Kashmir water crisis hits at its staple: rice

As water levels have plummeted on the back of a winter that saw low snowfall and rainfall, the state government is urging local cultivators not to plant paddy this year
<p>A farmer working in his rice farm in Zangam-Pattan, north Kashmir [image by: Athar Parvaiz]</p>

A farmer working in his rice farm in Zangam-Pattan, north Kashmir [image by: Athar Parvaiz]

Western South Asia looks set for an increasingly dry summer, with NASA predicting drought in Afghanistan over low snowfall this winter, but the crisis in the Indian state of Kashmir has been long in the making. In October 2017 the Jhelum – the main river running through the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir – recorded the lowest levels ever measured. It was inevitable that in such circumstances this would impact Kashmir’s agricultural sector, which employs the largest number of people in the state. As of the moment it is impossible how this will impact India’s downstream riparian, Pakistan. – eds  

In the villages of Kashmir, farmers are worried about the creeping dryness in the Himalayan region. While they are acutely aware how it can affect their crops in summer, a recent government advisory that asks farmers in several districts not to cultivate rice this year has only heightened their anxieties.

“All farmers are hereby requested that they do not go for paddy cultivation this year as, due to lack of snowfall and rainfall, there is hardly any water in the Jhelum River and the streams,” reads a notice in Urdu issued by the Baramulla district wing of Kashmir’s Irrigation Department. “So, please don’t go for paddy cultivation this year, considering the fact that we won’t be able to supply any water for irrigation.” Similar notices have been issued in other districts such as Kupwara, Bandipora and Ganderbal.

The rainfall and snowfall numbers collected at the regional directorate of the meteorological department corroborates the helplessness shown by the irrigation department. Rainfall in the first three months of 2018 has been the lowest in 30 years, according to Mukhtar Ahmad, deputy director at Jammu and Kashmir Meteorological Department.

Gulmarg, for instance, recorded a mere 172 mm precipitation (snowfall and rainfall) in the three months to March, compared with an average of 602 mm in the past 30 years for the three-month period, Ahmad said. Similarly, Kupwara received only 198 mm compared with the 30-year average of 424 mm, whereas in Srinagar it was 82 mm against an average of 255 mm.

Scientists say more uncertain rainfall and snowfall is one of the major impacts of climate change.

Worried farmers

Mohammad Amin Lone, a farmer in Nutnoosa-Kupwara, despairs at the low level of water in Lal Kul, a stream that feeds a huge agricultural area in Kupwara. “It used to be full of water at this time of the year when rains and snowmelt fill the rivers and streams,” he told “Though we got a sense in winter that the coming months are going to be hard in terms of availability of water, as there was no snowfall, I had no idea that the streams could be devoid of water to such an extent.”

The drying up of Lal Kul could lead to a change in cropping pattern. “We are thinking hard what to do, but I think we will sow other crops like maize,” Lone said.

The state’s agriculture department has not yet advised farmers on what to do in the backdrop of the irrigation advisory, said Altaf Andrabi, director of the department, adding that within two weeks, farmers of different regions would be given suggestions by his directorate on which crops to plant.

“The situation is quite grim. But I think at some places farmers would be in a position to grow rice,” Andrabi told “Considering the importance of rice cultivation in the valley because it is a staple food here, farmers in most places would insist on growing rice.” Farmers could afford to wait for another two-three weeks in expectation of rainfall, as the paddy season begins from May 15, he said.

There’s still a ray of hope for farmers like Abdul Ahad of Zangam in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district. “Our land still has water in it and we also have a nearby stream, which feeds our rice fields. We just hope that this stream doesn’t dry up. It is all up to God,” Ahad said.

Altaf Hussain Darvish of Vadora near the apple town of Sopore in north Kashmir said his rice harvest was excellent last year due to plentiful water. “This year, getting our farms irrigated is going to be quite tough,” Darvish told “Khoyem Kul, which feeds our farms, holds just a trickle of water.”

Inadequate infrastructure

The lack of irrigation infrastructure has compounded the farmers’ woes. Only 41% of Kashmir’s agricultural land has irrigation facilities, according to a recent economic survey. If the government is able to create water harvesting infrastructure across the state, Jammu and Kashmir would be in a better position to deal with phases when there is no or little rainfall, says Shakil Romshoo, who heads the earth sciences department at Kashmir University. “If the government properly manages the rainfall we get and the water which comes from more than 8,000 glaciers that we have, the region can never face severe water shortages,” Romshoo told

Mohammad Amin Lone, a farmer in Nutnoosa-Kupwara area of Kashmir, is worried that the Lal Kul stream holds just a trickle, which would be insufficient to irrigate rice fields [image by: Athar Parvaiz]
“The government has constructed some water harvesting ponds in some parts of north Kashmir for water harvesting, but they need to be created in all the areas,” said Jabbar Naikoo, a farmer in Bedibera-Kupwara. “Anyone can see that the droughts have become frequent and rainfall scarcer and more erratic.”

Lack of irrigation facilities is one of the reasons why some farmers are selling land to property developers. According to an official document outlining a new policy for land use in Jammu and Kashmir, unplanned construction like developing residential colonies, factories, brick kilns, shopping complexes and other commercial infrastructure has eaten deeply into the valley’s agricultural land resources.

In a letter to the government in March 2016, the director for agriculture in Kashmir had reported that “due to the haphazard land conversion, agricultural land has shrunk considerably, as per door to door surveys conducted by the field workers of this (agriculture) Department.”

Declining farmland

The department’s statistics about the past two decades paint a grim picture. Agricultural land has seen a reduction of 22,000 hectares from 163,000 hectares in 1996 to 141,000 hectares in 2012. “Going by this data,” says an official at the agricultural department, “Kashmir loses an average of 1,375 hectares of agricultural land every year.”

To some farmers, converting rice farms into orchards, which need virtually no irrigation, makes sense. Many farmers are doing it in Kashmir, as is evident in the findings of a paper published by Shakil Romshoo and Irfan Rashid. The authors said that farmland is getting converted into orchards mainly because less water is required to grow fruit trees.

According to a policy document of the Jammu and Kashmir government, the region has witnessed a huge shift from rice cultivation to horticulture in recent decades. In 1953-54, the area under fruit cultivation was just 12,400 hectares, which has now expanded to 325,000 hectares.

Alternate crops

Tej Pratap, former Vice Chancellor of Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST), said earning of farmers will not be hit if they shift to maize and pulses in the face of decreasing water availability. “India faces a shortfall of pulses, which means there would be no price problem for the produce from Kashmir,” Pratap told “Rice can be easily procured from the rest of India, where it is grown in plenty.”

Rice is a staple in Kashmir. It is grown over 141,000 hectares, with an average production of close to one million tonnes a year, which is consumed locally, official data show. The state also imports rice from other provinces, which is distributed through the Public Distribution System. These imports are continuously increasing with growing population. For example, in 2001-02, the state had imported 79,000 tonnes whereas it was half a million tonnes in 2015-16.

There would be a water crisis this summer because there was almost no snowfall this winter in an area where rivers are fed by snowmelt, Pratap said. Kashmir has to find ways to make maize a cash crop, considering the fact that a lot of agricultural land in Kashmir is rain-fed. “Vegetable cultivation is another option that farmers can successfully practice in various parts of Kashmir,” Pratap said.

This article was first published in