Ganderbal, Budgam and Kupwara: The alpine pastures in Jammu and Kashmir are picturesque--home to vibrant wildflowers and rare animals like the Hangul and Tibetan Antelope. But, as 35-year-old Mushtaq Ahmad Chopan, a shepherd from Budgam said, the living conditions are harsh. The weather changes dramatically, he said.

Chopan, like many others, lives in a stone shelter or a tent while his livestock roam under the open sky. In the face of extreme weather events including lightning strikes, which are increasing in frequency and intensity due to climate change, they have little defence. “There is nothing there [alpine pastures] and when we are there, there is no guarantee of our lives," Chopan said. "It’s all up to Allah.”

In May 2022, a sudden lightning strike killed 63 sheep that had been grazing in the mountainous region of Kangan, in Ganderbal and knocked Abdul Rashid Chopan unconscious. “It was like experiencing a heart attack… my entire body was shivering before I lost consciousness,” he later recalled.

At the advent of summer, the nomadic, indigenous communities--including the Gujjar, Bakarwal and Chopan--in Kashmir trek about 50-100 km to altitudes of 2,000-4,000 ft, with hundreds of livestock. The sheep and goat breeds that they rear are hardy species, like Karnah, Poonchi, Bakharwal, Kashmir Valley, Changthangi, and Gurej. They make the journey with their animals as well as those owned by the zamindar and the village elites. This is the revenue model for the community, which spends about six months of the year in these high pastures. During winter, due to heavy snowfall, they stay at home.

As per the 2011 census, the Gujjars and Bakarwals constitute about 12% of the state’s population--1.5 million of 12.5 million. The nomadic communities in Kashmir are already vulnerable to modern development, and the migration pattern severely impacts the community’s literacy rate. One report suggests that over 66% of Gujjars and Bakarwals live in poverty. Now, climate change-induced extreme weather events pose a significant threat to their livelihood.

The dangers in the open

On a fateful day in May 2022, 25-year-old Tasleema Bano was worried. Her father and brother had not returned to Haknar, just 80 km from the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, with their sheep. Dense black clouds had plunged the region into darkness.

On May 22, 2022, a sudden lightning strike killed 63 sheep that had been grazing in the mountainous region of Kangan, in Ganderbal. Their shepherd, 31-year-old Abdul Rashid Chopan, Tasleema’s brother, lay unconscious beside the sheep carcasses. “It was like experiencing a heart attack… my entire body was shivering before I lost consciousness,” he later recalled.

“When a person is directly hit by lightning, which carries tens of thousands of amps, the voltage across the body increases, potentially reaching millions of volts. This can cause a flashover, where part of the current flows over the body surface, leading to possible burns and other problems,” said Joseph Dwyer, a professor of physics at the University of New Hampshire and an expert in lightning physics.

“The extent to which electricity is going to affect a person depends on a lot of factors," added Mary Ann Cooper, retired Professor Emerita of Emergency Medicine, from the University of Illinois. Cooper is the Managing Director of African Centres for Lightning and Electromagnetics Network, a pan-African network of centres dedicated to reducing deaths, injuries, and property damage from lightning.

“What they're wearing, whether they're wet or not, and what part of the cardiac cycle they are struck in make a difference to the severity of impacts,” Cooper explained. Those who survive lightning strikes are not unscathed, she pointed out. They can develop cognitive issues and have problems in learning and remembering things.

Abdul Rashid Chopan tending his sheep in the high pastures of Kashmir.
On May 22, 2022, a sudden lightning strike killed 63 sheep that had been grazing in the mountainous region of Kangan, in Ganderbal.

Bano said they were compensated just Rs 3,000 per sheep from the Animal and Sheep Husbandry Department of Jammu & Kashmir, while the sheep cost at least Rs 15,000-Rs 20,000 in the market. “We were mourning as if one of our family members had died… these sheep are everything to us,” she said.

