RATHSUN, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR – The dark green leaves of the rice stalks sway as a soft breeze moves overhead. Dragonflies hover over the stalks. Crickets chirp in the distance.
It’s a hot, sunny afternoon in Farooq Ahmad Bhat’s terraced rice fields in Rathsun village in Pulwama district, in southern Kashmir Valley. This district is called the “rice bowl” of the Kashmir Valley for its long history of rice cultivation, but that’s changing with the climate.
Bhat, 45, climbs up the terraced steps to the rice fields, panting and out of breath. He has been fetching water he pumped from a well half a mile (.8 kilometer) away.
In Kashmir, rice farming has long depended on regular, drenching rain to create paddies, the flooded fields in which rice thrives, but the rain doesn’t come as predictably as it once did.
“Water is our biggest problem,” he says. “The rain often doesn’t come when we need it. It rains when we don’t need [it]. The weather has become so unpredictable.”
Bhat says he counts the cost of a changing climate by the dried-up wells and lost rice crops. Poverty weighs him down.
He and his family once grew rice on 8 kanals (1 acre), but for the past six years they have only been able to grow rice on one kanal (one-eighth of an acre), Bhat says.
“We are not able to irrigate our rice field properly,” he says. “We collect groundwater in water tanks and carry them in a tractor to our fields.”
Bhat grows a traditional, high-altitude rice variety locally known as K-332. It’s a sweet, easily digested variety.
Bhat started growing poplar and apple trees on his other 7 kanals of land in 2001. He earns about 200,000 rupees (about $3,200) a year. Poplar trees are used in the Kashmir Valley for construction and as firewood.
“Rice farming was very dear to me,” he says. “It was an asset. But I had no other option but to leave it halfway. If the water scarcity problems are addressed, then I would definitely give a thought to going back to rice farming.”
Extreme and unexpected weather patterns are jeopardizing farmers’ ability to earn a living in the manner their families have for generations. Rice farming requires consistent water, a resource that these days is too often hard to find. When it does come, it sometimes hits as a devastating deluge.
Hundreds of people lost their lives in September when Kashmir was inundated by the worst flooding anyone had seen in years.
Exact data is hard to come by, but Kashmir’s farmers lost enormous amounts of various crops, and damage to their farmland was extensive.
Kashmir has lost $1 trillion Indian rupees ($1.6 billion) in apple crops alone, according to early estimates.
In the face of unpredictable weather patterns, irrigation systems are increasingly important for rice growers. But such systems only serve a portion of the region. Fruits and vegetables can subsist on a few good rainfalls, so some farmers, including Bhat, are turning to those crops, which they can sell at higher rates than rice.
Other onetime rice farmers are leaving agriculture altogether, selling their land to developers who are urbanizing once-rural sections of Kashmir.
A host of problems is behind Kashmir’s water challenges.
Water tables are falling as more farmers tap subsurface water stores, and some of the water that remains has been polluted with untreated effluents and sewage from unchecked urbanization and industrialization, according to an economic survey published by the Directorate of Economics & Statistics of Jammu and Kashmir state.
Meanwhile, just 50 percent of Kashmir’s irrigation potential has been harnessed, according to the survey, and only 43 percent of the region’s agricultural area is irrigated.
Improving the region’s irrigation system is critical to reducing dependence on imported grains and other agricultural products, the survey states.
Inadequate infrastructure and climate change resulting in extreme weather are exacerbated by political tensions between Pakistan and India, longtime adversaries that are both armed with nuclear weapons.
A major point of conflict in the region is the Indus River system, which flows through the heart of Kashmir. The two countries signed the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960, which allocated water in the three eastern rivers to India and the three western rivers to Pakistan.
Both sides grapple for full use of the waters allotted them under the treaty, and Kashmir is caught in the middle, with water needs of its own and little political power to ensure that they’re met.
The region has been an international conflict zone since 1947, when the subcontinent was divided, roughly along religious lines, into Pakistan and India. Kashmir has been a contested area ever since, and control of the Indus River system is at the heart of the conflict.
Today, India administers 43 percent of the region and Pakistan controls 37 percent. China occupies the remaining 20 percent.
In its determination to quell separatist movements, India has made Indian-administered Kashmir the most densely militarized zone in the world. Human Rights Watch has issued multiple reports charging Indian soldiers with abuses against civilians.
It is in this tense political climate that farmers like Bhat yearn for a better infrastructure to help protect them from climate change.
Extreme weather conditions in the Kashmir Valley are affecting crops, especially rice, the region’s staple food, says F.A. Lone, head of the Center for Climate Change and Mountain Agriculture at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology.
“Rice is the [crop] most susceptible to climate change and variability,” he says. “Any changes in climate will, thus, increase uncertainty regarding rice production.”
Rice is sown in March and April and harvested between September and December, Bhat says.
Farmers in the Kashmir Valley produced 5,760 quintals (576,000 kilograms or 6,350 short tons) of rice in the 2013-2014 fiscal year, says Sameera Qayoom, an agronomist at Sher-e-Kashmir University.
But the overall contribution of rice cultivation to the gross domestic product of Jammu and Kashmir state has come down from 1.6 percent in 2004-2005 to 1.1 percent in 2009-2010, according to the economic survey.
Kashmir Valley is now 50 percent food deficient, says Shakil A. Romshoo, who heads the earth sciences department at the University of Kashmir. It imports the rest of the food it needs – rice, fruit, vegetables, spices, milk and meats – from Indian states, especially Punjab.
