Thursday, June 1, 2017
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The dusty snow on lower reaches of Kinnaur.

AS THE Himalayan Region warms up faster than other places of the world, erratic weather puts geographically-vulnerable places such as Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh at greater risk. Rains are increasing, snowfall is declining, and temperatures are rising, which all have great impacts on an area prone to landslides and fed by glacial melt.

On April 16 this year, Kinnauris woke up to a snowfall which had a dusty tinge to it. While a few experts suggest particles from a dust storm in the northern plains might have travelled to Kinnaur and mixed with the unseasonal snowfall, the jury is still out on this. But most agree that this rain shadow region is experiencing a drastic shift in its weather patterns.

“Life is tough here,” is the most common refrain heard from Kinnaur locals, and they’re not just talking about the harsh winter months when caution signs appear on the highway warning of falling stones. Even a light rain can trigger landslides, potentially holding up traffic for a day.

It is believed that dust particles from a storm in plains might have travelled to Kinnaur.

 

With a highly-porous sandy and gravelly soil, and sparse green cover, all three subdivisions of the district are highly vulnerable to landslides.. The disaster of 2013 – when three days of heavy rains triggered numerous landslides, killing 10 people and damaging roads, houses, farms and apple orchards – is still fresh in people’s memory. 

Villagers have no choice but to set up farms on very vulnerable grounds.

 

Data from the National Initiative on Climate Resilient Agriculture shows that the number of rainy days went up by 43 per cent from decadal average of 77.4 in 1980-90 to 111 days in 2000-2010. The number of dry spells during Kharif season, on the other hand, shrank and got restricted to 10-15 days. A majority of dry spells in 1980-90 lasted more than 20 days. 

 

This increased rain leads to greater erosion of fertile top soil and infestation of diseases and pests which prefer humidity. Cooler winter temperatures are important to induce dormancy, bud break and to ensure proper flowering in apples. But less snow, also reported in other parts of Himachal Pradesh, means that this crucial cool factor is not met, affecting apple quality and quantity. 

A farmer showing his apple trees.

 

The incidence of white root rot, short bole borer, core rot, Red mite and Sanjose Scale are rising thanks to rise in relative humidity. White root rot, for instance, is a fungus which requires good amount of moisture and prepares ground for infestation of short hole borer. 

The Red mite, which sucks sap from apple affecting its size and quality, is also dependent on humidity. But it’s exponential growth is linked to rise in average temperature. “Sensing the heat, mite reduces its life period from an average of 40 days to 30 days, which means it produces as many offsprings in lesser number of days thus resulting in population explosion,” says Dr Rajesh Kumar, , an entomologist at the Regional Horticultural Research and Training Station of the Y S Pramar University of Horticulture and Forestry.

The solution may lie in traditional crops which are enjoying a new-found status. Kinnaur used to cultivate different varieties of buckwheat, called ogla and fafda, as main crops. Today, however, these are cultivated only for occasional family consumption or at higher altitudes where apple don’t give good results. These crops along with Jowar (Sorghum), which some farmers still intercrop with apple, are known to be more resilient to pests and diseases.

Besides affecting the farming, changing climate is also dictating the way people live. Concrete is fast replacing locally-sourced wood and stone as the preferred building material while traditional flat mud roofs are giving way to metal pent tops. Besides improved economic status, climate change also has a role to play here.  

The traditional flat roofs are giving way to metal pent roofs in Nako as climate change affects precipitation.

 

"Increased rainfall in the historically arid region erodes the flat mud roofs and wears away at the mud brick walls. Some residents, who are concerned about preserving their traditional building styles, are experimenting with tarps and waterproofing clays as part of the flat roof layering system, or building the roof at a very subtle gradient,” says Tasha Kimmet, an art historian from University of Vienna, who studied the economic, climatic and cultural shifts in the region. 

Thankfully, residents of Kinnaur are used to living on the edge. They are adapted to harsh winters and will be able to come to terms with changing climate too through their own innovative methods.

Villagers store fodder on willow trees for winters. This is one of the adaptation measures against inclement weather.

 

A detailed write up on this topic appeared in The Third Pole. 

 

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