Living with High Water in the Himalaya

May 11, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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‘Shikaras’ on Srinagar’s Dal Lake, with the nearer peaks of the Himalayan range behind.

Srinagar lives on the water, as the city has done for as long as its history has been recorded. What makes its semi-amphibious nature unique is the city’s location: in the Valley of Kashmir, itself some 1,600 metres above sea level, and surrounded by the nearer peaks of the loftiest mountain ranges in the world, the Western Himalaya, the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram.

Towards Srinagar’s north-east spread the peaceful waters of the Dal Lake, over which many a traveller – from Francois Bernier and Ippolito Desideri (who came during the era of the Mughals) to Abul Fazl and al Biruni – has burst into prose and poetry. Today too, it is nigh impossible not to, for the Dal is a glimmering sheet of still water, the reflections of the immense crags surrounding broken here and there by the rippled wakes of slim ‘shikaras’, the characterful water conveyances, or stodgy merchants’ boats.

The lake beckons and then arrests the tourists, Indian and foreign, and whose numbers have swelled in recent years. Those with more generous budgets seek one of the rambling houseboats, moored across the winding promenade, which are apt to be floating apartments, either luxurious or tawdry, but remarkable. Those who cannot afford the houseboats choose modest accommodation ashore, but within hailing distance of the shikara pilots. From all around the Dal Lake the inner network of water lanes is visible, bordered by low-growing brushwood and whispering reeds. Small islands in the lake have been turned into perches for homes, shops, crafts emporia and the occasional kitchen garden. These are connected, to one another and to the regiments of houseboats, by means of walkways constructed from wood and anchored to pilings sunk into the lake bottom, so that the entire community takes on a semi-aquatic look, for the only paths on tenuous soil here are short ones, from one shikara point to another.

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In Srinagar’s Jawahar Nagar, which was under three metres of floodwater in September 2014, an elderly couple related their tale of survival.

Once upon a time, you may be told, the lake was many times its present size, perhaps 70 or 80 kiloometres square. Now it is around 15, and often smaller than even that fraction. With the clank and rattle of greater Srinagar at one’s back, the farther shores of the Dal Lake appear almost to lap the great meadowed inclines which lead into the valleys of the towering mountain ranges. Not two generations ago, there was more permanent water in the Valley of Kashmir, less city, less people, more forests, better crop, cleaner air and undoubtedly more peace. Now, before many other kinds of change, there is less standing water, but much more ruinous floodwater.

In the city today (which is the summer capital of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir) live around 1.4 million people, while the first Census carried out after India’s independence, in 1951, listed Srinagar as being home to some 246,000 inhabitants, and that number in turn was twice what it had been in 1901. Through it all has flowed the river Jhelum, on whose banks Srinagar first emerged, so the historians say, in 272 BC. It is the Jhelum that regulates the aqueous dimension of the Valley of Kashmir, a valley described in 1895 by Walter Lawrence, a gimlet-eyed administrator, as an oval refuge amidst vast masses of dark mountains. The Dal and its much larger northern sibling, the Wular lake, are both maaintained by the waters of the Jhelum, whose source lies south of Srinagar, on a spur of the Pir Panjal mountains. This is the river whose stately procession has watered and greened the Valley of Kashmir, a region celebrated as a paradise during the Mughal period and as an abode of the gods much earlier.

But Srinagar has treated the gift of the Jhelum poorly, just as poorly as the state of Kashmir has learned from the floods that have torn through the valley every now and then. Between 1905 and 1957, thirteen floods were recorded. In 1992, the Jhelum, swollen by glacial meltwater and fed by rain, spilled out across the valley, killed many in India, displaced Kashmiris in their tens of thousands, and wrought havoc to an even fiercer degree in Pakistan, where the Jhelum continues its journey. Last year, in September 2014, the Jhelum exchanged its usually placid form for its fierce one, a transformation that ought not to have come as a surprise of any kind, given the carefully documented instances of water disasters in a valley enclosed by mountain ranges.

The destruction, last September, was terrifying. There is a mosque in Srinagar’s ward of Jawahar Nagar on whose exterior wall, discoloured and misshapen now, a line has been painted with a date. That line stands some 3.5 metres above the level of the street and shows where the waters of the Jhelum reached. Some wards of the city were drowned to a similar degree, others were marooned, still others were hammered by rushing waters so that houses collapsed, yet others farther away stood festering in floodwaters that refused to abate weeks later, for there was still nowehere for the water to flow to, so saturated had an entire valley – some 15,000 square kilometres in size – become.

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A colony of fisherfolk from the Dal Lake region, now housed in a camp after they lost their homes to the floods.

