Blockages in the Chandra-Bhaga River System Herald Doom for Lahaul and Spiti

Spiti already faces acute water shortage, and the 12 lakh vehicles crossing the Atal Tunnel at Rohtang every year don’t help. Without climate contingency plans and appropriate action, India may lose these eco-regions to climate change.

As heavy untimely rains continue to lash north India, destroying houses, killing people, signalling doom for farmers and causing hyper-food price inflation in the cities, more trouble looms in the Himalayas that could endanger water security and farming.

Emergency alarms are ringing about the Chandra-Bhaga river systems in upper Himachal. The Chandra-Bhagha is one of the most voluminous river bodies but is currently plagued by sudden blockages in its flow. Erratic weather, including a delayed winter, excessive rain and changing climate, has resulted in landslides across the valley, causing mud and debris to flow into the river and block its flow.

The worst affected region is Lahaul and Spiti, where the Chandra-Bhaga rivers flow. This year, the region experienced a very late winter which began in January and ended in March, with less than four feet of snow falling in most parts of the valley. The unusual winter and reduced snowfall resulted in the rapid melting of glaciers, a phenomenon observed across the Himalayas.

The shrinking glaciers in the dry, desert-like Lahaul area have caused various rivulets to start flowing. Often, they carry sludge and debris, which accumulate in the riverbed. Rivulet sludge rarely causes blockages but this year, the flow of the Chenab river has been impacted by massive flooding and sludge. According to reports, water levels have surged in several nallas, including Nain Gahar, Madgran, Mayad Valley, and Jahlma Nalla of Pattan Valley, resulting in blockages and the formation of dams. New lakes are being formed, flooding villages and engulfing arable land.

The recent spell of rains has exacerbated the problem, causing flooding in Teiling Nalla, located about a kilometre from the Atal Tunnel, and flash floods in Madrang and Kala Nullah in the Udaipur area of Lahaul and Spiti.

“There was very little snow this year, and the winter was very late. It began only at the end of January and was gone by March. The trend nowadays is that winters come very late and go early. Since August, the problem has started because in July-August, the flow of Chandra-Bhaga is high, and volume-wise, this is Himachal’s biggest river. In August of last year, the Jahlma Nalla was flooded. This Nalla, which is at a 90° angle from the Chandra-Bhaga river, suddenly had a lot of flow due to glacial water, which created a blockage. The soils here absorb the water first, and once they are saturated, the entire hill slides into the river below,” explained Puneet, a middle-aged farmer from Jobran village.

Also read: Climate Change Made UP Heatwave at Least Two Times More Likely: Climate Index

“Forty bighas were destroyed due to the blockage, and each family lost Rs 1-2 lakh in crops. Even now, in Jobaran village in the Pattan valley, there is a blockage due to mud and silt, and we have experienced flooding many times, with no end to the rain in sight. The origin flow of the river has been disrupted, and new islands have emerged. The river is now running alongside the mountains,” he added.

The Indian Meteorological Department has forecasted heavy rainfall and possibly snow for the upper Himachal hills. These weather conditions could cause further problems for farmers and the high desert ecosystem. Lahaul was known for its oxymoronic summer weather, characterised as a ‘dry monsoon’. However, rainfall has increased drastically.

Anil Kumar, 53, from Phura village in Pattan Valley, lives next to Jahlma Nalla and his family has been using the water for irrigation for generations. “Lindor village is situated in the mountain area, and due to excessive rain, there are numerous landslides. The snow came very late this year, and now, due to excessive heat, it’s melting fast. The rivulets have clean water until the village, but downstream, the water is filled with mud, silt, and debris. This muddy water rushes down to the river, carrying with it this heavy mass, and creates blockages. We can’t drink this water or use it for irrigation as our pumps get choked. Farming land in the path of the rivulet has also been affected, and we can’t use the water for our fields, either,” Kumar said.

The erratic weather in Lahaul and Spiti and the blocking of the Chandra-Bhaga river system are symptoms of a larger problem looming over India. Climate change and erratic weather pose significant threats to agriculture and biodiversity in the Himalayan region beyond the Dhauladhar, and Lahaul and Spiti are the most vulnerable spots.

Spiti already faces acute water shortage, and the 12 lakh vehicles crossing the Atal Tunnel at Rohtang every year don’t help. Without climate contingency plans and appropriate action, India may lose these eco-regions to climate change.

Indra Shekhar Singh tweets at @Indrassingh.

This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.