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Climate change threatens Kashmir’s glaciers

Jun 11, 2011

Receding glaciers in Kashmir are clearly showing the signs of a warming climate caused by a shrinking forest cover and ecological degradation.

dal.jpgSrinagar: Climate change is drastically eating away glaciers in Indian-administered Kashmir, setting alarm bells ringing among the environmentalists.

The scenic Kashmir Valley is home to some 60 of the 327 major glaciers in Himalayas that contribute to 75% of the water in the rivers of Indus Water basin.

And signs of melting of the glaciers at a faster rate are quite visible, according to an ongoing study by experts from Kashmir University (KU). The study makes it amply clear that glaciers are melting due to an unusual increase in temperature in the region.

For instance, in Suru basin (in Ladakh region of Kashmir), a tributary of the Indus river, the loss in glacier cover has reached nearly 17%. “We have studied data of the last 40 years. Fourteen smaller glaciers in Suru Valley have already vanished and the overall loss is about 16.43%,” says Dr Shakil Romshoo, a system analysis expert and an associate professor at the KU’s Geology and Geophysics Department.

Romshoo, who heads the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) funded project on climate change in Kashmir, said he and his colleagues have collaborated data from satellite imagery of past and present, from metrology, hydrology and water discharge data, besides field data on these glaciers.

“It’s a safe conclusion that water discharge (in the rivers of Kashmir) is increasing due to excessive melting of glaciers. There are also drastic changes in snowfall patterns in this basin,” says Romshoo.

The phenomenon of glacier melting is accentuated by the loss of carbon sinks and other ecological degradation. The forest cover in J&K, for instance, has been shrinking—from 37% to 11%—according to another study by the Action Aid International. Water bodies like the Wullar lake in north Kashmir are an evidence of how the denuding of mountains affects the water flows and water bodies.

Experts are more concerned about changes occurring in the Kolahoi glacier, Kashmir’s only permanent water source that is nestled among the valleys of Pahalgam in south Kashmir. The glacier feeds Lidder, a tributary of river Jhelum, the lifeline of Kashmir.

Of late, however, the average water discharge in the Lidder has increased; prompting the KU scientists to conclude that flow will dip sharply once they have peaked, as increase in average water discharge is accompanied by increase in temperature and decrease in precipitation.

The Kolahoi glacier could “completely disappear within the next ten years,” according to a team of KU scientists who visited the area in August 2008. The glacier has abnormally shrunk—from 13 sq kms to 11.5 sq kms in the past 40 years and is receding at a rate of nearly 10 feet a year.

“I saw some recent pictures of the Kolahoi glacier. I could not believe my eyes. It did not appear the same glacier which I trekked some 40 years ago,” said M. Ashraf, former director general of Kashmir’s tourism department.

Sadly, Kolahoi isn’t the only glacier succumbing to global climate change. Fifty years back, the Chenab basin used to have 8,000 sq kms under glaciers, permanent and ephemeral. It has now been reduced to 4,100 sq kms.

Environmentalists fear that the melting of glaciers, Kolahoi in particular, would severely affect Kashmir Valley where a majority of the population uses water from springs for drinking and farming.

But a major worry, they say, is the impact on agriculture and hydel power generation in neighbouring Pakistan which is entirely dependent on the flow from these glaciers. According to the 1960 Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan, Pakistan is entitled to receive water from the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab rivers that originate in Kashmir and form the western rivers of the Indus basin.

A World Bank report says agriculture accounts for 24% of Pakistan’s GDP and 80% of its exports come from agriculture.

“India and Pakistan squabble over construction of dams in Kashmir but ignore the biggest threat: climate change that is fast eating away Kashmir’s glaciers,” Zubair A. Dar, a Kashmiri journalist who is researching the climate change, told OneWorld.

“Isn’t it time for the two countries to water down their hydro-politics and work for preserving the resource?”

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