KARIMABAD, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In the mountains of northern Pakistan, some farmers say rising temperatures are giving them bumper harvests, even as climate and agricultural experts worry about the consequences of warming for the glaciers that are vital for the country’s irrigation.
“Many years back, the weather used to remain cold and cloudy most of the year. But now we have (more) warm months that are helping our staple, cash and fruit crops to grow faster and longer, and post higher yields,” said Sultan Khan, a farmer in Karimabad, a village in the picturesque Hunza valley of Gilgit-Baltistan province.
Farmers in Hunza say maize never used to grow taller than 3 feet (1 metre) during its five-month season (June to October). But a longer growing period and warmer days are helping the stalks reach up to 7 feet (2 metres). The maize yield has increased by an estimated 20-25 percent, they add, and harvests of other crops are also bigger.
Nonetheless, farmers in this remote area also complain that a lack of government guidance has left them uncertain as to whether to adjust their planting schedules to take advantage of the earlier onset of summer, since they do not know if the changes in weather patterns are permanent.
The Hunza valley perches on the north side of the Hunza River in the Upper Indus Basin, some 675 km (420 miles) from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. The valley lies at an elevation of around 2,500 metres (8,200 feet) and is surrounded by much higher mountain peaks and glaciers.
Ali Madad, a 76-year-old farmer in Barashal village, said that because of warmer temperatures, glaciers are melting more consistently, which makes his livelihood easier. “Now the streams, which are a major source of irrigation for mountain agriculture, flow even in winter,” he said.
Whereas snow used to begin falling in the valley around mid-October and continue for six months, it now begins in late December and ends a couple of months later, he added.
Temperatures that would fall as low as minus 16 degrees Celsius a dozen years back now rarely drop below minus 2 degrees. Summer, previously a three-month season, has become correspondingly longer, Madad said.
In Karimabad, Sultan Khan observed that winter snowfall is now less than 5 inches, in sharp contrast with the 13 inches or more typical a decade ago.
Local agriculture expert Fida Karim said only the mountain peaks now get covered with snow in winter, while the middle and lower latitudes hardly receive any snowfall. Rakaposhi, a spectacular peak in the Karakoram mountain range and the twelfth highest in Pakistan, has not been completely covered in snow since 2008, he added.
According to Karim, over the last five years, the winter snowfall in the valley has melted in just a few weeks in March. It used to remain until at least the end of April.
The changes experienced by farmers in the Hunza valley are different from those happening elsewhere in Gilgit-Baltistan. In other parts of the province, the winter season both begins and ends later than it used to, delaying the snow melt needed for irrigation and stunting the growth of crops.
But even in the Hunza valley, the changes in the onset of the seasons are a problem for vegetable and fruit farmers like Shehla Hayat.
“Every year in October, the shift from summer to winter used to be gradual. But for the last four years each October, hotter summer days (have) become cooler abruptly,” the 35-year-old farmer said, while harvesting fodder outside her house in Barashal village.
The sudden plunges in temperature, together with unexpected rainfall, have badly affected local crops of apples, apricots, pears and potatoes when they were nearly ripe, causing losses for farmers, Hayat said.
GLACIER MELT FEARS
Climate and agricultural experts warn, meanwhile, that the long-term consequences of the rising temperatures and glacial melt could be dire.
Inayat Karim, a mountain farming conservationist at the Baltit Rural Support Organisation in Hunza valley, said the Ultar glacier, which looms over Karimabad to a height of 7,400 metres (24,300 feet), has been shrinking since 1999, and a previously snow-covered peak is now bare.
Shahana Khan of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme said the valley now receives rain as well as snow in the winter months.
“This points to a scary scenario for sustainable flows of the Hunza River,” Khan said, pointing out that declining snowfall will eventually reduce levels in the Hunza River, which accounts for 25-30 percent of the water that flows into the Indus River - in turn vital to much of the nation’s agricultural economy.
There are short-term problems for the Hunza River too. Farmers say it has become increasingly turbulent in recent years due to increased glacial melt in the summer months, which sometimes causes it to breach its banks.
The director general of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, Arif Mahmood, is concerned by the retreating snowline in the high mountains.
“In the past, mountains in the valleys like Gilgit, Hunza, Skardu and Shigar in the Upper Indus Basin (UIB) used to receive huge snow in their lower altitude areas, between 2,000 and 3,000 metres. But this is no more the case,” he said.
“There has been a surge in heat wave incidences in UIB areas,” Mahmood continued. “The temperature now goes up beyond 40 degrees Celsius in summer as compared to (an earlier) maximum of 28 degree Celsius some 10 years ago.”
There has also been an unusual shift in monsoon patterns, which are becoming heavier and moving to higher altitudes, he added.
Mahmood warned of increasing flash floods and landslides in the UIB region if temperature increases continue.
The senior weather official called for urgent action to make public infrastructure more climate-resilient, such as strengthening river banks and bridges, and to introduce new crop varieties. Otherwise, local communities will be increasingly threatened by torrential rains, floods and wildfires, he warned.
Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development science reporters based in Islamabad, Pakistan.