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Karewa land: Nature’s blessing to Kashmir is in danger

Karewa (elevated table-land) in Kashmir are under threat due to the construction of infrastructure in the region and climate change

By Wahid Bhat
New Update
Karewa land: Nature’s blessing to Kashmir is in danger

Karewa (elevated table-land) in Kashmir is under threat due to the construction of infrastructure in the region and climate change. The karewas are an important ecological and geological feature of the Kashmir valley, formed over millions of years by sedimentation and erosion.

Known as karewa, these plateaus are 13,000 to 18,000-meter-thick deposits of alluvial soil and sediments like sandstone and mudstone. This makes them ideal for growing saffron, almonds, apples, and several other cash crops.

Kashmiri saffron, which received a Geographical Indication (GI) label in 2020 for its longer and thicker stigmas, dark red color, high aroma, and bitter flavor, is grown on these karewas.

Human activities such as mining, logging, and construction can also contribute to the decline of Karewas land.
Photo Credit: Wahid Bhat/Ground Report
In some cases, agricultural activities such as intensive farming or grazing can also contribute to the decline of Karewas land.Photo Credit: Wahid Bhat/Ground Report

Karewa land is in danger

Rayees Ahmad Shah Project Associate at the Department of Geoinformatics, University of Kashmir, speaking to Groundreport.in said that "the soft soils of the karewas support the agriculture of the Kashmir Valley - the saffron, apples and almonds that are emblematic of Kashmir".

He added "these ancient plateaus are also home to fossils of mega beasts and plants that thrived in the area and are clues to Earth's past. But these ancient formations are now caught in the throes of rapid urbanization, unplanned development, and extractive land use".

Karewa land Jammu and Kashmir
The decline of Karewas land is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted approach to address
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Climate change can also contribute to the decline of Karewas land by altering the patterns of precipitation and temperature in the region.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Shah said "formed about four million years ago, karewas (or wudur), as Indian paleontologist/paleobotanist Birbal Sahni described it in a 1936 paper, are "more or less flat terraces or plateaus that cover a large of the Kashmir valley, especially on the left bank of the Jhelum.

Shah further added that rapid urbanization and infrastructural development in the region, such as the construction of roads, buildings, and other structures, has led to the destruction of the karewas. The excavation and levelling of the karewas have also caused soil erosion leading to landslides and other environmental problems.

Rayees Shah laments the public's lack of knowledge about karewas. “Barely one percent of the population of the Valley knows them and knows their importance. There are very few studies on the karewas".

According to the Shah "heavy machinery used for construction has damaged the fragile soil, resulting in erosion and landslides. In addition, the construction of dams and other water management structures has disrupted the natural flow of rivers and streams, affecting the hydrology of the region".

Shah added that "the destruction of the karewas is a serious concern for the ecological balance of the region. Karewas play an important role in regulating water flow, maintaining soil fertility, and supporting biodiversity in the region. The loss of karewas also has economic consequences, as they are an important source of water for irrigation and agriculture".

In the Kashmir valley, where Karewas are particularly prominent, they are known to consist of three main layers, known as the Lower, Middle, and Upper Karewa. Source: ScienceDirect.com

What is Karewa land?

The word Karewa in the Kashmiri dialect means “raised plateau”. This term was first used by Godwin-Austin (1859) and later by Lydekker (1878) for an unconsolidated to semi-consolidated sand-clay-conglomerate sequence.

These sediments occur as terraces, plateaus, and mounds and are underlain by Paleozoic-Mesozoic sediments of the Kashmir "basin". De Terra and Patterson (1939) gave the first detailed account of these Quaternary sediments

Rock dissect layers diagram of Karewa land

The Karewa earth rock dissection layers diagram generally shows the different layers of sedimentary rocks, volcanic ash, and other materials that make up the geologic formation. These layers are usually arranged in a series of flat-topped plateaus or mesas, separated by steep cliffs or escarpments.

Geological map of Kashmir Valley showing the distribution of Karewa. Source: ResearchGate

At the base of the diagram, there may be layers of sandstone, shale, or other sedimentary rocks, which were deposited by ancient rivers and lakes. Above these layers, there may be thicker layers of volcanic ash, which were deposited during periods of volcanic activity.

One of the most distinctive features of Karewa land is the presence of laterite layers, which are formed by the weathering and oxidation of iron-rich minerals in the soil. These layers can be several meters thick and are known for their reddish-brown color and durability.

Layers of Karewa land are often tilted or bent due to tectonic forces, which can provide clues to the geological history of the region. Fossils of ancient plants and animals can also be found in the layers, giving insight into the area's past ecosystems.

The economic significance of Karewas

The Karewa deposits have different soils and sediments such as sand, clay, silt, shale, mud, lignite, and waste. Hence, these are very useful for agricultural and horticultural activities.

One of the most important economic activities associated with the karewas is the extraction of limestone, which is used in the construction industry to make cement, among other things. The karewas are also known for their deposits of gypsum, which is used in the manufacture of plaster and drywall.

The karewas are also home to a variety of flora and fauna, some of which have significant economic value. For example, saffron, a high-value crop used in the food and cosmetics industries, is grown in the Karewa region of Pampore in Kashmir.

