Changing climes

Climate change is a very slow process, notoriously difficult to understand. Is it happening in India? Residents of some Himalayan towns, where the ecology is known to be very sensitive, observe some clear indications of change. It is getting warmer, they point out. Kashmir is said to have lost an entire season. Based on responses to a Down To Earth survey, Lian Chawii met residents of select towns in the Himalaya. They say the local climate is changing, for better or for worse

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

changing climes

-- In the little village of Pubong Fatak, 13 km from Darjeeling in West Bengal, sits Phul Bahadur, 97, weaving baskets to earn his living. He wears thick glasses tied to a rubber band around his head. On his wrinkled wrist is a Seiko watch that stopped functioning 20 years ago. The old man, however, is a living chronicle of time in the famed hill station. "When I migrated from Nepal in 1926, the thick forests of Darjeeling were covered with snow for more than three months," he remembers. "Now it just gets blown by the wind like bits of paper. With no snow and no trees to shelter me from the harsh winds, I feel like my house is getting blown away," he fears. Most senior residents have similar stories.

The enormous guide map at the Mall in Darjeeling mentions that the maximum temperature recorded in the district is 14.89C. In the summer of 2000, however, mercury touched a record high of 28 c . Fans running on full speed has become a common sight now in summer, as much in Darjeeling as in Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. P K Shreshta, Sikkim's chief conservator of forest, says, "Nowadays you can't sit in the office without the fan in summer. Barely 5-6 years ago, I used to come to office everyday in a suit and tie even in summer. Not now. It is too hot." You look outside and see what he means. Teenagers walk around in sleeveless blouses. "Earlier, it was impossible to go out without a jacket even during summer," says Bahadur. In Sikkim, something completely new has made an appearance: the air-conditioner.

Rainfall patterns have also changed. "There are three types of rainfall here," explains Michael Dutta from the department of geography in St Paul's School. "January brings with it a westerly disturbance with light rain accompanied by snow. During March and April come heavy cyclonic showers, called nor'wester rains. This is followed by the monsoon from June to September." The intensity of nor'wester winds has increased in the past 3-4 years, he observes: "They are more violent, leading to a greater number of drain bursts."

The rainy days during the monsoons, on the other hand, have declined marginally, though the concentration and intensity has increased and they are accompanied by strong winds. "The amount of rain that would have fallen in 10 days falls in two days now," he says. "Rainfall was regular till the 1980s. It is very erratic now," says Nar Shankar Rai, consultant with a project of the World Wide Fund for Nature-India ( wwf-i ).
The valley that lost a season Snow is sparse and the Dal lake hardly freezes
Kashmir, the toast of tourism clichs, today stands humbled. Among the several unique features of the state was a cycle of five seasons. Not anymore. The fifth season, called sont , has disappeared. Young people haven't even heard of it. Sont used to last 30-45 days. "It would begin at the end of February and last up to the festival of Baisakhi in mid-April," says K K S Jamwal of the department of physics at the Kashmir University. He says the season would see precipitation comprising light snowfall, sleet (snow and rain) and sunshine that culminated into torrential rain by the end of March, when new year would arrive for Shia Muslims in Kashmir. The temperature would be between 0 c and 15 c with an average of 8 c . The cold breeze was considered rejuvenating. Almond, the first tree to blossom, would be just about to flower.

Saifuddin Soz, former Union minister of environment and forests who lives in Srinagar, reminisces: "During my childhood, the Srinagar valley used to be snowbound and the courtyards had almost seven feet (two metres) of snow till May, not to speak of the mountains buried under 35 feet (10.6 metres) of snow." He regrets that snowfall has decreased sharply in the past 5-6 years. It becomes warm in early February now. Kashmir, "the land of abundant water," has suffered a drought every year since 1997. The Jhelum river, fed by glaciers melting from March to May, now runs dry in the peak of summer as the melting takes place by January and February. Soz fears a severe crisis as the "water table has receded drastically". This has required paddy fields to be converted to maize. "Even maize is hard to cultivate now," Soz comments.

On the Dal lake in Srinagar, Abdul Salaam Bhat, 55, stands on his houseboat called Salaam Palace and wishes it was colder: "When I was young and strong, I needed two layers of sweaters and a jacket on top of my kurta, below which were two vests. It was impossible to row the boat without two pairs each of gloves and socks." Since the past 5-6 years, he manages with a single jacket, which he requires only in the morning and in the evening. Speaking clearly in the English that he has picked up to transact with tourists, he recalls that the lake used to freeze in December and January down to a depth of one foot (0.3 metre) and vehicles used to ply on the ice sheet. "It hardly freezes now," he moans (see 'The lake colony', Down To Earth , Vol 8, No 8, September 15, 1999). The problem is not just with the lake. Glaciers all along the Himalaya are also falling victim. Warmer climate has stepped up the melting and retreat of glaciers (see 'Beating retreat', Down To Earth , Vol 7, No 23, April 30, 1999). When the elements show such clear signs of change, can vegetation and agriculture remain unaffected?

