New Delhi: Floods, landslides and cloudbursts caused severe damage in Himachal Pradesh between March and August of 2023. The spine-chilling visuals of homes collapsing like a pack of cards and cars and roads being washed away encapsulated the devastating effects of nature’s fury brought on by years of unbridled human actions. Damage to life and property aside, the disruption to livelihoods has not just short and medium ramifications, but also pushes for a more holistic focus on the long-term effects of climate change and adaptation. Nothing captures the challenges being faced by the hilly state better than its famous produce – the Himachal apples. The state’s apple trade, which accounts for over five per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is among the sectors worst affected by the havoc caused by rain this year.
It is said an apple a day keeps the doctor away. The juicy sour taste of the apples from the higher reaches of the Himalayan region are known for being rich in vitamins, nutrients and numerous health benefits. But the health of Himachal’s apple industry is under the weather, with the crop production having almost halved this year. Ravinder Chauhan, President of the Apple Grower Association of India, said,
On an average, under optimum weather conditions, three crore apple boxes (each containing 22 kgs of apples) are produced in Himachal Pradesh annually. This year, we had around 1.7 crore boxes.
The fall in apple production is directly linked to the extreme weather patterns that the state witnessed in 2023. The heavy rains are an expected outcome of a warming world. Mahesh Palawat, Vice President of Meteorology and Climate Change at Skymet explained,
When the temperature of air increases, the capacity of air to hold moisture also increases which leads to the development of thunder clouds or huge vertical clouds which are capable of causing heavy downpour in a very short span (one to two hours). The amount of rain that we used to get in four to five days now occurs in a day or eight to 10 hours, leading to flash floods.
A drizzle that lasts for three to four days helps to recharge groundwater but flash floods, on the other hand, destroy standing crops and cause soil erosion, Mr Palawat added.
According to the monthly weather report for August 2023, prepared by the India Meteorological Department (IMD), Himachal Pradesh received excess precipitation (33 per cent) with 816.4mm of actual rainfall against the normal precipitation of 613.8mm in the current monsoon season till August 31.
District Kangra received the highest rainfall amount of 1,582.5mm while District Solan received the highest rainfall departure (99 per cent) against normal rainfall.
While districts of Kullu, Kinnaur, Mandi, Shimla, Solan, Sirmaur, Bilaspur and Hamirpur received excess rainfall, there were districts like Chamba, Kangra and Una which received normal rainfall whereas districts of Lahaul and Spiti received deficit rainfall.
Pranav Rawat, a third-generation apple cultivator from Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, explained how the crop has been embroiled at the mercy of nature’s wrath.
Earlier growing apples was easy; 95-98 per cent of the area in cultivation was dependent on rainwater. However, with the growing temperatures, orchards are drying up and it is a challenge to sow apples in the south-facing orchards (as they get more sunlight).
Apple Growing Cycle In Himachal Pradesh
Apple orchards are situated at altitudes ranging from 4,000 feet to 10,000 feet. The harvesting cycle varies from altitude to altitude but generally, July to October is considered to be the harvest season; handpicking begins from the lower regions and gradually moves to the upper regions. In November, trees begin to shed their leaves. Following this, the trees enter the dormancy stage while the roots are active. This period is used to prepare new and existing trees for the next harvest. Techniques like pruning (cutting of selected branches) and grafting (combining two plants) are practised.
The flowering begins in the first week of March and continues till the mid-May. Subsequently, the fruit develops first in pea size form and gradually grows to walnut size. The ideal temperature requirement for trees and pollinators is 12-18 degree Celsius. Anything above or below this level damages flowers and potential fruits.
The Multi-Faceted Impact Of Climate Change On Himachal’s Apple Crop
Apple is a temperate crop, requiring a cold climate; it relies on monsoon and snow for the finest produce. However, this year, the orchards have faced a double whammy of little to no snowfall in the winter season, followed by rain at the flowering stage and hailstorms and landslides when the fruit was fully grown. From the shape and size of apple produce to the quantity, everything has been adversely affected.
Mr Ravinder Chauhan, a resident of Keyari village (7,000 feet above sea level) in Kotkhai tehsil of the Shimla district said,
Here, it used to snow up to five feet, three to four times in a season. People would stock food grains for themselves and grasses for livestock. They wouldn’t step out for two months straight. Whereas, now, it snows one day and the roads are cleared the next day. This time, it snowed barely three inches.
