Korea, last month.

The key question is whether the steps taken by the Himachal government are enough to save the hill state.

(The story is being published as part of GIZ-CMS Media Fellowship)

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Scarce snow, water: a climate change story in Himachal

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