The changing face of vegetation
While indigenous plants are being edged out, plants used to warmer climes are making an appearance in the hills

Warmer temperatures have led to a decline in the number of swallows in the Srinagar valley. "I used to see a long stretch of black swallows on the telegraph wires in Srinagar a few years ago," says Jamwal, who writes regularly on nature. Jamwal says he did not see a single one in recent times. He says they are moving to cooler areas like Baramulla, which was too cold for them earlier but is favourable now. On the other hand, summer months are visited by the Indian koel, and some other birds usually seen only in the warmer plains."

Darjeeling is very sensitive to changes in physical conditions. G P Sinha, scientist at the Botanical Survey of India in Sikkim, points out that the precipitation is low and rainfall is not very high. "The low temperatures curtail physiological activity of plant life," he explains. "If there is such a drastic change even in low temperature regions like this, then there is a cause for worry," he adds.

Mild winter drizzle was earlier accompanied by frost. Leaves would dry up during December and January. The winter wind would blow the fruits off the trees. The fruits would decompose due to the moisture from the winter rain. Lightning during the monsoon would fix nitrogen in the soil, helping the seedlings germinate. By June the plants would be big enough to resist heavy rainfall.

In the past few years, however, winters are dry and cold. The dry winter free of frost inhibits soil decomposition. Monsoon rains arrive early, hampering the growth and germination of seedlings and eventually affecting the flowering.

"Seasonal flowers are showing unusual signs," says K P Malla, honorary secretary, Indian Red Cross Society, Darjeeling. "Scizanthus usually bloom between March and May. In the past few years, they bloom at odd times -- either a month late or a month early," he indicates. Umesh Dwivedi, botany teacher at St Paul's School, says, "Anthurium, an ornamental plant comfortable below 1,220 metres, is now thriving around our school, which is at about 2,285 metres."

"Pine is the indigenous tree of this region. Its growth is no longer luxuriant," says Michael Dutta. "Evergreen and deciduous trees of subtropical climate are flourishing," he says. The beautiful rhododendron, so symbolic of Himalayan vegetation, has not been spared by the increasingly treacherous climate. It blooms much earlier that usual. Buddharaj Sewa, assistant conservator of forest at the Darjeeling Botanical Garden, says, "Magnolias are supposed to bloom in May, but they bloom in early February now." Unusual behaviour of flowers affects an important component of the local ecology and economy. The supply of honey has been affected as the bees have no nectar to feed on.

The birds and the bees
The problem with vegetation is getting transferred to pollinators. Native birds look for cooler areas

"It is impossible to extract honey after a spell of bad weather," says Kalu Pandey, 74, a resident of Lalung Basti in Darjeeling. In a normal year, he extracts honey twice a year. In 1999, he did not extract any honey as rains restricted the bees from venturing out during March and April. Beekeepers were compelled to use sugar or molasses to keep the bees alive.

"Honey from Darjeeling has very characteristic flavour, taste, thickness and purity. It is said to be tastier than the honey from the Sunderbans," says Rai of wwf-i . Every year, people of Lalung Basti bring 500-600 bottles of honey to D S Rasaily, secretary of Earth Group, a non-governmental organisation. "I sell them from my house for Rs 130 per bottle. I have received nothing this year," says Rasaily. Others involved in the honey trade also have a lot of complains.

"Birds that would migrate from the alpine reaches to warmer regions in September and October and return in March and April have stopped migrating," says Malla. A documentary film by the British Broadcasting Corporation showed the decline of butterflies in the entire Himalayan region. "This is worrying. They are very important pollinators," says Bimal Rasaily, horticulture inspector at Ralep circle in eastern Sikkim. "Their disappearance has been disastrous for cardamom and orange plantations, which are declining rapidly," he notes, adding that farmers are switching to potatoes.

As pollinators disappear, mosquitoes are making an appearance. "I had never seen mosquitoes here 10 years ago. You can see a few now, particularly in summer," says Bijay Subba, 48, head waiter at St Paul's School. P K Sharma, physician at the school, says patients with illnesses common to tropical areas -- diarrhoea, fever and jaundice -- have increased in the past 3-4 years. "Viruses thrive in this type of climate. Many children complain of skin diseases and infection," he explains.

