• Publish Date: Jun 24 2018 11:04PM
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  • Updated Date: Jun 24 2018 11:09PM

                              Ferozpur Nallah in Baramulla district.     Photo: Habib Naqash/KI 




“This is a very hard year for farmers,” says Abdul Ahad Sheikh of Batergam in Kupwara, pointing towards his dried up fields while talking to this writer. “We are unable to make out how to irrigate our paddy fields.”

Thousands of hectares of paddy land in Batergam and other areas of Kupwara are facing acute shortage of water this year. The only sources of water in the area, the Kehmil stream that originates from Shamshabari range near the Line of Control, is almost dry when it reaches Batergam, Gushi, Kupwara, Drugmulla and other villages downstream. The Kehmil used to be brimming with water at this time of the year when rains and snowmelt fill the rivers and streams.

Sheikh said that he anticipated in the winter that the coming months were going to be hard in terms of availability of water, as there was little snowfall, “But I had no idea that the streams could be devoid of water to such an extent.”

He said that there’s ray of hope for farmers living in Chowkibal, Salamatwari, Shoolora and Trehgam as their land still has water in it. “They also have a nearby stream which feeds their rice fields,” he said. “The rice harvest was excellent last year due to abundant water. This year, getting farms irrigated is going to be quite tough.”

Authorities fear that the snowless winter followed by a rain deficient spring has left too little water to irrigate the Valley’s rice fields this year. The Public Health Engineering (PHE) Department’s assessment is that in the months to come, ensuring drinking water supply in rural areas and peripheries may become a challenge.

Officials of Agriculture department said that more than 80% of paddy is dependent on canal irrigation drawing water from natural sources like streams, local nallahs and tributaries. This entire system, they said, is snow-fed but the dry weather has created an alarming situation.

The situation, officials said, is so grim that in northern Kashmir, which is spread over three districts, more than 200 water storage ponds which are usually used while developing paddy nurseries are either running dry or left with “bare minimum water.”

The government has already advised farmers to go for other crops which are less dependent on water, like maize and pulses, in districts like Kupwara, Baramulla, Bandipora and Ganderbal.

Farmers now fear a drought. They depend on the rain collected in their paddy fields for the planting process, when rice seedlings are transplanted into the fields. To irrigate the crop later, they use water from streams and canals. According to government figures, while 60% of Kashmir’s agricultural fields have an “assured means” of irrigation, 58% of the net area sown in entire Jammu and Kashmir is rain-fed.

Irrigation and Flood Control Department issued advisories in the last week of March through press and posters asking farmers in northern Kashmir not to sow water-intensive paddy this season due to a water scarcity. Instead, the advisory urges them to sow pulses and other cash crops, which use less water.

“All farmers are hereby requested that they should not go for paddy cultivation this year as, due to lack of snowfall and rainfall, there is hardly any water in the Jhelum River and the streams,” reads a notice issued by the Baramulla district wing of Irrigation Department. “So please don’t go for paddy cultivation this year considering the fact that we won’t be able to supply water for irrigation.” 

Similar notices have been issued in other districts such as Kupwara, Bandipora and Ganderbal.

“There was a similar dry spell in the early 2000, and that time too pulses were sown. It has happened again,” said Muhammad Afzal, a retired engineer of TarzooSopore.

Rice, the staple food of Kashmir, is sown in June up to the 21st of the month.

Officials of Agriculture department said that rice is grown over 1.41 lakh hectares in the Valley. In 2017, 9.51 lakh metric tonnes of rice was produced in Kashmir. But most of this is consumed by the cultivators themselves. The rest of the people rely largely on rice imported from other states and that supplied by the Public Distribution System that too procures from states like Punjab. The state has seen a steady increase in the import of rice since 2000-01 (0.79 lakh tonnes) till 2015-16 (5.33 lakh tonnes), according to figures from the Directorate of Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution Kashmir.

The figures available with the Meteorological department reveal that rainfall in Kashmir in the first three months of 2018 has been the lowest in 30 years. According to the data, the Gulmarg belt - whose mountain ranges feed numerous streams - recorded a mere 172 mm precipitation (snowfall and rainfall) in the three months up to March, compared with an average of 602 mm in the past 30 years for the three-month period.

“The rain deficit in Kashmir this winter is 95%,” director Meteorological Department, Sonam Lotus told the Kashmir Ink.

MeT officials said that from 1st to 31 January, Srinagar received only 1.2 mm precipitation in the form of rain. “Total precipitation for whole state was 4.4 mm while the normal average is 69.7 mm.”

Experts say that Kashmir has been witnessing a shift in direction of the western disturbance by around 700 kilometres towards north.

Although this winter the WD hit J&K, but every time they turned weak, resulting in dry weather.

Kashmir gets a large portion of its rains in the spring months and in early summer, a prolonged dry spell in January and February has led to decreased water levels in streams that are vital for irrigation.

The government has constructed some water harvesting ponds in parts of northern Kashmir for water harvesting. But they need to be created in all the areas as droughts has become frequent and rainfall scarcer and more erratic. 

“About 160 water storage tanks that are used to irrigate the district’s paddy fields could not be filled this year,” said an engineer of irrigation and flood control department in Kupwara. “If we have a 14-foot deep tank, there is only two to four feet of water in it,” he said. “We are trying to fill these tanks with every water source available but so far we haven’t been able to do that.”

The farmers apprehend that in November-December, if there is not enough rice in the villages, people will be out on the streets.

Abdul Subhan, a retired teacher of KandiKupwara said that in December 2015, when the National Food Security Act was implemented in Jammu and Kashmir, limiting the amount of rice handed out by government to 5 kg per person per month, instead of 35 kg per family, protests broke out in parts of the Valley. “We will have to import whatever we will not be able to grow,” Subhan said. “It seems there will be chaos by the end of this year.”

He said that shifting to other crops would shoot up the food deficit in the valley, where rice is the staple food. “At present, annual paddy production in Kashmir hovers at around 8.72 lakh tonnes, worth Rs 1,300 crore and most of this is consumed locally,” said an official of Agriculture department. “There is already a deficit of more than 32% food grain, which is met through imports from neighbouring states like Punjab.”

Lack of irrigation facilities is also one of the reasons why farmers are selling land to property developers. According to an official document outlining a new policy for land use in Jammu and Kashmir, unplanned construction like developing residential colonies, factories, brick kilns, shopping complexes and other commercial infrastructure has eaten deeply into the valley’s agricultural land resources.

In a letter to the government in March 2016, the director for agriculture in Kashmir had reported that “due to the haphazard land conversion, agricultural land has shrunk considerably, as per door to door surveys conducted by the field workers of this (agriculture) department.”

The irrigation department also finds itself in a helpless situation. There are around 450 lift irrigation schemes, mainly on the Jhelum, and on some other water bodies like Lidder and Vaishaw in south Kashmir and Ferozporanallah in north Kashmir. Most of them are lying defunct due to the prevailing weather.

“Today there is no water at the base of these schemes. The question of irrigation doesn’t arise unless things improve drastically,” said chief engineer Irrigation and Flood Control. “The priority has to be the supply of drinking water.”

A senior official in the PHE said the advisory was a “timely and right call”. The department has been struggling to provide regular supplies to around 82 lakh consumers in the Kashmir division, as more than 40% of its total 1,600 schemes have taken a hit.