Once-cool Kashmir valley offers little respite from South Asia’s heatwaves

Srinagar, the 'summer capital' of Jammu & Kashmir, was historically cooler in summer, but the reliable relief it once provided is increasingly elusive
<p>Kashmiri women wash blankets in a canal in Srinagar, summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, May 31 2024 (Image: Alamy)</p>

Kashmiri women wash blankets in a canal in Srinagar, summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, May 31 2024 (Image: Alamy)

Nitin Jain, a resident of New Delhi, had travelled with his family to Kashmir to escape the summer heat.

But on 26 May 2024, he found himself sitting on the banks of the iconic Dal Lake, wiping sweat from his forehead. A day earlier, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) in Srinagar had issued a heatwave alert, warning vulnerable people to avoid heat exposure and stay hydrated. For the remainder of their stay, Jain’s family largely stayed in their hotel rather than venturing out during the day.

Heatwaves are not uncommon in India, and with a delayed monsoon this year, the whole of north India is facing prolonged heatwaves. But the rising heat is not just contained in the plains, as temperatures rise even in the high Himalayas where tourists flock to escape brutal summers.

A 2019 study showed that the average annual temperature in Kashmir has increased by 0.8˚C in 37 years (1980-2016), and over the last few years many summers have seen record-breaking temperatures.

On 17 August 2020, the valley recorded the hottest August in 39 years, with a temperature of 35.7˚C. The following year, on 18 July 2021, Srinagar recorded the hottest July day in eight years as the maximum temperature in the city touched 35˚C. The summer of 2022 was hotter still, with temperatures exceeding 35˚C in some areas, and the month of March was the hottest in 131 years. Last year, Srinagar recorded the hottest September day in 53 years at 34.2˚C.

The trend continued this year, with a prolonged dry winter season. January 2024, according to the meteorological department, was one of the driest and warmest in the last 43 years. On 23 May, Srinagar recorded the highest May temperature in at least a decade.

The rising temperature

It has long been known that the temperature rise in the Himalayan region exceeds the global average. In the first comprehensive report on the region, published in 2019, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) noted that, “Even if global warming is limited to 1.5˚C, warming will likely be at least 0.3˚C higher in the Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH).”

A scientific paper published in 2020 predicted that annual temperature in Kashmir specifically would rise by anywhere between 4-7˚C by the end of the century, depending on emissions pathways.

While the rapid urbanisation of Srinagar and other mountain habitations also contribute to the heat, broader climatic changes are the main factor responsible for rising temperatures, Jasia Bashir, a research scholar at the Centre of Excellence for glacial studies, University of Kashmir, told Dialogue Earth. “While urban areas experience intensified heat due to dense built-up and reduced vegetation, the entire region, including rural areas, is affected by the general [global] warming trend,” she said.

Kashmir is divided into three zones: North (Kupwara), Central (Srinagar), and South (Qazigund). Data from 2010 to 2023 indicates that heatwaves have been more frequent in North and South Kashmir compared to Central Kashmir.

Irfan Rashid, an assistant professor of geoinformatics at the University of Kashmir, explained that North Kashmir’s lower elevation results in higher temperatures. “The higher we go, the cooler it is and vice versa,” Rashid said.

Faizan Arif Keng, an independent weather forecaster in Kashmir, says minimum and maximum temperatures have increased in the valley, while the precipitation amount has decreased. 

He said the maximum temperature in Srinagar city has shown a rise of 1.05˚C during the 2000-2019 period when compared with the 1980-1999 period. The minimum temperature, he added, also increased by 0.41˚C, while the precipitation decreased by 4.36mm.

Retreating glaciers 

The rising temperatures have a significant impact on the cryosphere – the region with frozen water. There are around 18,000 glaciers in Jammu and Kashmir. A study published in March 2024 found that 48 glaciers around the twin peaks of the Nun and Kun mountains in the northwestern Himalayas, known as the Nun-Kun Group of Glaciers (NKGG), have receded by 4.5%±3.4%, with their snouts (the lowest end of a glacier) retreating at a rate of 6.4±1.6 metres per year between 2000-2020.

Another study found that the shrinking Himalayan cryosphere is linked to decreased streamflows in Himalayan rivers, potentially impacting water availability downstream. The study assessed changes in the discharge of two streams from the Kolahoi Glacier into the Jhelum basin between 1972 and 2018. Observations from satellite data confirm that glacier recession in the Kashmir Valley has already led to reduced stream flows downstream. Changes in the land system – such as transforming agricultural areas to urban areas – driven by economic factors and unplanned land transformation, have also been linked to this depletion.

Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, a prominent glaciologist and the Vice Chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology, Awantipora, told Dialogue Earth that temperatures in the spring season from the last four to five years were above average. High temperatures, he said, accelerate glacier melt, reducing their size and mass. This will, he explained, affect water, food and energy security in the Indus basin. 

A concern for Himalayan Region

So far, no deaths have been attributed to the heat in Kashmir, but other heat related afflictions are on the rise. Farah Sameem, a senior dermatologist from Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, Medical College Hospital in Srinagar, told Dialogue Earth that there were cases of sunburns during May, as well as multiple cases of patients with “psoriasis and fungal infections”.

Imran Majid, another dermatologist, added: “These skin-related issues have been increasing in the last four years and the people working in the open field are more prone to them.” 

Taking serious notice of the heatwave, the J&K government produced its first heatwave action plan for 2024-25. An official, speaking off the record since he was not authorised to speak to the press, told Dialogue Earth that it was being implemented. However there seemed to be little evidence of any action on the ground.

In the meanwhile, tourists like Jain and his family, who thought they could travel to Kashmir to escape the heat, are finding that even the Himalayas are no escape from the sweltering temperatures of summer.