Drought and Sudden Rain Lead to Catastrophic Losses Among Paddy Farmers in Kashmir Valley

Factors ranging from the lack of upkeep of irrigation lifelines to changing climate came together this season to orchestrate what experts have said was a particularly trying time for the Valley's farmers.

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Anantnag (Jammu and Kashmir): In April this year, when the Jammu and Kashmir administration issued an advisory asking farmers not to cultivate paddy in the light of low discharge of water from nearby irrigation canals, Mudasir Ahmed, of Anantnag in south Kashmir, gave up all hope for a good crop this year.

He was among thousands of farmers who were left puzzled first and ultimately despondent thanks to dryness followed by sudden but paltry rains that upended their plans of cultivating paddy – and also their plan B of cultivating maize. So punishing was the weather pattern – triggered by climate change according to experts – during peak cultivation season at Anantnag this year that a district which used to largely fend for itself when it came to food is now in serious trouble.

A resident of Jablipora village, Mudasir has 30 kanals (1 kanal is equal to 0.125 acre) of land near the Srinagar-Jammu highway and his livelihood depends entirely on the agriculture fields.

Mudasir says that the last time he sowed paddy seeds, his fields were irrigated to some extent by the channels which bring in water from the Jhelum. But in June, when he ploughed his fields to ready them for planting paddy again, half of his land did not get any water at all.

By the end of June, panicking with little time left to plant paddy, Mudasir managed to irrigate some land located in another area of Jablipora, near the railway station. However, within a month all the water dried up there and the land developed huge cracks.

Paddy fields in Jablipora in the Kashmir Valley where maize was sown due to the drought. Photo: Umar Khurshid

Mudasir blames the receding water levels of the major rivers of the Valley including Jhelum, which is one of the main sources of water for irrigation, for this predicament.

He, along with hundreds of others, managed to plough the parched land and have sowed pulses and maize this time. These are dry crops and depend less on irrigation. Fields which earlier used to be covered with paddy were taken over by maize.

All was well until incessant rains triggered a flood-like situation in June, damaging the dry crops growing on 500 kanals of land.

Farmers, therefore, have been driven to a point where neither maize nor paddy, nor any other dry crops can grow this season.

Torrential and sudden rains not only resulted in Jhelum touching the danger mark but various canals and streams overflowing too. The water level of the Jhelum at Sangam in Anantnag district crossed the 18-feet mark, leading to a flood alarm.

It is not lost on Mudasir that changing climate is responsible for sudden spates of rain and dryness.

He says that when there is normal rainfall and river water flows through the nearby rivulets, farmers are able to easily irrigate their fields through canals, bore wells, tanks and other sources. The canals irrigate around 95% of the land and 5% is irrigated by other sources. 

The canals, locally called kuls have been constructed and maintained by the farmers themselves for years now. However, in recent years, many such canals were constructed by the government too. Irrigation canals are generally small in length and constructed in an unplanned manner in a dense network. Some of the major canals of Kashmir are Shara, Shah, Sumbal, Nandi, Zainpura, Awantipore, Kayal, Rishipura and Babul.

Anantnag, for one, has water resources spreading over an area of 0.40 lakh hectares in the form of rivers, lakes, streams, ponds, pools, springs and so on. 

In the Shangus belt of Anantnag, a similar situation has left hundreds of farmers worried for their future. Fayaz Ahmed, 47, has four kanals of agricultural land on which he grows paddy. The choice to grow paddy, instead of apple, is something he now regrets.

Also read: It’s High Time the Government Took Notice of Kashmir’s Changing Climate

Fayaz vividly remembers last year’s bumper crop, but this year he sees little chance of the same.

Unlike Mudasir, Fayaz first sowed maize as there was no chance to irrigate his fields. However, when there was sudden rainfall, he – along with others in the area – ploughed the fields and planted paddy saplings to make the most of the rainwater.

Now, after two weeks, Fayaz says the fields have not seen a single drop of water. “At present, our fields stand barren. Neither could we reap maize, nor are we able to make the most of the paddy we planted,” he said.

A dried up paddy field in Anantnag. Photo: Umar Khurshid

Fayaz said a government official visited his area last month and assured them that water will reach their land, but nothing has been done on the ground.

This official could be Director of Agriculture, Kashmir, Chowdhary Mohammad Iqbal, who visited area during the peak of the drought last month.

Officials said around 3,600 hectares of land usually devoted to paddy in the district is now facing a drought-like situation. As per the agriculture department’s assessment at the panchayat and zone level, about 15-20% of paddy land has no chance as of now of getting any irrigation facilities in Anantnag.

The assessment by the department was carried out before the rains. Although the rains gave relief to a section of farmers, Fayaz and Mudasir’s examples show that most were left confused by the seesawing patterns.

As per locals, the water flow in rivers is less due to low snowfall in last winter. High temperatures triggered early melting of snow in the mountains in the initial months of the year, leaving the rest of the year to suffer a long dry spell.

In Shangus of Anantnag, farmers cultivating a 1,000-kanal stretch across Wangam, Sheikh Gund, Ranipura and other areas are also affected.

Abdul Majeed, 53, of Uranhal in Anantnag, said that he has not been able to sow paddy on his 16-kanal land.

“The fields have turned into dry clay,” Majeed said, adding that this will affect the farmers in the long run. 

Majeed along with his two brothers, who have 20 kanals of land each, had also sown maize. When the sudden rain triggered a flood-like situation, their crops were washed away. Adjacent villages of Waregund and Pazalpora saw farmers in the same predicament.

“At some places, few crops did grow,” he said, but barely eight kilometres from Majeed’s house, at Khahapora village, farmers have the same story to tell.