As per the guidelines of the sheep husbandry department, an applicant who loses livestock to extreme weather events such as lightning or cloudburst is compensated by replacement stock of up to 30 animals per beneficiary, provided that they have lost not less than five animals.

Abdul Salam Chopan inside his kutcha house in Haknar.

“I have never seen such erratic weather patterns," said 68-year-old Abdul Salam Chopan, Abdul Rashid and Tasleema's father. "Nowadays, it gets very hot in the morning and suddenly the weather turns really bad. I have not seen such lightning occurrences before.”

Increase in lightning strikes, and fatalities

By the end of the century, the frequency of lightning across the Indian region could increase by 10-25%, and its intensity could spike by 15-50%, according to a study published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics in 2021. Another report suggests that we can expect a 12% increase in ‘lightning activity’ for every 1°C of warming.

Jammu and Kashmir, due to its topography which creates a natural upward lift of moisture-laced air, is especially prone to lightning strikes, cloud bursts, and many other extreme weather events. According to data shared by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), there has been a significant increase in the number of lightning incidents in Jammu and Kashmir over the past few years, primarily from June to September. In the state, the overall increase from 2019 to 2022 is 165%.

Scientists from the Divecha Centre for Climate Change at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, told us that lightning strikes across India increased by approximately 25% from 1998 to 2014. Between 2019-20 and 2020-21, lightning strikes across the country rose 34%, according to the Annual Lightning Report 2020-21. The following year, there was about a 20% decrease across the country, but Jammu and Kashmir was among the states with highest increases in lightning strikes.

Lightning occurs when towering cumulonimbus clouds extend at least 12-15 km from the ground. If the cloud temperature is between 0°C and 40°C, thunder and lightning are likely.

Mukhtar Ahmed, a senior scientist and Director at Srinagar’s weather station, told us, “The increase can be attributed to the unstable atmosphere, primarily due to increasing temperatures and cutting down trees in the region.”

Across India, over 100,000 people lost their lives due to lightning strikes between 1967 and 2019, data compiled by the Lightning Resilient India Campaign, from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), national and state disaster management authorities, media reports, and from volunteers and civil society organisations, revealed. This is more than double the casualties due to floods.

In 2022, the latest year for which data are available, 2,887 people died due to lightning. This is similar to the numbers recorded in 2021 (2,880 deaths), 2020 (2,862) and 2019 (2,876).

These statistics underscore the growing threat posed by lightning, which is already one of the biggest causes of death in India due to forces of nature, accounting for 35.8% of such deaths in 2022.

Experts point out that due to inadequate data collection and reporting mechanisms in Jammu and Kashmir, chances are that lightning-related incidents are being underreported.

We have reached out to the animal husbandry department, the Directorate of Sheep Husbandry and the Department of Disaster Management for data on the deaths of sheep and goats from lightning strikes. We will update this story when we receive a response.

Khalid Omer, veterinary assistant surgeon at the Department of Sheep Husbandry, explained that their primary focus is always on treating injured animals. “We try our best to save them," he said. "Animal survival after lightning strikes depends on its severity, with injuries often including burns, mobility issues, and hypothermia. If they don’t survive, we perform post-mortems on the deceased animals to know the cause of death. We count how many have died and submit a report for the records. This report reaches our concerned officer for record purposes.”

A source from the sheep husbandry department who did not want to be identified revealed the number of livestock deaths due to natural calamities in 2022-23 is 6,541.

However, the official records rarely mention that the cause of death was lightning. The government official responsible for the inspection of livestock told us that he had limited knowledge about the science of lightning. Therefore, if there are more sheep carcasses, he writes that it was due to “cloudburst”. He said the people use the same Kashmiri word to describe both cloudburst and lightning strike i.e. “trath”, or “narah trath”.

We reached out to the technical officer of the sheep husbandry department for comment. We will update this story when we receive a response.

