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Climate change imperils Kashmiri apples

Samaan Lateef Srinagar, Kashmir
August 18, 2022

As Indian-administered Kashmir continues to witness abnormally high temperatures, apple growers fear that climate change will wipe out the region's orchards — which produce 80% of India's apples.

Apple grower Iftikhar Firdousi shows an infected apple fruit in one of his orchards
Apple farmers have complained that heat waves and humidity are causing dark smudges on the surface of applesImage: Samaan Lateef/DW

Sharp temperature variations across India-administered Kashmir have brought unseasonal snowfalls or early summers, resulting in heavy damage to apple orchards.

An almost 30% decline in apple production has dealt a serious blow to the region's biggest industry, leaving farming families with huge debts.

Nearly 1 million families are associated with Kashmir's $1.25-million (€1.23-million) apple industry — which, according to official records, produced 1.8 million metric tons last year, nearly 100,000 fewer than the previous year's crop.

Apple farmers feel the heat 

A sudden dip in temperature causes the buds to fall and prevents the movement of bees necessary for pollination. On the other hand, an abnormal rise in temperature triggers a high incidence of infectious diseases, resulting in a decline in productivity, growers say.

In March, the average daytime temperature usually hovers around 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit) — but in March this year, the mercury rose significantly, causing Kashmir's apple crop to blossom early. 

Sharp temperature fluctuations followed, resulting in the fall of the fruit buds and the spread of infectious diseases.

Farmers have complained that ongoing heat waves and humidity have caused dark smudges to appear on the surface of apples, described by experts as sooty blotch and flyspeck disease, adversely affecting the quality of the crop.

An apple tree which has scabbed fruit and burned leaves due to climate change
Losses in the apple industry have forced thousands of people out of the sector as traders wind up their businessesImage: Samaan Lateef/DW

"The past four years have given us nightmares," said Shameema Hassan, the wife of a well-known apple grower in north Kashmir's Baramulla district. "The apple crop has become vulnerable to diseases due to changing weather patterns."

"It will be either good crop but largely infected, or vice-versa," she added. 

The consequential recurring losses have sharply affected their livelihood, forcing them to move their daughter from a private school to a public one, where education is free but learning standards are abysmal, Hassan told DW.

Lost business

The northern part of Indian-administered Kashmir is known as the region's apple bowl as it produces the highest quantity of apples.

Over the decades, the apple orchards have grown through its "karewas" — or elevated tableland — and major chunks of paddy land were converted into apple orchards in order to generate higher profits.

Until 2018, Hassan's family produced 3,000 boxes of apples annually; but production has since plummeted to just 700.

A worker grading apples in an orchard
The region produces 80% of India's applesImage: Vandana K

"Normally, this year I should have produced 4,500 boxes of apples because new apple trees have grown to fruit-giving age — but the production is declining," she said.

In 2016, her family had an annual turnover of 20 million rupees (€248,000). But now, losses have landed them heavily in debt.

"We owe nearly 10 million rupees to banks and apple traders," Hassan said. "We have started a copper shop to feed the family. We hate going to the apple orchards."

According to data from the meteorological department, there has been 70% to 80% less than normal precipitation in Kashmir this year.

Crop damage

Shabeena Malik, a science teacher in Kashmir, said the increased temperature has resulted in a widespread attack of aphids, causing irreversible damage to the apple trees.

"Despite multiple sprays of insecticides, these aphids have gone out of control," said Malik, whose family owns nearly 40 acres of apple orchards.

The use of substandard pesticides is also a major cause of damage to the apple, which puts an additional economical burden on growers, who are in debt in absence of insurance coverage from the government, she said.

"The intensity of insects and pests has shown an increase this year due to the early high temperature in spring," said Ashiq Hussain, a fruit scientist at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agriculture Sciences and Technology in Srinagar. 

"Once we cross 30-degree temperatures, the entire apple orchards get wiped out because seeds will cease to grow," she told DW.  

Hussain said Kashmir would normally never have experienced hailstorms in June. But their intensity has increased, badly damaging the apple crop.

Apple grower Iftikhar Firdousi inspects fruit production in one of his orchards
Substandard pesticides put an additional economical burden on growersImage: Samaan Lateef/DW

Debt-ridden apple growers shift to other crops

As the Kashmir apple is "facing a danger of becoming a rarity in India due to recurring production losses," Malik said the farmers are gradually moving to alternative crops.

In hundreds of apple orchards across Kashmir, farmers have sown wheat, mustard, maize and legumes.

Instead of cutting down the trees, the farmers said they have brought back wheat growing, which acts a major attraction to rodents that damage the roots of the apple trees, to "facilitate their silent death."

Ghulam Hassan Bhat, 57, an apple grower in north Kashmir's Baramulla district, is among farmers with an emotional attachment to his apple orchards, which provided his main source of income for decades.

Bhat used to run an apple trade worth millions of rupees. But recurring losses over the past four years have thrown him into debt — forcing him to shut that business and turn to wheat cultivation.

"Let the rodents silently destroy the apple trees, I have started with the cultivation of wheat. The apple trade is a no-go zone for us now. It will take a lifetime to pay the debt to the banks and traders," Bhat told DW.

Saffron flower in the ground shown by fingers
Saffron is one higher-value crop grown in KashmirImage: Gulzar Bhat/DW

Switching to low-paid jobs

The losses in the apple industry have forced thousands of people out of the sector as traders wind up their businesses.

Muhammad Shafi Var, who lives in Sheikhpora village in Baramulla district, said he was earning nearly half a million rupees annually (more than $6,000) from his apple orchard — but now he earns just $100 a month working in a hotel in south Kashmir's Pahalgam tourist resort. 

In 2018, Var produced 1,000 boxes of apples. But now, production has dwindled to fewer than 200 boxes.

Var said that if his apple orchards, which are located on elevated tableland, were to get adequate irrigation, he would cut down the trees and cultivate wheat and paddy.

"At least I can produce enough food to fill the stomachs in my family," he said.

Help for Indian apple farmers

Edited by: Keith Walker