Reasons for shifting seasons cause of concern

Bhanu P Lohumi

Erratic weather conditions induced by climate change and intense human activities have adversely affected horticulture and tourism in the state besides causing irreversible damage to the fragile ecology of the hills falling in different seismic zones.

As per the data compiled by the meteorological experts, the snow season in Shimla is shrinking by 11 days per decade since 1991. The average of winter precipitation from December to March has also been reduced from 283.9 mm (1991-92 to 2000-01) to 235.1 mm (2001-02 to 2010-11). The overall precipitation has also declined and as per the data gathered by the Bhakra Beas Management Board, the monsoon participation in catchment areas of the Sutlej and Beas rivers has dwindled from 1,092 mm in 2008-09 to 621 mm in 2016-17, a drop of 44 per cent.

Heavy rains in short duration causes natural calamities such as flash floods, landslides and massive soil erosion. “India has already started experiencing extreme weather conditions with increase in the frequency of dust storms and several places expressing excessive rain in short duration,” says Sunita Narain, noted environmentalist and Director general Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

Impact on apple production

The apple crop has been the worst victim of uncertain weather conditions as sufficient cooling hours (1200 to 1600 below 7°C) were not available due to rise in temperature. As a result, production has reduced to over 1.45 crore standard boxes (20 kg) during 2018 against 2.31 crore boxes in 2017.

Farmers and scientists attribute the crop failure to “harsh weather and hailstorms during the flowering stage and deficient snow during the winter months”.

“Sufficient chilling hours and moisture during the winter is essential for good apple crop, while hailstorm at flowering stage is very harmful. The temperature has to remain below 7°C for appropriate chilling, which varies with latitude as the apple growing areas fall mainly in the temperate zone,” says Dr Mahadev Mankotia, former scientist at the University of Horticulture and Forest, Nauni.

“The required chilling hours are met even if the temperature remains low during January and February, but moisture is required for good crop and that’s why snow is considered as a white manure for apple crop,” says progressive farmer from Kotkhai, Prem Singh Chauhan, adding that orchardists in low areas were now shifting to spur varieties, as it needs less chilling hours.

Chauhan has turned his one hectare land into a money spinner by raising over 10,000 plants (including 8,000 of apple, over 2,000 of stone fruits) using the concept of ultra-high density plantation, in which plants are allowed to grow only vertically along the stem up to a maximum height of 8 feet and the plants are separated by a distance of three feet. The key to managing such dense plantation lies in the technique for pruning plants. However, conditions are favourable for good crop in 2019, as required cooling hours would be met and there was sufficient moisture due to snowfall for higher production of quality apple. Snowfall at regular interval during December and January after several years and heaviest snowfall (50 cm) in a single day in Shimla in January this year will prove a boon for apple growers.

Sudden downpour, landslides, another disturbing trend

Another disturbing trend is heavy rain within a short duration leading to natural calamities such as flash floods, landslides and massive soil erosion, causing colossal loss to life and property besides disrupting normal life.

Shrinking glaciers, large-scale felling of trees and ruthless cutting of hills for the construction of roads, declining precipitation was also contributing to climate change and global warming making agriculture, horticulture and forestry unsustainable.

Haphazard constructions

However, the successive governments had been encouraging haphazard and unauthorised constructions and in spite of the National Green Tribunal orders, imposing restrictions on construction of buildings and the High Court scrapping the amendment to HP Town and Country Planning Act, providing for regularisation of all illegal constructions on “as is, where is” basis, the government was siding with violators of law and not taking any action against them. “The state government is vigorously pushing construction of five four-laning projects and 69 National Highways with an investment of Rs 56,000 crore and in case all these projects are executed, lakhs of trees would be felled and massive cutting of slopes would destabilise the fragile hills and result in frequent landslides, affecting communication and tourist inflow,” said a retired chief engineer of the state Public Works Department.

The tourist inflow to Shimla and Manali has already been hit due to the ongoing construction works on the Parwanoo-Shimla and Kiratpur- Manali four-laning projects and blocking of roads due to landslides would become a normal phenomenon in the years to come, he said.

