The shepherds are a confused lot in the upper reaches of Himachal Pradesh.
Where there was once snow, there is now lush grass.
And where there were once rippling streams for their sheep to drink from, there is now just rock — or more grass.
As rising temperatures and erratic snowfall deplete glaciers in the Himalayan state, the springs, which were close to flooding due to excess meltwater a few years ago, are now starting to dry up.
Meanwhile, the snow line is moving further north. “The area between the tree line and the snow line has increased a lot over the last 10 to 15 years,” said Chanku Ram, 71, a shepherd from Bharmour in Chamba district, 378 km from Shimla. “I have been a shepherd for 55 years but I have never seen animals grazing at heights of 12,000 and 13,000 feet in this region. There was always snow here in the past, even in summer.”
Fellow shepherd Shaunkiya Chand (64) is more concerned about the disappearing streams. “Just five years ago, there were more than enough streams for our animals to drink at,” he said. “Today, we have to take our animals higher and higher in search of water.”
Also five years ago, the snow began to disappear from the tops of the snowcapped Dhauladhar mountains in the north-west of the state. Today, they are without snow for most of the year.
Last year, meanwhile, saw a record of sorts. There was virtually no snow in winter on the skiing slopes of Narkanda, 63 kilometres north of Shimla — at a height of 9,500 feet.
“A personal account of shepherds who visit pasturelands above 6,000 feet in Chamba district every year throws more light on the situation,” said environmentalist Rattan Chand (64). “They say most of the streams and springs flowing down into the pasturelands have dried up.”
Chand talked to shepherds across Chamba district last year as part of a survey conducted by the Himachal Pradesh Council for Science, Technology and Environment.
“The older shepherds also talked of how the glaciers seemed to be getting smaller,” says Rattan Chand.
A study of the 466 glaciers on the Chenab, Parbati and Baspa river basins from 1962 and 2001 — conducted by the Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad, in association with the Himachal Pradesh Remote Sensing Cell — indicates an overall glacial retreat of 21 per cent.
“There has been a shift in snowfall patterns from winter to early summer. It causes early melt of glaciers,” says R.K. Sood, joint member secretary with the Council for Science, Technology and Environment. “Also, the snowfall is inadequate, not enough to replenish the melt.”
This, of course, threatens water supply to millions of Indians downstream who depend on the mountain-stream-fed rivers. Already, villages in downstream Lahaul (374 km from Shimla) and Kinnaur (230 km from Shimla) are feeling the pinch and have begun asking the state government to step in and help get water to them.
In urban Shimla, water shortages have spread from just the summer months in the late 1990s to winter and now even the monsoon.
Local activists too are growing more concerned, urging the state to act.
As Kulbhushan Upmanyu, president of people’s movement Himalaya Neeti Abhiyaan (Campaign for Himalayan Policy), put it: “No amount of data on climate change will be of any use if the government does not intervene at the local level to check deforestation, excessive construction and increased human activity near our mountains.”