In the Himalayan grasslands, summer snowstorms prove deadly for livestock of nomadic tribes
Each spring, some 40,000 people flock to the Neelum Valley pastures, along with 3,00,000 head of cattle. They climb to altitudes of up to 10,000 feet, or 3,048 meters, to graze their animals in the open grasslands of the upper Himalayan valley, and stay there until late August.
The four months of high-altitude grazing allows the rest of the family at lower altitudes to grow fodder that will keep the animals alive through the snowy winter, said Saddaqat Hussan Shah, chairman of the Neelum Valley Development Board. The third pole.
But this year, herders have been hit hard by heavy summer snowfall. On June 21 and 22, up to four feet of snow fell in the Neelum Valley, killing 1,932 goats, 350 sheep, 80 cattle and 20 horses, according to Akhtar Ayub of the Neelum District Disaster Management Authority. Valley.
“We lost 107 goats to the June snowfall,” said Chaudhry Shabbir, a 45-year-old pastor from Mansehra in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Along with two other members of the nomadic community of Bakarwal – plus 650 goats and sheep – Shabbir had walked 200 km to reach the pastures of Ratti Galli in the Neelum Valley at 12,139 feet, or 3,683 meters. There they spent a month and a half grazing their cattle before the snowstorm hit.
“We weren’t expecting snowfall, and there was no advance warning,” Shabbir said.
Shah Zaman, a fifty-two-year-old shepherd, had come to the 12,000ft high Noori Top from the outskirts of Muzzaffarabad with 1,025 sheep and goats. He lost 240 animals, mostly goats. Besides the cold itself, the snow brought other dangers out of season. “Some of our goats were killed by local bears who normally stay on mountain tops but come down during winter snowfall,” Zaman said.
Hypothermia, deadly cold
The heavy snowfall ignored the division of Kashmir between India and Pakistan. On the Indian side, the grasslands around Lake Marsar in South Kashmir are part of a vast circuit of grasslands located at elevations of 13,000 feet or 3,962 meters and above in the mountains surrounding the Kashmir Valley . The valley’s pastures provide summer refuge for nearly two million sheep owned by 70,000 farmers, according to data compiled by the region’s sheep service.
But this year, summer snow has caused heavy losses to herders in the mountains of southern Kashmir. It snowed heavily between June 19 and 22, blanketing the verdant grasslands with a layer of snow two to three feet thick, according to several Marsar and Khimsar shepherds.
Sonum Lotus, head of Sringar meteorological center, said The third pole that the center does not have an observatory in the mountains, so could not check the depth of the snowfall. Nevertheless, with heavy rains in the plains, the incident was declared a state-specific natural disaster by the administration of Jammu and Kashmir.
“I felt the hour of my death had come,” Assadullah Chopan recalled, a week after the snowstorm hit Marsar. Chopan had traveled to the pasture with a herd of 1,600 sheep in early June, via a perilous four-day journey from his home in Khrew Township. “I prayed for forgiveness and thought this was how my life was going to end. There was nothing I could have done to save myself and save the sheep,” he said. he declares.
At 13,000 feet, surrounded by steep mountains on all sides, it was far from any help and any sign of modern civilization, he recalls. Nearly 100 of his sheep died in the storm. Some froze to death, while others fell off cliffs as they tried to escape the freezing winds.
“I have lived every summer of my life in these mountains, but this was the first time I had experienced a snowstorm. It had never happened before, that it snows in June,” Chopan said.
A sheep department official said they immediately dispatched teams of vets and paramedics, who had to walk for several days before they could assess the damage. 7,000 sheep were killed in the snowstorm, according to a tally compiled by the department. The heaviest losses were in Budgam district in central Kashmir, where 1,500 sheep died, a department official said. The third pole.
“Most of the deaths are of lambs that could not withstand the sudden cold and died of hypothermia, and some weak animals also died of starvation,” the official said.
Unusual weather events
The heavy snowfall in summer is just the latest in a series of severe and unusual weather events to hit the mountains of Kashmir. It followed a snowless winter and a scorching, rainless spring.
The apparent disruption of the climatic balance in Kashmir is having a severe impact on the lives of herders like Chopan who, generation after generation, have made a living keeping sheep in highland pastures where the weather remains generally mild and the Grass is abundant through the summer months.
“We are in the midst of a severe climate crisis,” said Irfan Rashid, an assistant professor in the Department of Geoinformatics at the University of Kashmir. Rashid warned that climate change “will expose mountain communities and infrastructure to events as unprecedented in the past”, but fears we are unprepared. “It’s getting out of control,” he said.
His sentiment finds an echo on the other side of the border. According to the Meteorological Department of Pakistan, the June snowfall in the mountains of Kashmir was caused by high-speed high-altitude winds that originated over the Atlantic Ocean, bringing widespread rainfall.
“Intense weather systems reached high mountains above 10,000 feet and precipitation came in the form of snow and ice crystals,” said Sardar Sarfraz, a meteorologist with the department. The third pole. “We had never seen or heard of snowfall in June before. We can link it to climate change because it is a rare phenomenon,” he added.
Sardar Muhammad Rafiq, director of the Environmental Protection Agency on the Pakistani side of Kashmir, said there had been summer snowfalls in the Neelum Valley at 14,000ft in the past, but this would be about 1.5 inches. This year is the first time the Neelum Valley has seen three feet of snow at an altitude of 10,000 meters in summer, he said.
“It would be too early to say that this snowfall is a climate change phenomenon,” an Environmental Protection Agency official said. “We would only call it climate change if it repeats itself next year.”
But for ranchers like Chopan, who are mostly illiterate or semi-literate, the concept of climate change is difficult to understand; instead, they find refuge in faith. “There is a shrine in these mountains and its keeper these days is not a good man, that’s why it happened,” Chopan said.
Azhar Qadri is a journalist with over a decade of experience reporting from New Delhi and Kashmir. He has written extensively on Kashmir.
Sajid Mir is an environmental journalist based in Muzaffarabad-Kashmir. His Twitter handle is @sajidmir44.
This article first appeared on The Third Pole.