Numbers do not help describe what happened but state administrations take refuge behind numbers because that is their way. And so the different tolls were tallied: all over the Valley of Kashmir, which is the basin of the Jhelum, a total of 6,782 villages were officially marked as being ‘flood affected’, and of this very large total 741 remained submerged for weeks; when the households were enumerated for relief it was found that 1.8 million households (there are 2.1 million in the entire state, and a household in the state of Jammu and Kashmir has 5.8 people) had been affected to greater or lesser degree; some 22,000 houses had been damaged, ruined, had walls or roofs that had collapsed, foundations shifted, had ground and first floors inundated.

In early April 2015 I witnessed the long drawn-out aftermath of what had for Kashmir been its worst flooding, whether in living memory or recorded. The Centre for Environment Education (a national institution under the Ministry of Environment and Forests that promote environmental awareness), the Indian Himalayas Climate Adaptation Programme and The Third Pole had collaborated to bring administrators, planners and experts from the state of Jammu and Kashmir together to explain to media what they thought had contributed to the human and environmental catastrophe wrought by the flood of 2014 and how Kashmir, and in particular Srinagar – the city that lives by the whim of the Jhelum – should stand chastised for its negligence.

In city wards where the floodwaters had risen to three metres and above, there were, seven months after the catastrophe as many signs of revival as there were of decay. If an upper storey was being rebuilt at one house, a neighbouring home had canted over, the surviving superstructure unable to stand firm. Elderly residents had the most harrowing tales to tell – many were supremely fortunate to have not lost their lives during days and nights of seeking desperate refuge in one surviving structure after another – and punctuated their accounts of their watery trials with frequent appeals for more help, for so little had indeed come.

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The Valley of Kashmir as portrayed in ‘The Century Atlas’ of 1897.

Over half a year after the monstrous Kashmir flood of 2014 September, many wards of this ancient city wear a battered look, as if time has scarely moved even though the waters of the Jhelum have. Srinagar is not a charming city – although the Valley of Kashmir, especially during the summer months, unquestionably is – and like every city in India that has grown far too quickly with far too little regard for the necessary minutiae of planning, it is a catalogue of blunders made worse by economic greed. But even so, these wards and neighbourhoods where rescue boats had been plied to save lives, looked forlorn and forsaken.

In another age they would have been thick with human and animal traffic, for Srinagar ancient and medieval had long been a centre where goods scarce and precious were exchanged – not a few of the overland trade routes of central passed through the Valley. There would have been cattle-drovers, water-sellers, hawkers of vegetables (those grown on the floating vegetable gardens of the Dal Lake) and of sweets, layabouts and children, money-changers guarding their trays of coins from a dozen kingdoms, merchants spreading bright cottons and silks, brassware sellers, pilgrims and scholars.

But Kashmir’s present is both ahistoric and impatient. The grim toll of all kinds – human lives, cattle killed, houses ruined, villages turned into swamps, fields turned into ponds – has proved insufficient to cause the state administration of Jammu and Kashmir, and the citizenry of Srinagar, to pause and consider the most troublesome questions that a few seek answers to. The questions have as much to do with living in the mountains with the effects of a changing climate as they have to do with the respect that ordinary mortals must possess for forces such as water, and especially the water of the Jhelum.

Amongst the questioners are Javed Jafar, chief engineer of the irrigation and flood control department, who has watched a river basin being settled by incremental encroachments, a process that is as much political as it is shaped by land economics. Another is Iftikhar A Hakim, chief town planner of Srinagar, whose lament is the chronic ignoring of regulations that contributed to the destruction and death toll in Srinagar, a behaviour he is sure will not change. It ought to, for G M Dar, of the Jammu and Kashmir Institute of Management, Public Administration and Rural Development, and a disaster management expert, reminds all who will listen of the creeping rise in temperature that the Valley of Kashmir has recorded over the years.

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The Dal Lake towards the end of the season of frost, when the snows begin to melt and Srinagar readies for tourists.

These mountain ranges, the Western Himalaya, Hindu Kush and Karakoram, are the province of glaciers and snowfields from which, in valleys hidden and secluded, some of the great rivers of South Asia spring. Those who live here are acutely sensitive to tiny changes in their natural world: a summer spell that is warmer than usual, a dry period where there should have been showers, the disappearance of familiar wildflowers, the change in colour of mountain streams (alive with minerals these streams are, and the famous longevity of the people of Hunza has been attributed to such streams), snowfall instead of rain, rain in puzzling quantities. There is an abundance of signs alarming, and the Kashmiris of two generations ago would have read these very carefully and adjusted their actions – they would have exercised an inherited resilience.