Ghulam Hassan Bhat, 55, said that 70% of farmers in his village have not been able to irrigate the fields and had sown maize instead of paddy this year. “But maize or other pulses can never replace the staple rice of Kashmir,” he said.

“I used to sell half of my crop and half was used at home,” Bhat said, adding that most farmers in his village are dependent on the structure.

Bhat and his neighbours have 60 kanals of pooled land – all of which has remained uncultivated due to lack of irrigation this season.

Like others, the rains also misled them, he said. However, a week after rainfall, the situation remained the same with fields developing more cracks on the surface.

Adjacent to Khahpora is Muniward, where farmer Abdul Rasheed, 48, has the same story.

A similar drought-like condition was faced by the farmers in north Kashmir’s Lolab where farmers are dependent on dams and reservoirs. There, farmer Hilal Ahmed says, three days of rain acted as a game changer and people were able to irrigate their fields.

Those in Sopore of north Kashmir were not as lucky. Farmers were advised by the Department of Irrigation and Flood Control (I&FC) to avoid paddy crop cultivation this year and instead cultivate some other crop due to the decrease in water level.

As per experts, rice consumes about 4,000 to 5,000 litres of water per kg of grain produced, and it requires the water throughout the cultivation period from June to September.

As per official data, around 3.15 lakh hectares of land are cultivated in the Union Territory. Paddy, which is the most common crop in Jammu and Kashmir, is grown on 1.41 lakh hectares of land. Maize is grown on 80,000 hectares of land and vegetables on 30,000 hectares. Around 29,000 hectares of land grow fodder, while 20,000 hectares grow pulses.

Paddy fields in the Kashmir Valley where maize was sown due to the drought. Photo: Umar Khurshid

The government imports 7.7 lakh metric tonnes of food grains from different states every year to meet the demand. Kashmir produces around nine lakh metric tonnes of food grains annually which is 23% less than the requirement. The Valley alone imports over 2.5 lakh metric tonnes of food grains.

In the last three decades, the cultivation of rice and maize has decreased considerably whereas the cultivation of oilseeds, oats, etc. has increased. There has also been a shift from agriculture to horticulture, further creating a food shortage.

Climate and food

A changing climate is likely to both improve and degrade the performance of food systems. Some regions may become more productive under a warming climate, whilst others may see a significant drop in food production.

A McKinsey study found that by 2050 while soy would benefit from higher temperatures, rice and wheat could become increasingly volatile.

In another scenario analysis, it is estimated that by 2050, food production will be inadequate to feed the growing global population because of one-fifth decline in crop yields.

In addition, Kashmir’s water bodies, which could have aided irrigation have become victims of human intervention, functioning either as wastelands or seeing rampant encroachment.

According to Dr Ajaz Ahmad Lone, a senior scientist at the department of Genetics and Plant Breeding in Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agriculture Sciences and Technology, Anantnag’s paddy output could suffer further thanks to paucity of labour and erratic behaviour of weather.

“Though we receive most of the precipitation through snow, in the last one decade there is so much change that paddy growers are suffering,” said Dr Aijaz.

He added that most of the agricultural area in Anantnag is low lying, which is not suitable for apple cultivation as an alternative.

Also read: Why Kashmir’s Saffron Fields Are Shrinking

“Farmers should closely coordinate with the agricultural university to tackle such climatic uncertainties. We are already in a process to develop climate resilient varieties,” he said.

The scientist also said that because of a lack of sanitation drives, water pollution and siltation, water supply through the canals have been badly disrupted in the area. 

As per data that the agriculture department of Anantnag provided to The Wire, around 2,677 hectare land usually cultivated for paddy was estimated to have remained uncultivated during the year in the district. The department said rainfall from June 18-22 2022 resulted in irrigation of some of the drought-hit areas. 

“Almost 50% area from the drought area was covered [by rainfall]. The remaining land of drought hit areas saw cultivation of pulses and maize crops,” said Anantnag’s Chief Agriculture Officer.

As much as 90% of people in Anantnag depend on agriculture for food and the district is largely self-sufficient when it comes to food grains, he said.

The officer cited sudden change in weather patterns as a reason for crop failure.

“February 2022 and March 2022 received the minimum rainfall and temperature during these months were above normal which resulted in early melting of the snow from the mountains,” he said.

He said this was a local impact of climate change.

In addition to farmers adopting to change by using drought-resistant crops like pulses and maize, underground resources should be utilised, he said. In Shangus area, the agriculture department as a climate change mitigation strategy has dug three borewells to deal with drought over 20 hectares of paddy land, he said.

The officer also admitted to the exploitation of canals for the extraction of stones, boulders, sand and other construction materials.

Also read: Climate Chaos in Kashmir Could Change the Colour of Our Kheer, and a Whole Lot More

Talking to The Wire, Director of Agriculture for Kashmir, Choudhary Mohammad Iqbal, also admitted that this year’s rain deficit proved costly to the agriculture sector of Kashmir.

“Due to the last year’s less snowfall, there remained no snow in our catchment areas leading to a drought like situation this year,” Iqbal said.

He said that farmers growing paddy over 7,500 hectares in Dooru area of Anantnag and 700 hectares in Bijbehara were advised to grow pulses and maize.

In south Kashmir’s major catchment areas, Shopian and Kulgam, the director said water level had decreased and farmers could not irrigate their fields.

Although rainfall in mid-June led to farmers uprooting maize and planting paddy saplings again, the director admitted that there was a delay in planting paddy.

The J&K director of the Meteorological Department, Sonam Lotus, told The Wire that it was predicted in quite an early stage of this year that Kashmir’s agriculture sector is likely to suffer a decline in production due to a dry spell.  

“If such weather conditions prevail in the coming years, it will be catastrophic for our crops, especially paddy, which is the major crop of Kashmir,” the director said.

Umar Khurshid is a Srinagar-based journalist.