Azhar Qadri, Sajid Mir
Every spring, about 40,000 people with about 300,000 animals reach the pastures of Neelam Valley in Kashmir. They reach up to 10,000 feet (3,48 meters) to graze in open pastures in the high Himalayan region and stay there until mid-September. While they stay in the grazing area of the lake for four months, other members of their families in the settlement below gather grass for later use. Saddakat Hasan Shah, Chairman of Neelam Valley Development Board, told Thirdpole that when the area is covered with snow in winter, the villagers save their commodities by feeding them grass.
But this year, the snowfall during the rainy season caused great damage to the shepherds. Akhtar Ayub of the District Disaster Management Authority in Neelam Valley said that on June 7 and 8, 4 feet of snow fell in Neelam Valley, as a result of which 1,932 goats, 350 goats, 80 cattle and 20 horses were killed.
“We lost 107 goats due to the June snowfall”, said Chaudhry Shabbir, a 45-year-old pastoralist from Mansehra in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Along with two fellow members of the Bakarwal nomad community – plus 650 goats and sheep – Shabbir had travelled 200km on foot to reach pastures at Ratti Galli in the Neelum Valley, at 12,139 feet (3,683 metres). There they spent one and a half months grazing their livestock before the snowstorm hit.
“We were not expecting snowfall, nor was there any prior warning,” Shabbir said.
52-year-old herder Shah Zaman had come to the 12,000-foot high Noori Top from the outskirts of Muzzaffarabad with 1,025 sheep and goats. He lost 240 animals, mostly goats. Aside from the cold itself, the snow brought other unseasonal dangers. “Some of our goats were killed by local bears that normally stay on top of the mountains but come down during winter snowfalls,” Zaman said.
Deadly snows hit south Kashmir
The heavy snowfall ignored the division of Kashmir between India and Pakistan. On the Indian side, the meadows around Marsar Lake in south Kashmir are part of a vast circuit of grasslands located at altitudes of 13,000 feet (3,962 metres) and above in the mountains surrounding the Kashmir Valley. The pastures of the valley provide a summer refuge for almost two million sheep belonging to 70,000 farmers, according to data compiled by the region’s sheep husbandry department.
But this year, summer snow brought heavy losses upon herders in the mountains of south Kashmir. It snowed heavily between 19 and 22 June, covering the lush green meadows with a layer of snow two to three feet deep, according to multiple shepherds in Marsar and Khimsar. Sonum Lotus, head of the Sringar Meteorology Centre, told The Third Pole that the centre does not have an observatory in the mountains, so could not verify the depth of the snowfall. Nonetheless, along with heavy rain in the plains, the incident was declared a State Specific Natural Disaster by the administration in Jammu and Kashmir.
I have lived all the summers of my life in these mountains. It had never happened before, that it would snow in JuneAssadullah Chopan, pastoralist
“I felt my hour of death had come,” recalled Assadullah Chopan, a week after the snowstorm hit Marsar. Chopan had travelled to the mountain pasture with a flock of 1,600 sheep in early June, via a treacherous four-day journey from his home in Khrew township. “I prayed for forgiveness and thought this is how my life is going to end. There was nothing that I could have done to save myself and the sheep,” he said.
At 13,000 feet, ringed by rugged mountains on all sides, he was far away from help and all signs of modern civilization, he recalls. Nearly 100 of his sheep died in the storm. Some died from the cold, while others fell off a cliff as they tried to escape the icy winds.
“I have lived all the summers of my life in these mountains, but this was the first time I lived through a snowstorm. It had never happened before, that it would snow in June,” said Chopan.
According to an official of the chicken husbandry department, they immediately sent a team of veterinarians and health workers. The team reached there after walking for several days and conducted an on-site study.
According to the information collected by the department, 7,000 Changras died in that blizzard. Budgam district of central Kashmir was the worst affected. An official of that department told ThirdPole that 1,500 chicks died there.
“Most of the dead were young chicks, which could not bear the sudden extreme cold and died of hypothermia while some weak animals died of starvation,” said the official.
Kashmir affected by series of extreme weather events
Unseasonal snowfall is the latest incident in which the Himalayan region of Kashmir has been plagued by extreme and unnatural weather events one after the other. After winter without snow, extreme summer and spring without rain, this disaster has to be faced.
It is clear that the climatic balance of Kashmir has been disturbed. This has seriously affected the lives of many shepherds like Chopan. From generation to generation, they have been earning their livelihood by grazing in the high Himalayan region. There, the weather was comfortable and there was enough grass in the rainy season.
“We are in the midst of a severe climate crisis,” said Irfan Rashid, assistant professor at the University of Kashmir’s Department of Geo-Informatics. Rashid warned that climate change will “expose mountain communities and infrastructure to such unheard-of-in-the-past events,” but worries that we are not prepared. “This is getting out of control,” he said.
His sentiment is echoed on the other side of the border. According to the Pakistan Meteorological Department, the June snowfall in the Kashmir mountains was caused by high-speed winds at high altitudes which originated over the Atlantic Ocean, bringing widespread precipitation.
“Intense weather systems reached high mountains above 10,000 feet, and precipitation came in the form of snow and ice crystals,” Sardar Sarfraz, a meteorologist at the department, told The Third Pole. “We haven’t seen or heard of snow falling in June before. We can link it to climate change because it’s a rare phenomenon,” he added.
Sardar Muhammad Rafiq, director of the Environment Protection Agency on Pakistan’s side of Kashmir, said that there has been summer snowfall in the Neelum Valley at 14,000 feet in the past, but that would be around 1.5 inches. This year was the first time that the Neelum Valley has seen three feet of snow at an altitude of 10,000 feet in summer, he said.
“It would be too early to say this snowfall is a climate change phenomenon,” said an official at the Environment Protection Agency. “We would call it climate change only if it repeats next year.”
But for herders like Chopan, who are mostly illiterate or semi-literate, the concept of climate change is difficult to understand; instead they find refuge in faith. “There is a shrine in these mountains and its custodian these days is not a good man, that is why this happened,” Chopan said.
This article first appeared on The Third Pole.
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