Climate Change

Snowfall in Himachal Pradesh: A tourist’s paradise, a farmer’s curse

In times of climate change, untimely snowfall is damaging crops and causing crop illnesses

By Aditi Pinto
Published: Friday 12 October 2018
Snowfall in Himachal Pradesh
Snow, when it falls at the right time and in the right quantity, act as the much-awaited accompaniment to the rabi crop in Himachal Pradesh. Credit: Getty Images Snow, when it falls at the right time and in the right quantity, act as the much-awaited accompaniment to the rabi crop in Himachal Pradesh. Credit: Getty Images

Snow-laden peaks and landscapes have been known to make people’s eyes glisten with magic. But, climate change has managed to ruin that too. Untimely snowfall in Himachal Pradesh’s Lahaul-Spiti district, which is 3,000 or more metres above sea level, resulted in loss of apple, potato and cabbage crops this season.

This region usually receives extremely heavy snowfall between December and April and that’s why they traditionally grow wheat and barley during summers. But erratic climatic incidents are catching them unawares.

Snow has wreaked havoc in Lahaul and Spiti as farmers in other regions of HP depend on moderate snowfall for a successful rabi crop, which is being sown right now. In the lower regions of the hill state, farmers, who grow wheat and beans during winters, will be the only ones to benefit from the government’s decision to raise MSP on wheat by Rs 110 per quintal last week.

A majority of farmers are small scale cultivators who grow wheat for their own consumption and are self sufficient, but they faced global warming’s wrath.

What if it falls at the right time

While the untimely hailstorms often knock the grain off the stalk or destroy the newly-formed bud, fruit or vegetable, snow, when it falls at the right time and in the right quantity, act as the much-awaited accompaniment to the rabi crop in HP. But snowfall has drastically decreased in Himachal Pradesh and rain and hailstorms have increased over the last 25 years, says the Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment.

In Kandbari village in Kangra district, which stands at around 1,400 metre above sea level, Balak Ram blissfully remembers snowfall. He says, “It used to snow and cover the base of the wheat crop. The snow protected the wheat from insects or rotting. It was only snowfall that didn’t require us to spray our crops. Nowadays, given the lack of snow, we need to spray chemicals.”

According to scientists, normal snowfall at the right time is beneficial to the wheat crop in more ways than one. Snowfall of one foot, depending on the density, is equivalent to 1 inch of rain and provides a lot of moisture. Unlike rainfall, snow allows root development. Even when the top of the crop lies dormant, if the roots are well developed, the crop receives more nutrition. Furthermore, snow prevents the soil from being washed away with heavy rainfall and it has an insulating temperature as it takes longer for moist soil to get cold than dry soil.

In Tandi village, Kullu district that stands at around 2,000 metres above sea level, less snow means less nutrition for the wheat crop. Daleep Ram says, “Snow forms a natural fertiliser when it mixes with the soil. In the olden days, this layer of snow on the soil was very beneficial. Nowadays, the snow has reduced and the wheat crop is not as strong. This also means that we have to work harder to grow our crop.”

With changing climates and less fertile soils, some farmers are choosing to work harder, while others are turning to other livelihood options. “People still grow wheat, but many are beginning to grow less of it and buy flour at a cheap price from ration shops. People are selling their lands or setting up homestays or hotels instead,” adds Ram.

Long-term effects of climate change

Himachal Pradesh has aphid insects, known as sentinels of climate change, attacking its crop on a large scale. Aphids thrive in the now warmer climate, drinking away at the sap of the wheat stalks and leaving behind sticky residues.

The state also depends on the 'western disturbances' for winter precipitations, and given the changing climatic conditions in eastern Europe and central Asia, these moisture bearing clouds are becoming less predictable.

The changing socio-economic patterns are very much connected to climate change and the unpredictable weather pattern. “If snow falls between December and February it is beneficial to our wheat and kidney bean crops. The seeds lie dormant, the roots develop, until the moment the snow melts and the seeds sprout. However, if it snows at the wrong time, it is very problematic,” says Roshan Lal of Nain Village, Kangra district.

(This story has been published as part of a Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit-Centre for Media Studies Fellowship)

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