A fine balance: Water and warmth in the Upper Indus Valley

Settlements along the Indus river bank

Between the three highest mountain ranges on earth – Himalaya, Karakorum and Hindu Kush – the effects of climate change are just beginning to be felt. Winter 2014 was a particularly mild one in the Hindu Kush Mountains, raising optimism in farmers along the Sai River in District Gilgit, Pakistan, for an early spring and a long growing season with rich harvests.

Wide indus valley at skardu
Photo: Birendra Bajracharya

Gilgit is a semi-arid cool region where summer cultivation is dependent on gravity irrigation. Irrigation canals divert water from streams that originate in the high mountains and ultimately feed into River Indus. Because precipitation is modest in the settled valleys, water discharge in streams is conditioned by snow melt in the higher reaches. Irrigation water is particularly important in spring when summer wheat is sown. An early spring allows for a second crop of maize after the wheat is harvested in June, while a late spring may cause damage to ripening maize, which should be harvested before the frosty nights that occur in November.

Dead against expectations of good crops, 2014 turned out to be a particularly difficult year. The mild winter brought cloudy weather during March and April that prevented sunshine from melting snow in the high mountains as it usually does. Snowmelt started two weeks later than usual, with the consequence that wheat sowing also had to be postponed. Some farmers harvested green wheat and used it for livestock fodder in order to allow for an autumn maize crop, while others faced damages on their maize in late autumn. Indeed, several recent years of late snowmelt have motivated many farmers to grow wheat for fodder and buy flour for consumption from the market. Villagers increasingly prefer to make bread from high-quality wheat flour brought to Gilgit on the Karakorum Highway from Punjab, while the locally grown wheat is given to livestock.

The mild winter of 2014 had another effect on local livelihoods. Historically, villagers have collected firewood from the Sai River, which transports wood ‘cut down’ by winter avalanches to downstream villages during the spring flood. This ready-made firewood is usually sufficient to last the year. However, the mild winter implied decreased avalanche activity in the mountains and, concomitantly, less branches and logs flowing down the river. A decreasing amount of firewood for household usage has been substituted by an increasing use of gas and kerosene.

Thus, in 2014, farmers in the Hindu Kush were again confronted with the unpleasant reality that there is not necessarily a correlation between temperature and length of the growing season; timely availability of water must also be taken into account.

This blog around the Indus basin, by Tor H Aase, was first published in MRI-blogs http://www.blogs-mri.org/?p=1259. The preceding text was first published as a water story in The Himalayan Climate and Water Atlas: Impact of climate change on water resources in five of Asia’s major river basins, published in 2015. An interactive version of the atlas is available here.  

Tor H Aase, is part of the research team at the Centre for Climate and Environmental Research Oslo (CICERO), contributing to research within the Himalayan Climate Change Adaptation Programme at ICIMOD. His forthcoming peer-reviewed book – Flexible Himalayan Farmers. Himalayan Farmers’ capacity to Adapt to Climate Change and Other Uncertainties is slated for publication in autumn 2016.