While some farmers mourn the loss of their rice crops, research suggests that crop diversification is key to Kashmir’s future economic stability.
The region’s infrastructure isn’t adequate to attract large-scale farming or industrial development, according to a 2013 report on crop diversification published by the University of Kashmir. Fruits and vegetables, high-value cash crops, represent a viable alternative for farmers who need to grow food and earn money.Rising Temperatures Threaten Food Security
Cracks form in the parched earth. Weeds grow between the rice plants, reducing the moisture available to the crops. Insects eat into the stalks, destroying young rice grains.
Some rice stalks stop growing while others dry out and wither. The green fields gradually turn hues of yellow and then brown.
That’s what happens when the Earth’s atmosphere, so corroded from fossil fuels, locks up the rain on which farmers have depended since the beginning of agriculture.
Rice requires the seasonal flooding of paddies, Lone says. For optimal growth, it also needs a specific range of weather conditions at particular times.
Extreme heat and cold damage it. Higher daytime temperatures accelerate the plants’ maturation, reducing the grain filling. Higher nighttime temperatures reduce crop yields by increasing respiration and making the plants susceptible to insect infestations.
Temperatures in the western Himalayan region rose by 1.1 to 2.5 degrees Celsius (2 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) between 1975 and 2006, according to one 2011 report used by the World Bank.
These changes could make it impossible to cultivate rice – a loss that would be devastating for the Kashmir Valley, Lone says. The end of rice cultivation would make Kashmir increasingly dependent on other states and could result in a food security crisis.
But farmers like Bhat are struggling to compete with cheaper rice that’s already being imported into the Kashmir Valley.
In spite of working hard for six months, he is only able to produce 2 quintals (200 kilograms or 440 pounds) of rice per year, Bhat says.
Adding up what he spends on seeds, hired labor, fertilizer and spraying, it costs Bhat 6,000 rupees ($97) to grow one quintal (100 kilograms or 220 pounds) of rice. But he can purchase a quintal of imported rice from the market for 2,000 rupees ($32).
This rice, from Punjab, is affordable and easy to cook, but it’s tasteless and difficult to digest, he says. Kashmiri rice, he says, is sweet enough to eat without curry.
In the past, Kashmir Valley also produced scented varieties of rice, Bhat says. But these varieties are rarely grown now because weather irregularities make the process too unpredictable.
Bashir Ahmad Rather, 38, says he started growing fruits and vegetables instead of rice about 13 years ago because he couldn’t count on the rain.
A farmer from a traditional rice-growing family in south Kashmir, Rather says almost all the farmers in his village have given up rice cultivation and switched to growing fruit trees or vegetables.
Rather is glad he stopped growing rice when he did as the irregularity of rain has only worsened with time. The change has been most evident over the past five or six years, he says.
“Earlier we used to have rain two to three times a month in summer, but now it rains after two months and sometimes more,” he says.
Areas that were once expanses of lush rice paddies have been converted into vegetable plots or orchards planted with fruit trees and bushes. The few rice fields that remain among the orchards are like aliens in a foreign land. The rice stalks are overshadowed by the taller fruit bushes, their thin stalks fading against the many colors and patterns of the vegetable plants.
There are no accurate, credible figures available for the number of rice farmers who have shifted to cultivating other crops, Romshoo says, but it is a growing trend he sees in his research work.
Fruit production in Kashmir has increased by about 24 percent over the past four years, and vegetable production has grown fivefold between 2006 and 2013, according to the economic survey from Jammu and Kashmir’s Directorate of Economics & Statistics.
That increased production has improved Jammu and Kashmir’s foreign exchange earnings. The export of dry products such as almonds and walnuts grew by about 44 percent between 2008 and 2013.
“Horticulture is at least helping us to survive and look after our day-to-day requirements,” Rather says.
Buildings Sprout Where Rice Stalks Withered
Despite the growth in horticulture production, the amount of land under cultivation in the Kashmir Valley is shrinking.
Cultivated agricultural land shrank from 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) in 2006 to 800,000 hectares (2 million acres) in 2013, Ramshoo says. In addition to farmers abandoning barren fields for lack of irrigation, the increasing urbanization of Kashmir has reduced the amount of farmland in the valley.
The abandonment of barren fields for lack of irrigation isn’t the only cause of the reduction of farmland.
Urbanization is spreading throughout the Kashmir Valley, says Ghulam Ahmad Trali, a real estate agent who sells land in Tral, a village about 25 miles southeast of Srinagar.
Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir state, is becoming commercialized, prompting a migration to the outskirts of the city, Trali says.
“People are selling their ancestral agricultural land on high rates,” he says.
Much of that land, once part of Kashmir’s rice bowl, is now homes and shopping complexes, Trali says.
Flavorful Rice Becoming a Delicacy
Dilshada Begum, 45, is cooking rice for her family’s midday meal. She bends low over the pan of cooking rice, trying to confirm by its smell if the rice is cooked.
“The rice made from Punjab is tasteless,” she says. “And there is no smell.”
She once bought locally grown Kashmiri rice, but it costs double the price of rice imported from Punjab, she says. Her son has never eaten Kashmiri rice and does not know its taste, she adds.
She serves the steaming hot rice to her 12-year-old son, Fazal Dar, who says he only wants half the quantity.
“Don’t give me more rice,” he says. “I don’t like the taste.”
GPJ translated some interviews from Kashmiri and Urdu.