Rais Akhtar is head of Kashmir University's department of geography and sole representative from India on the panel for 'health and climate change' under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ( ipcc ). He says incidence of malaria has increased over the years in Kashmir, which was earlier free of the disease. "Mountainous regions are under the grip of climate change," he says, adding that the level of warming has increased greatly. Rai, a trekker, laments about the changes in the wildlife and forests around Darjeeling: "Wild boars were practically non-existent in the 1970s. The village jungles are swarming with them now," he says.

Impact on agriculture
In the hills, there is no mechanised agriculture. It depends on the ecology. And is in as bad a shape

Man Bahadur Nirola, 74, a farmer from Pubong Fatak, grows cabbages and potatoes. "I have been growing these vegetables for decades. In the last 5-6 years, I have noticed an undesirable change in the quality of the cabbages. They become flaccid and open up. This ruins the taste of the vegetable," he moans. The condition was particularly bad in 2000 due to early rains, he explains. "Cabbages are called cold crops and are usually grown when the temperature drops. The cell system in the cabbage head remains compact in winter," says Bimal Rasaily. He points out that the tastiest cabbage in Sikkim is from the high altitudes, where the temperature is quite low.

While cabbage fares badly, cucumber and tomato are doing well, even in the Batasia region at an altitude of 1,980 metres. "These vegetables grow better in warmer conditions," Bimal Rasaily points out. Usually, they thrive at altitudes between 1,220 metres and 1,370 metres. There was hardly any cultivation of tomatoes earlier.

There is also a positive side to it: fodder, which was scarce earlier, is readily available now, Nirola says. "Even cabbage, which would earlier take 5-6 months, now requires only 3-4 months. The quality, however, has declined," he adds. Ginger, usually grown up to 1,370 metres, is cultivated at altitudes above 1,525 metres, explains Rai. But traditional produce of the region, like cardamom and orange, have been severely affected, says Tilak Dewan, farmer and member of the Ecodevelopment committee of Dabaipani Bhotia Basti, an hour's drive from Darjeeling. "Production has drastically declined since 1975, even though we do not use pesticides and inorganic fertilisers. We grow Bharlang, one of the best qualities of cardamom. It used to fetch a huge sum, but not now," he says.

Sikkim produces around 60 per cent of India's cardamom, fetching good revenue for the state. "We usually produce 4,000-5,000 tonnes of cardamom every year. But production declined to 2,000-2,500 tonnes in 1999," says Johnnykutty, deputy director of the Spices Board of India. This pushed the price of cardamom up to Rs 350 per kg, as against the normal price of Rs 250. The total loss was almost Rs 50 crore. "The crops are shade loving and they thrive well in 5,080 mm of rainfall," says Johnnykutty. "The sudden outburst of rain in May, after the extended drought, added fuel to the fire. The crop got completely washed down in some areas," says Karma Gyatso, secretary to the department of tourism. As the crop flowers between March and June, the heavy rainfall meant there were no fruits.

"Orange needs 20C for normal growth," says Bimal Rasaily. Gopal Pradhan, senior scientist for environment and pollution control in the forest department of Sikkim, states, "Temperature used to hover around 24C during summer. Now it reaches 28C." This is said to be one of the reasons for the decline in orange output. T R Poudyal, an Indian Forest Service officer, also relates his experience: " Rabi crops, which used to grow at 1,500 metres, now have to be grown at 2,000 metres." Malla says the orange plantations have shifted to higher altitudes.

If it is the orange in Sikkim, in Kashmir, it is the apple. "Despite increasing area of cultivation, apple production in Kashmir has remained stagnant in the past few years," says G R Bhat, chairperson, Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers cum Dealers Union in Baramulla. "This is due to rising temperatures and dry weather in the valley." Mohammed Sultan, 55, lives in Kripalpoia Payeen, 25 km from Srinagar. He has an orchard. "The increasing heat and decreasing rainfall is causing a decline not only in apple production but in the paddy yields as well," he says. He picks up an apple and points out: "They used to be an attractive red in colour. Now they look very dull." While climatic change isn't good news for apples and oranges, insect pests seem to be enjoying it.

"As it gets warm in February itself, the pests, too, arrive early, even before June or July," says Rinchen Lama of Rumtek, Sikkim. "There used to be no insect attacks during winter, but higher temperature increases the number of pests," explains Bimal Rasaily. Eklabya Sharma, head scientist at the Sikkim branch of the G B Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development, says rising temperatures are already affecting the snowline drastically, which, in turn, will affect the vegetation. "With the snowline rising, alpine plants like rhododendrons will get pushed to higher altitudes. If this continues, this could lead to their extinction," he says. "Global warming is happening, no doubt about it," Sharma concludes.

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