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As mountain snow fails and glaciers melt, Pakistan faces water threats

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 23 May 2014 14:00 GMT
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Ali Madad, 76, who farms in Pakistan's Hunza-Nagar valley, says increasingly light winter snowfall and unpredictable rains are making it more and more difficult for farmers to grow crops. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Saleem Shaikh

GILGIT, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Farmers in the valleys of northern Pakistan fear for the survival of their summer crops after a short winter of low snowfall altered the flow patterns of mountain streams, potentially robbing the farmers of water they rely on to irrigate their fields.

Experts at the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) and senior weather observers posted at stations in Pakistan's Upper Indus Basin (UIB) say last winter's snowfall in most of the valleys of the Gilgit-Balistan province was as much as 70 percent below that of previous years.

"Not only was snowfall abysmally low, but it also started late by over two months," said Mohammad Amin, meteorologist at PMD's observatory station in Skardu district, where the Shigar River joins the Indus River in the shadow of the Karakoram mountain range. "And it started to melt in March instead of late April in most of the valleys of Skardu."

The early thaw meant the swelling of mountain streams months earlier than usual, said Musa Khan, head of the weather observatory station in Gupis in the northern Gilgit-Baltistan province. That could be devastating for farmers, who usually only start readying their lands for summer crops in May.

"The farmers prepare for cultivating summer crops from late May to the end of June, when rising temperatures usually cause the glacial-fed channels and streams to start flowing and irrigate the ploughed terraced fields," Khan told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

With the already deficient snowfall melting early and causing waters to surge too soon, there could be little or no water left in the streams and channels by the time farmers need to irrigate their crops in June, he said.

“I am really perturbed by the astounding change in our weather pattern," said Nia’at Waali, a 50-year-old maize farmer in Thangai village in the Gupis valley. "I have never in my entire life seen the mountain streams flowing with gushing water and the days getting warmer in March, which used to be a snowfall month."

Meteorologist Amin said that his observations show snowfall season now has shrunk to only the months of January and February, down from five months – November to March – in 1994.

Khan, the weather observer at Gupis, suggests "farmers desperately need to adapt to erratic weather patterns and think of preparing their fields in March instead of May and June.”

RISING FLOOD RISK?

But shorter winters are not just a problem for crops — they can threaten lives, experts say.

Faster and earlier glacier melt in districts such as Ghizer, Gilgit and Hunza is leading rivers to now flow higher earlier than they did eight years ago – and that higher flow of glacier melt water is coming into rivers already swollen by monsoon rains, said environment and water scientist Salar Ali, who works as a research consultant with the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

By the time the glacier water surges into the Indus River, which runs from north to south through the Khyber-Pakthunkhwa province, Pakistan is in monsoon season. The meeting of heavier river flows and monsoon rains could lead to severe flooding downstream similar to that of 2010, which killed over 2,000 people and affected 20 million people, scientists say.

Experts agree that one of the keys to helping Pakistan's mountain farmers cope with changing climate patterns is to increase the use of reservoirs, to allow farmers to capture flood or surplus water and use it later during dry seasons.

"Water from the mountain streams can be stored by building reservoirs in different valleys in the upper parts of the Gilgit-Balistan province as part of an adaptation program," said Abid Sher Ali, the state minister of Pakistan's water and power ministry.

While several planned multi-billion-dollar dam projects could ease the risk of flooding and store water in the lower parts of the Gilgit-Balistan province, there is not much long-term, local help for the northern provinces hit by the effects of low snowfall.

"I will have a discussion with the provincial government of Gilgit-Balistan about the viability of building reservoirs," Ali said. "It will help reduce the mountain farmers' direct reliance on the flowing streams."

But reservoirs are only part of the answer. Shahana Khan, head of a project management unit at the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, says that in order for farmers to adapt to changing weather patterns, they need access to new varieties of crop seeds and water conservation technologies, along with guidance on the various ways they can adapt to the impacts of climate change. 

“This requires institutions to make it all happen,” said Khan. “But with malfunctioning and poorly-staffed agriculture, irrigation and environment departments in most of the districts of Gilgit-Baltistan province, farmers’ climate woes are less likely to be addressed.”

That leaves Pakistan's mountain farmers with no other option than to guess at what the weather might bring next.

"For the last seven to nine years, we farmers have been caught unprepared and unaware of the weird changes in weather patterns, snowfall and rainfall," said Karam Hayat, a maize farmer in Hunza-Nagar valley. "How can we respond to these sudden and abrupt climatic changes?"

Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development science correspondents based in Islamabad, Pakistan.

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