Adventure tourism hit

Skiing and ice-skating, two major attractions for tourists and locals during the winter season, have also fallen prey to the vagaries of  weather as heavy snowfall covering ski slopes under thick blanket of snow for two to three months has become a thing of the past, as the snowline is moving upward. This phenomenon is witnessed even in Narkanda located at an altitude of 9,000 feet and skiers prefer going to Auli in Uttarakhand or Gulmarg in Kashmir.

Climate change has also taken a toll on ice-skating at Asia’s oldest natural ice-skating rink in Shimla, which had the lowest number of six skating sessions in 2017 against 50 to 100 sessions during an average dependable year. The maximum 118 sessions were held in 1997-98. The minimum and maximum temperatures remained high during the months of November and December in 2016 and Shimla witnessed the warmest night in November 2015 in the past 15 years with minimum temperature staying eight degrees above normal at 14.8° C.

Axing of tall deodar tress surrounding the skating rink has deprived the rink of shade, while increased automobile movement has also contributed to the rise in mercury. “The tourism industry had worst season this year, as water shortage hit tourism during the summer, landslides obstructed roads to Shimla and Manali during the monsoon,” said MK Seth, president Tourism Industry Stakeholders’ Association.

Water shortage in Shimla 

Considered by experts as a cumulative effect of climate change and destructive model of development adopted by the successive governments, the erratic weather conditions in the state capital Shimla during the summer months badly hit tourism during peak tourist season, while the snowline was shifting upwards towards the higher hills.

The acute water crisis in Shimla during the summer season due to drying of water sources compelled residents to post viral messages on social networking sites asking tourists not to visit Shimla. Against normal requirement of 40 MLD of water, supply was reduced drastically and ranged between 22 MLD and 30 MLD.

The situation turned so alarming that people did not get water even on the eighth or ninth day and Chief Minister, Chief Justice of High Court and Chief Secretary monitored the situation daily.

The tourist flow in Shimla during April, May and June, considered to be peak season, declined to 10,75,454 in 2018, which otherwise saw 12,00,303 tourists in 2016 and 12,28,776 in 2017, adding to the anxiety of stakeholders in tourism and allied activities.

‘Government preparing an action plan’ 

The state government is already working on an action plan to meet the challenges of climate change by bringing new horticulture projects and introducing new varieties. Directions have been issued to produce 52 lakh apple rootstock in nurseries. As per the existing infrastructure, 13 lakh rootstock will be produced by 2023 and there is a potential to increase the production by four times by strengthening infrastructural facilities to achieve the goal of producing 52 lakh apple rootstock by 2023 to reduce imports. A Rs 1,134 crore horticulture project is under implementation for the revival of temperate fruits including apple and pear and aspects such as geographical conditions, irrigation facilities and soil testing would be taken care of before importing rootstock and experts would be consulted for varieties of rootstock for areas above 7,000 to 9,000 feet high. All departmental subject matter specialists and heads would visit farmers and orchardists and give them advice on plants suitable for their respective areas. A Rs 1,688 crore project has been approved for sub-tropical areas as well. Mahender Singh Thakur, Horticulture Minister

"The snow season which used to begin from November and end in February has now shifted from mid-December to mid March, while the state is receiving fewer rains during the monsoon in spite of more rainy days coupled with emerging phenomenon of heavy rains within short duration." Manmohan Singh, Director, Meteorological Centre, Shimla

"Required chilling hours for apple crop are met even if the temperature remains low during January and February, but moisture is required for good crop and that’s why snow is considered as a white manure. Orchardists in low areas are now shifting to spur varieties, as it needs less chilling hours." Prem Singh Chauhan, Progressive farmer from Kotkhai

Tinkering with ecology  

The craze of the government to attract investment in the industrial sector and exploit vast hydropower potential of 23,000 MW, by giving a go by to environmental concerns is also taking a toll on environment. The government has kept stone crushers, which affect limited area under orange category, subjected to environmental clearance from competent authorities, but hydropower projects up to 25 MW potential, which cause pollution and lead to environmental degradation have been kept under the “white”, category and no environmental clearance or environment impact study is required. The intense human activity and tinkering with ecology for the construction of hydropower projects in higher hills and tribal areas has made the fragile hills prone to disasters and the occurrence of massive landslides has become a routine. However, in spite of various concessions and incentives offered to small hydropower projects by the government, the investors are not coming forward and several projects had been advertised repeatedly.