The highlands are also home to a variety of medicinal plants and herbs, which are used in traditional medicine and the pharmaceutical industry.

In recent years, the karewas has also become a major tourist attraction, with visitors coming to enjoy the natural beauty of the area and participate in outdoor activities such as hiking and camping. This has created job opportunities in the tourism industry, contributing to the region's economic growth.

Karewas land, dotted with almond and walnut trees.
Photo Credit: Wahid Bhat/Ground Report
Karewas has also become a major tourist attraction. Photo Credit: Wahid Bhat/Ground Report

Karewas for livelihood

“The Karewas are also significant in the economy of the valley,” says Sringar-based activist Raja Muzaffar Bhat. Born and raised in Budgam, Bhat calls karewas his "second home".

“This land, dotted with almond and walnut trees, is 80 percent of Budgam district,” Muzaffar says looking at an almond orchard. “With the depletion of these plots of land, the cultivation of cash crops such as saffron in the valley has been affected,” says Bhat.

The highland plateaus provide fertile land for growing various crops including saffron, barley, wheat, and vegetables. Farmers in the region use traditional irrigation systems to manage water resources and grow their crops, which are essential to their livelihoods.

The karewas are also home to a variety of livestock, including sheep, goats and cows, which are an important source of milk, meat and wool for the local people. Many families in the region practice livestock raising and depend on it as their main source of income.

In addition to agriculture and herding, the karewa region also supports small-scale industries such as handicrafts, pottery and carpet weaving. These industries have been part of the region's culture for centuries and provide employment opportunities for many people in the region.

Growing number of brick kilns in Karewa

The growing number of brick kilns in the vicinity of Karewa land can have a negative impact on the environment and the geological formations in the region.

Brick kilns require large amounts of clay and other raw materials, which are often mined from nearby river banks and farmland. This can lead to soil erosion and degradation, as well as increased sedimentation in rivers and lakes.

Almond orchards Smoke billowing from a brick kiln in Pulwama 
Photo Credit: Wahid Bhat/Ground Report
Labourers working in a brick kiln in Pulwama district of Jammu Kashmir. Photo Credit: Wahid Bhat/Ground Report

Additionally, the brick-firing process can release large amounts of particulates and other pollutants into the air, contributing to air pollution and respiratory problems.

Furthermore, the construction of brick kilns and associated infrastructure such as roads and buildings can lead to land use changes and habitat destruction, potentially upsetting the ecological balance of the area.

Decline of Karewa land

According to a report released by the government of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, forests and wetlands in the region have been degraded and the karewa have faced significant land use changes.

The report says forest area in Kashmir has shrunk from 3,174 square kilometres in 1980 to 2,112 square kilometers in 2018, indicating a significant decline in forest cover in the region.

Similarly, the report pointed out that the karewas of the region have had to deal with land use changes due to urbanization, agriculture and mining activities, which have led to soil erosion, landslides of land and a decline in biodiversity.

The report recommended the adoption of sustainable land use practices and the conservation of forests, wetlands and other ecosystems to meet these challenges.

Climate Impact on karewas land

The Karewa land in Kashmir, which is a unique and fragile ecosystem, faces a series of threats due to human activities and natural factors.

Despite its agricultural and archaeological importance, karewas are now excavated for use in construction. Between 1995 and 2005, massive portions of karewas in Pulwama, Budgam and Baramulla districts were razed to make clay for the 125 km long Qazigund-Baramulla railway line.

Climate change is having significant impacts on Karewa lands in Kashmir. The region is already experiencing the effects of global warming, which is leading to changes in the ecosystem and the way of life of the people who depend on it.

Some of the ways climate change is affecting Karewa lands in the region are:

Deforestation: The rapid pace of urbanization and population growth has led to deforestation in the region. This has led to soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and disruption of the water cycle, which negatively affects the karewa ecosystem.

Reduced snowfall: The Karewa depend on snowmelt for irrigation and drinking water. However, with reduced snowfall due to global warming, there is less water available for irrigation and drinking, which negatively affects agriculture and livelihoods in the region.

Mining and quarrying: The karewas have been a source of minerals, such as limestone and gypsum, which has led to many mining and quarrying activities. These activities have resulted in soil erosion, pollution and the destruction of vegetation and wildlife habitats.

Karewas are a type of sedimentary rock formation found in the Kashmir valley. Source: CNS

Infrastructure development: The construction of roads, buildings and other infrastructure projects has also had an impact on the karewa. Heavy machinery used for construction has resulted in soil erosion, landslides and the destruction of wildlife habitats

Erratic rainfall patterns: Climate change has brought unpredictable rainfall patterns to the region, making it difficult for farmers to plan their planting and harvesting cycles. This can lead to crop failure and reduced agricultural productivity.

The available data suggests that the Karewa lands in Kashmir have faced significant degradation and land use changes due to various human activities and natural factors.

However, it is essential to note that the situation may have changed since the last data was published and more recent data may be available.

Karewa Land is an important geological formation with unique features and rich deposits, and it is important to protect it from environmental degradation and unsustainable development practices.

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