Tej Partap, the vice-chancellor of the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, knows that there is hardly a family in Srinagar and in the surrounding areas of the Valley which has escaped the wrath of freak weather. Saleem Beg, a former director-general of the state’s tourism authority and a heritage conservationist with the National Monuments Authority of the Government of India, has mapped the mountain city on the water for its vintage structures and early planned residential quarters. The contrast, Beg has patiently explained, between the sensibility displayed and practiced 50 years earlier compared with the reckless expansion of today even in the face of calamitous change must be understood for its meaning.

Around the Dal Lake, which tens of thousands of tourists circle every week during the summer months, in their quest for cooler climes, are signboards that urge the reader to be respectful, for the water body is sacred. Yet the houseboats of the lake (there are some 1,200) flush their wastes into the waters, which near the shore are barely two metres deep. The mountain retreats of Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonmarg (bristling with ski runs, ugly resorts occupying slopes once wooded, new roads and the inevitable jumble of new ‘services’) care as little about refuse and excess, let alone the aesthetics of hill settlements and the maintaining of fragile hill flora.

During a first generation of independent India, Kashmir was indeed a wondrous visit for the tourist (Indian or foreign) and a culture of new hospitality took root which lent the state an allure unmatched by any other in India. The film industry of 1960s and 1970s Bollywood favoured Kashmir, whose alpine slopes bested those of Europe, for there is nothing to match the grandeur of the Himalaya looming behind. Then the period of militancy and separatism began, and Kashmir lost its aura. Poliical tensions between India and Pakistan always include Kashmir, several battles were fought, and the frozen heights around the Valley of Kashmir were occupied by mountain regiments, bunkers and watchtowers. Jammu and Kashmir as an embittered zone of conflict snuffed out any kind of tourism. When a relative peace returned, and when it was found that in the interim an economically adventurous middle-class had emerged in India, eager to revisit the celluloid dreams they were all familiar with, tourism sprang up again in the state. But those who fostered it failed to see (or ignored) how the mountain regions themselves had changed.

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A house and its nameplate in Srinagar’s Jawahar Nagar.

The famous Valley of Kashmir is a wetland, despite the awe-inspiring mountain geography around it. And so they observed six seasons here, they recognised four main categories of soil, they used the winter dung for agriculture and the summer dung – when mixed with dried leaves of the splendid ‘chinar’ tree and willow twigs – was reserved for use as fuel. Even so they preferred turf clods taken from the sides of the water courses (all belonging to the omniscient Jhelum) to manure for their fields. They would select carefully the rice seed (at the time of threshing) and store these in grass bags (red varieties were hardier than the white).

All these practices and more besides are determined by the turbulent relationship Kashmir has with the water that flows through it. Historical accounts describe the responsibility of villages lying along the river to keep the artificial embankments in repair, for between these the Jhelum flowed. Yet Srinagar, an ill-chosen location for a city, laboured not to live with the hydraulics of the Valley but despite them and so caused the frequent and inevitable floodwaters from the south of the valley to pass through it, narrowed by stone embankments which protect the residences and gardens of the patricians, and encumbered by the reckless piling works of encroaching city magnates, the politically well-connected new rich. Srinagar on the left bank of the Jhelum – with its densely populated wards, commercial streets, scabrous new malls, concrete villas of the wealthy – lies below the level of the Jhelum. Irresponsible but unaccountable because of the fleeting wealth it manufactures, Srinagar’s fashion is everything that resilience is not, city of a fabled Himalayan valley but also its chief bane.

Recommended readings and useful references:
1. ‘The Valley of Kashmir’ by Walter R Lawrence, 1895
2. ‘Farmers of India’. volume 1, by M S Randhawa and Prem Nath, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, 1959
3. ‘Ancient Geography of Kashmir’ by M Aurel Stein, 1899
4. ‘Geography of the Jammu and Kashmir State’ by Pandit Anand Koul,1925
5. The ‘Rajtarangini’ of Kalhan, Education Society Press, 1892
6. ‘Climate Change Isn’t the Only Problem’, International Rivers,
7. ‘Climate change: Clear and present danger in Kashmir’, Mint
8. ‘Rebuilding homes, lives in Jammu and Kashmir is a challenging task’, Hibdustan Times
9. ‘Pollution in paradise’ China Dialogue
10. ‘Jammu and Kashmir disaster was waiting to happen’, India Today

Rahul Goswami

Rahul Goswami has worked on a food and agriculture programme (livelihoods and rural economies) of the Government of India since 2009, is a trainer in the Asia-Pacific region for UNESCO's 2003 Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention, and lives in Goa, India.

Tags: climate change, India