“For the development of the anthocyanin, red colour pigmentation found on apples, low temperature is required”, explained Professor Soora Naresh Kumar, Head and Principal Scientist, Division of Environment Science, ICAR-Indian Agricultural Research Institute. He added,
The quality of apples is being affected and therefore, the profitability of the natural farms has slightly reduced. We are partially attributing it to climate change; there are other reasons like change of land use to developmental activities.
Further elaborating on the need for snow and how it fosters apple production, 86-year-old farmer from Kotgarh village, Hari Chand Roach said,
Different varieties of apples have different chilling requirements, for example, ‘delicious apples’ need 800-1,200 hours of chilling and temperature below seven degrees. The cold water seeps into the soil and provides chilling to the roots.
Apart from the cold temperatures, sunshine is equally important for apple trees. Mr Roach explained,
Apples need moisture, heat and light. The sunlight is essential for photosynthesis impacting the size, colour and shape of the fruit. Sunrays are crucial for cell development and enlargement. This year, we didn’t get good sunlight for three months – May, June and July.
Mr Pranav Rawat highlighted the importance of rain during April and May,
Good rain in summer provides optimum conditions to grow; plants don’t dry up. But in monsoon, if there is excess rainfall, soil loosens up.
Quoting the local weather department, Press Trust of India, a news agency reported,
Himachal Pradesh received 20 per cent excess rain in June as the state recorded 121.7 mm of rainfall against normal rainfall of 101.1 mm.
Similarly, the state received 249.6 mm average rainfall from July 1 to July 11 against a normal rainfall of 76.6 mm, an excess of 226 per cent, the news agency stated.
The heavy downpour also gives rise to pests and this year given the scale of the disaster the farmers were unable to visit their orchards to spray fertilisers, fungicides and pesticides. Mr Rawat explained,
Plants get food from leaves. The fungus grows during rain; but, this year, due to incessant rain, we couldn’t go to the field to spray fungicide. The fungus ate away all the leaves. This year, farmers are in a miserable state.
Talking more about the damage caused by floods during July and August, Mr Rawat said,
The floods did affect orchards but the priority was to rebuild roads, houses and vehicles and ensure human safety. If I talk about my loss, over 250 boxes have been destroyed this year. On average, we produce 1,500 apple boxes; this year, we produced 1,100 boxes. Some of the trees in my orchards fell and were washed away during landslides.
Mr Ravinder Chauhan said that the recuperation of the current damage caused due to climate change will take three to four years, trees will have to be replanted and all this work is done manually.
According to the Centre for Science and Environment Report, “India 2023: An assessment of extreme weather events”, between January 1 and September 30, 2023, Himachal Pradesh reported 75,760 hectares of crop area damage.
Can Himachal Pradesh Withstand Weather Hostilities?
In the first nine months of 2023, Himachal Pradesh faced extreme weather occurrences on 112 days, an increase from 102 in 2022, as per the CSE report.
Apple’s trees don’t mature overnight. Mr Roach, a veteran farmer who cultivates apples on 60 bigha (hectare) land explained,
The plant gives unproductive growth for an initial six to eight years. Gradually, we groom the tree; cut the unnecessary branches, do pruning and convert it into productive growth. That’s when the buds form and mature into fruits. Sunlight is essential for bud maturity.
One solution is to shift to varieties having low-chilling requirements, as suggested by Mr Roach. Another practise being followed is branch grafting for fruit tree propagation. The process of grafting helps produce fruits in half the time.
Pranav Rawat said, apple cultivators in Himachal Pradesh are now shifting to dwarf apple trees which bear fruits between two to three years after plantation.
Mr Rawat believes this is the result of the clearing up of forests for human greed. He suggests reforestation to bring back rain, and snow.
However, Mr Ravinder Chauhan, President of the Apple Grower Association of India opines that shifting to varieties requiring low-chilling will need investment and result in low productivity. When asked about adapting to climate change, he said,
We need rain. We need snow. How do you adapt to their absence and ensure optimum production of apples?
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which in its Season 10 is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Ayushmann Khurrana. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In a world post COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental well-being, self-care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.