Such erroneous record-keeping is not confined to livestock. In Kalaroos of Kupwara district, Abdul Rashid Khatana has not received any compensation for his tragedy. On July 23, 2023, it was pouring heavily. The atmosphere was unstable, leading to a cloud burst and a lightning strike. The Sonapand stream beside their house was flowing fast. Khatana’s wife slipped, and she drowned in the fast-flowing deluge. He said, “We did everything together… she never left my side all day.”

Abdul Rashid Khatana, sitting beside his grandson, with his wife’s identification card. Photo Credit: Rajeev Tyagi

Khatana said he has received no assistance from the government. His wife’s death certificate has very important information missing: the reason for the death.

The death certificate of Begum Jan and the missing cause of death.

Alerts are issued, but are inaccessible to pastoral communities

In Dabipora village of Budgam district, 82 km away from Haknar, Mushtaq Ahmad Chopan said that in 2015, his uncle, father, and brother were left unconscious by a sudden lightning strike. “After a few minutes everyone got up, except my brother," he recalled. His father Gaffar Chopan said in Kashmiri, "We all had fainted, and after a while, I gained consciousness… I reached out to my son to give him water… his last words were that he was dying.”

It took a year and a half for the compensation process to be completed. “During the entire process we spent our own money," Mushtaq Ahmad said. "We received compensation for our brother’s death, but not for the five sheep that died.”

Gaffar Chopan and Mushtaq Ahmad Chopan came back home after a long day of grazing their animals.

Mukhtar Ahmed of the Srinagar weather station pointed out that deaths due to heavy rain and snow have decreased in the state in recent years as a result of better early warning systems, weather forecasts, and improved disaster management strategies. However, these efforts have not safeguarded communities against the threat of lightning strikes.

India has multiple ground-based lightning detection networks in operation, as well as some satellite-based systems, to monitor and disseminate lightning warnings. These networks are managed by various organisations, including the India Meteorological Department (IMD), the Department of Space, and the Indian Air Force for strategic purposes.

Mohammad Hussain Mir, a senior meteorologist at the IMD’s Srinagar station explained, “The input we get from the radar gives us a time frame of half an hour, two hours, three hours… We generate alerts, but it's the responsibility of the National Disaster Response Force and State Disaster Response Force to act on these alerts. They have teams at every district and block level. We notify a specific area, and all mobiles automatically receive an alert.” We reached out to the national and state disaster response forces for comment on dissemination of and the standard operating procedure following the alerts. We will update the story when we receive a response.

Mohammad Amin, a Numberdar in the revenue department of Kalaroos, in Kupwara district said, “Our first step is to inform the police and the army, Panchayat and our volunteers. We also reached out to our revenue department. We check our mobiles for weather updates and also receive alerts from the department about any impending storms or heavy rainfall.”

In 2020, the IITM developed an app, Damini, to monitor lightning strikes and provide GPS-based alerts to people in a 20-40 km radius.

In the case of Kashmir and other hilly regions, Anirban Guha, associate professor of physics at Tripura University and a lightning expert, explained that topography plays a significant role in lightning detection. The mountains and diverse terrains affect electromagnetic wave propagation, and this complicates the process of locating lightning strikes. “Many factors come into play when trying to locate a lightning strike," Guha explained. "These include interference, diffraction, phase delay, the inclination of the electric field, and changes in polarisation.”

However, these apps and early warning alerts have limited effectiveness when cellular network availability is variable. In addition, many shepherds don’t have smartphones.

Lightning safety measures: Local solutions don’t meet international standards.

According to a study by Chandima Gomes, a professor of high-voltage engineering at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Mary Ann Cooper, “safe shelters” are important lightning safety measures for low-income communities in volatile environments. Repurposed materials like cargo containers offer sturdy, weather-resistant shelters, and can protect against lightning by acting as a Faraday cage.

