14 April | 2024

Lahore, Pakistan

Kashmiri women of Neelum Valley battle unpredictable weather

It is hard for locals to grow crops, vegetables on their small pieces of land due to rapidly-changing weather conditions that adversely affect economic activities in Azad Jammu Kashmir

In the serene landscapes of Neelum Valley, where azure skies meet snow-capped peaks, a silent crisis is unfolding. The whispers of rapidly changing weather patterns have become a roar, echoing through the lives of families whose existence is intricately woven with the glaciers, rivers, and mountains. The absence of expected snowfall and a prolonged dry spell, this season has cast a shadow of potential calamities, sending shockwaves through local communities, especially impacting women who rely on livestock and agriculture for their livelihood.

Rasheeda Bibi, a resident of Bakwali village in Surgan Valley — a sub-valley near historic Sharda Town, is emblematic of the struggles that have become all too common in this picturesque corner of Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK). The 45-year-old resilient mother of five has decided to part ways with her cattle – once the lifeline of her family. With four cows in tow, she calls a local dealer to sell all the cattle at a lower-than-usual price and packs the luggage to leave the native village where she spent her entire life.

Crop growers are considering to move to big cities due to economic challenges

The next destination is Rawalpindi, where Rasheeda Bibi’s husband works as a watchman. The proceeds from selling the cattle will seed a dream—a grocery kiosk in Rawalpindi’s Misrial area, providing not just sustenance but education for her five children. With a weary heart, she recounts challenges she faces due to the deviating weather patterns. “Besides getting milk and butter for my children, I used to sell two or three cattle every year to get some extra income for us,” she said, her eyes reflecting the hardships etched into her story.

“A few years back, income from cattle and crops sustained us for half the year, the rest of the half depending on my husband’s salary — a mere 15 thousand rupees per month,” she said. Due to rapidly-changing weather, floods, and uncertain rains, her contribution to family income gradually declined. Rasheeda Bibi’s small piece of land, where she once grew vegetables and maize, has become a testament to a shifting reality. “It is now hard to grow vegetables. Snowfall broke down three out of five apple trees, and one of my cows was swept away in a flood last year, as we returned from our seasonal habitat uphill.”

Kashmiri women of Neelum Valley battle unpredictable weather
A view of Neelum Valley. Photo by Jalaluddin Mughal

Dr Sardar Rafique sees increase in intensity, frequency of calamities in Neelum Valley

The plight of Rasheeda Bibi’s family is not an isolated one. Across Neelum Valley, families grapple with the harsh realities of a rapidly-changing environment. The absence of expected snowfall, this season raises concerns about water shortages, flash floods, and disruptions to agriculture and livestock – the very foundations of life in this region. In the year 2020, the Surgan Valley was devastated by catastrophic avalanches, which left at least 110 people dead, mostly children and women. The rubble buried dozens of houses and hundreds of livestock.

The incident left Rasheeda Bibi with not only a broken spirit but also a devastated house and shattered livelihood. She lost three of her family members to avalanches. She had to rebuild from scratch. However, the changing climate had other plans. Harsh summers, uncertain rains, and the scarcity of water and grass in grazing pastures have become the new normal. But this year’s prolonged drought has further raised concerns among cattle owners and crop growers in the region.

‘Once covered with snow, mountains stand barren, foretelling a future of uncertainty for those living in valley as well as downstream of Neelum River’

Khairuz Zaman Rashid, another resident of Surgan Village, describes the unprecedented scenario: “This year, there has been no snowfall, or rain at all, while more than half of the winter season has already passed.” Traditionally, Neelum Valley witnesses its snow season from the beginning of December to the end of February. Upper areas, including Surgan Valley, receive around 8-10 feet of snowfall on average while the lower portion of the region receives 3-5 feet of snowfall every year on average.

The snowfall is not only pivotal to natural water springs and small streams— the only source of drinking and irrigation water — in small villages and pastures uphill, but also maintains the water level in Neelum River — a major source of irrigation and hydropower production. The mountains once covered with a white layer of snow now stand barren, foretelling a future of uncertainty for those living in the valley as well as downstream of the Neelum River.

Families grapple with harsh realities of changing environment across valley

Environmental Protection Agency (AJKEPA) Deputy Director Dr Sardar Rafique acknowledges lack of authentic data on the communities affected by climate change. However, he underlines the urgency of the situation, calling the situation alarming. According to the official, over 90 percent families in Neelum Valley depend on livestock and agriculture. The vulnerability of this region to climate change goes beyond economic aspects; it seeps into the very fabric of social and cultural life.

Women in upper areas, traditionally responsible for raising cattle and growing crops, find their incomes dwindling as calamities and diseases strike more frequently. “The frequency and intensity of such events are expected to increase, posing significant challenges to both immediate and long-term developmental goals in Neelum Valley,” Dr Sardar Rafique said. With its entire length of 200 kilometers spread over the Line of Control (LoC), Neelum Valley is considered one of the most disaster-prone and vulnerable to climate change regions in the disputed Jammu Kashmir region.

Kashmiri women of Neelum Valley battle unpredictable weather
A view of Neelum Valley. Photo by Jalaluddin Mughal

Every year, 100s of people die due to climate-related incidents in the region. While 2020 was the deadliest year of the recent decades, subsequent years also caused dozens of human casualties and huge property damage during monsoon and snowfall seasons. The data maintained by the State Disaster Management Authorities (SDMA) shows that 29 people died due to climate-related incidents in 2023 while in 2022 the number was 48. As many as 509 houses were destroyed during 2023 while in 2022 the number was 559.

Once a battlefield between rival armies, Neelum Valley has recently seen an unprecedented tourist flow towards mountains, meadows, and lakes of the area. However, the new challenge of unpredictable weather continuously threatens the flourishing tourism industry. District Disaster Management Officer in Neelum Valley Muhammad Akhtar Ayoub said that uncertain weather patterns have affected the local community and the flourishing tourism industry in the picturesque valley.

As families like Rasheeda Bibi make the difficult decision to migrate to larger cities in search of alternative livelihoods, the silent crisis in Neelum Valley becomes a resounding call for action. The picturesque landscapes that once defined this region are now perceiving a battle against a force much larger than the mountains – a battle against unpredictable weather that threatens not only the valley but the very essence of life downstream.