SRINAGAR, India (AlertNet) –When Mariam Akhtar began teaching at a government school in a water-starved village in Indian Kashmir, she received an education of her own in the ways local people adapt to climate change.
“I was surprised to see the heads of most of my students shaved,” said Akhtar, who works at a school in Dongerpora, 27 km (17 miles) north of Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir state in the northwest of India.
“When I enquired, it turned out that it is a simple solution searched out by the villagers to avoid an unkempt appearance.”
“Yes, we do it for want of water,” said Haider Ali, a resident. “Mostly we need to do it in summers when water gets scarcer.”
Inadequate water for bathing is just one of a range of problems that residents of Jammu and Kashmir must deal with in the face of changing weather patterns and disasters which experts believe are linked to climate change.
Dongerpora has no piped water supply, and the River Jhelum, which flows nearby, is too polluted to be used for anything other than irrigating the paddy fields that line its banks.
Throughout the summer and until the onset of snow, the village’s 57 households rely for drinking water on a tanker which delivers a small supply on alternate days. Hundreds of villages in this Himalayan state endure similar shortages.
STORING WATER FOR BATHS
Each family in Dongerpora saves a few litres of water from their quota over a number of days, until enough has been gathered for a few members of the household to bathe, explains Ali.
“We also make use of harvested rainwater for bathing and washing clothes following rains,” he added.
But although the Jhelum does not provide the residents with drinking water, it cannot be ignored.
“We have to remain vigilant when it rains continuously for days,” said Ali. The villagers have learned how to cope with the threat of floods.
“Once the level of water starts rising, villagers are summoned through the public address system of the local mosque. After all of us assemble, we pile up sandbags within no time to avoid an inundation of floodwater in our village,” he said.
With 80,000 hectares (about 200,000 acres) of land prone to floods and 55 percent of the state’s population lacking a proper water supply system, much of the rural population worries about both floods and water shortages in the summers, saying that erratic rainfall and drought conditions have become common.
“We are now observing it almost every year, much to our surprise, and are trying to find ways of dealing with it,” said Fatah Mohammad of Tang Chekh village, 190 km (120 miles) north of Srinagar.
“Extreme weather events like floods, droughts and snow avalanches have become a common occurrence over the past few years,” affirmed Ahmad Muzaffar Lankar, the chief of Kashmir’s Flood Control Department.
The government’s Relief and Rehabilitation Department says that more than 700 people lost their lives as a result of floods, landslides and avalanches over the last two years, and hundreds more suffered injuries. Property damage amounted to $3 million.
In 2005, a series of avalanches almost wiped out the village of Waltingonar, 160 km (100 miles) south of Srinagar, killing 497 people as they slept.
“We have improved our early warning system and we caution people about the likelihood of snow avalanches,” said Aamir Ali, the head of Kashmir’s Disaster Management Cell.
The Flood Control Department also has been de-silting the River Jhelum to improve its carrying capacity, said Lankar.
But although government agencies and local residents are aware of the frequent occurrence of disasters, experts say more emphasis needs to be laid on preparedness.
Ghulam Mohammad Dar, the state Disaster Management Centre’s head trainer, said that encroachment on river channels was the cause of major damage during flash floods in the Leh region in August 2010 and in Jammu a year later.
“People need to be educated about the hazards involved in settling in avalanche-prone areas and on the banks of rivers and dry riverbeds,” said Dar.
Lobzong Tsultim, who lives in Choglamsar village in Leh, not far from the area devastated by the 2010 flood, says that residents have learned from the mistakes of those who built in the flood-prone areas.
“Now everybody has realized such adventures are not free of danger,” he said.
Athar Parvaiz is a writer based in Srinagar.