Modified metal shipping containers have been used for lightning shelters in remote mining sites in Papua New Guinea, Tanzania, and Peru, but are not currently in use in India.

Local solutions have to be adapted to local contexts. In the United States, Cooper noted they commonly use public service advisories such as ‘When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!’. However, she acknowledges that this isn’t always feasible in the case of India, as a significant population is involved in agriculture, construction, or other labour-intensive jobs which involve them staying outdoors. Neither Abdul Rashid Khatana nor Mushtaq Ahmad Chopan or others like them can be asked not to venture outside during uncertain weather. This is how they have lived for generations; this is what their livelihoods depend on.

Sanjay Srivastava, who started the Lightning Resilient India Campaign in 2019 with the support of the IMD, Ministry of Earth Science and ISRO, suggested that other measures would be more effective to safeguard lives in J&K. Srivastava is an expert on radar, remote sensing, satellite and communication technologies. His advice:

  • Backcountry lightning risk management i.e., identifying safer spaces during lightning strike possibility or alert. For instance, find places in and around the hill such as lower elevations, caves, and dense forests which provide ‘natural’ safety against such events.

  • Sit in a lightning safety position, i.e. crouch down in a ball-like position with your head tucked and hands over your ears.

  • Find local lightning conductor solutions i.e., use charcoal, mud, sand, bamboo sticks etc., to create a community-wide lightning safety system.

Srivastava is yet to collaborate with J&K to raise awareness at the community level. However, he has done so in other states like Odisha, Jharkhand, etc. Srivastava, who is also chairman of the Climate Resilient Observing-Systems Promotion Council (CROPC), has conducted a few workshops, or stakeholder consultations, to reduce deaths by lightning strikes.

Kumar Margasahayam, a lightning detection and early warning systems expert based in Bengaluru and a former Earth Networks employee, said, “Lightning protection measures should adhere to internationally recognised standards, such as the IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission) standards. These provide a basis for ensuring the safety and effectiveness of lightning protection systems,” he said. He believes some of the local-level options being discussed are not accurate, and to an extent, even "dangerous". “We need to place our sensors in the right spots,” he added.

Marghasahayam and Guha, both stressed the importance of conducting transparent research to substantiate adaptation measures. “Without proper experimentation and a proper simulation study, if we apply something that can become very dangerous,” said Guha.

Awareness campaigns have limited reach

Khalid Omer of the sheep husbandry department said the government organises health camps for sheep and goats in high pasture regions. He has been part of several camps and affirmed that the living conditions are harsh in high pastures. It is essential to equip shepherds with tracking gear and other necessities to deal with extreme weather events, he said. The government has started the process of providing weatherproof shelters for staff, people living in high areas, and animals, he added.

A shepherd leads his flock through a field.

The district health department also claims to conduct general health awareness camps with a focus on educating the community about extreme weather events such as snow avalanches and lightning strikes. Bushra Yousuf, Chief Medical Officer of Ganderbal, explained that their staff, including community health officers, health educators, and health workers, raise awareness in the communities about what to do during extreme weather events, but admitted that disasters such as avalanches typically receive more attention from the government.

“Besides forecasting and mitigation," said ACLENET’s Cooper, "raising awareness and educating people about lightning safety measures is crucial.”

However, our conversations with the affected people in the region suggest a lack of understanding of the recommended strategies to reduce the impact of lightning on human and animal lives. Those we spoke to said they had never been part of a health camp where they received information on lightning strikes.

Multiple experts emphasised the importance of collaboration between the government, local communities, and media organisations to address the growing lightning issue. They noted that community awareness campaigns are important to bridge the information gaps around lightning preventative measures and that wherever possible, alternative livelihood possibilities should be offered to local communities.

When asked if the government could have done more to save his wife or people during extreme weather events, Abdul Rashid Khatana said, “If the government could do anything, they would.” For him, these events are happening not because of climate change, but because it is God's will, “Allah's will”.

(The story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.)

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