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As glaciers retreat in north India, rivers shrink and floods grow

In Jammu and Kashmir, retreating glaciers and deforestation are changing river flow, leading to both increasingly dry periods and worsening floods
<p>Jammu’s Tawi River slows to a trickle in summers, bursts its banks during rainy periods, with flash floods triggering erosion and threatening lives [image by Ashutosh Sharma]</p>

Jammu’s Tawi River slows to a trickle in summers, bursts its banks during rainy periods, with flash floods triggering erosion and threatening lives [image by Ashutosh Sharma]

The Tawi River once surged through the city of Jammu in northern India so deep and swift that residents were forced to take a boat to get across. Today the sluggish waterway is barely knee deep for much of the year, its bed a dumping ground for untreated city waste.

What has changed in half a century? In part, retreating glaciers and deforestation that are changing the river’s flow, leading to both increasingly dry periods and worsening floods.

“The glaciers and barrier lakes in the Jujdhar and Seojdhar ranges, which contribute a larger share of water to Tawi, have almost disappeared,” said M.M. Munshi, retired director of operations in Jammu and Kashmir state for the Geological Survey of India, and one of those who used to cross the Tawi by boat.

Right now, “water flow in all the rivers in the state is decreasing. The perpetual snow line in Jammu and Kashmir has gone up to 16,000 feet from 13,000 feet in the last hundred years,” said Munshi, who continues to consult on groundwater and glacier issues for the geological survey.

“It’s happening at an alarming rate because of a combination of factors like global warming, shrinking forest cover and increasing human interference. … If the water flow keeps receding at this rate, people won’t get water for even drinking,” he warned.

These changes are affecting most of all those who relied on plentiful water for their livelihoods. Farmers in Goran, Sumbh and Nard villages in Kathua district say they have abandoned traditional crops such as paddy rice for maize and beans, which need less water as the Basantar River has become a seasonal river.

From shortage to flood

But water shortages are not the only consequence of changing weather patterns. During the wet season, extremely heavy rainfall frequently causes the region’s rivers to flood, eroding agricultural land and damaging standing crops.

Jassore village, situated on the left bank of Tawi in Jammu district, loses large tracts of farmland to flash floods every year. About 20 families in the village have been displaced, but district officials say that building embankments along the river to protect the land would be too expensive.

“My house is barely at a distance of 20 feet from the river and I fear it will get washed away in the flash flood any time soon,” said a worried villager, Sham Lal.

Livestock, as well as crops, are threatened. “While we were crossing the Tawi, my 18 buffaloes and two cows were washed away in a flash flood,” said Mohammad Shafi, a milkman of Katiyal Kalai village in Jammu district, recounting an incident three years ago. “I had a narrow escape.”

Rangers on the Pakistani side of the river eventually returned most of the livestock, which managed to swim to the other side, but two buffalo were killed, Shafi said.

People crossing the Tawi River or working along it similarly have been washed away by flash floods, villagers in the area report.

What is driving change?

The main reasons for the flash floods are the loss of forests and other green cover in the river’s catchment, combined with quarrying and sand mining in riverbeds, according to Bushan Parimoo, president of the Environment Awareness Forum, a nongovernmental organisation that is leading a “Save Tawi” campaign.

“Due to loss of greenery, the soil can’t retain the rain water. A large number of traditional ponds and wetlands have been encroached upon,” Parimoo said. “Consequently, most of the rain water flows into the rivers, triggering flash floods.”

Parimoo called for a range of responses, including intensive forest planting, a ban on extensive excavation of the riverbed, the revival of ponds and wetlands and construction of barrages. “Otherwise there is no hope,” he said.

Jammu has a limited network of irrigation canals, but the depletion of its rivers is causing the most distant canals to dry up every summer, posing a threat to agriculture. Sushil Aima, chief engineer for irrigation and flood control in Jammu, said that his department is responding by constructing check dams and barrages for water storage as well as reviving traditional ponds to recharge groundwater.

Besides losing their water, rivers are also experiencing environmental deterioration from the dumping of untreated municipal and industrial waste.

Yash Paul, a scientist at Jammu and Kashmir State Pollution Control Board said that growing urban areas and great industrialisation are leading to more pollution in large stretches of rivers such as the Devika in Udhampur district.

“The river has become polluted to the extent that one can’t even take a bath in it,” he said. “If water flow keeps receding in the rivers and the pollution level keeps increasing, as is happening now, it’s going to have serious impact on human beings, livestock and crops.”

Enough drinking water?

An acute shortage of drinking water in the region has led to demonstrations by protesters during the past few summers. The state government now is setting up several water treatment plants on rivers in the area to meet demand for drinking water and has started an awareness campaign. It is also encouraging the formation of village sanitation committees to revive traditional ponds and other water bodies to try to restore groundwater levels.

Suresh Chugh, director of the state’s Department of Ecology, Environment and Remote Sensing, said in an interview that at least 10 state government departments were working together to develop and implement a climate change action plan for the state, including reviving the local Himalayan ecosystem to boost water security.

“Jammu and Kashmir has been categorized as one of the most vulnerable states in the country,” Chugh said. “Since (we are) a food deficit state, the depleting water resources pose greater risks.”

Officials are also working on new agricultural policies because “we are witnessing some visible changes in the cropping pattern,” he said.

Chugh said that a team of more than 100 scientists at the state’s Sher-E-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology was developing drought-resistant crops for farmers.

This article was first published by Thomson Reuters Foundation and is republished here with permission.