Aid group tries to reduce carbon footprint of weddings in Kashmir Valley

Kashmiri wedding chefs cook up quite a meal -- with dozens of courses -- all over wood fires. Mercy Corps, an environmental group, is trying to persuade them to use cleaner-burning fuels that will help sustain the Kashmir Valley's forests.
Kashmiri wedding chefs cook up quite a meal -- with dozens of courses -- all over wood fires. Mercy Corps, an environmental group, is trying to persuade them to use cleaner-burning fuels that will help sustain the Kashmir Valley's forests. (Emily Wax/the Washington Post)
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By Emily Wax
Friday, December 18, 2009

SRINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR -- During every wedding season in the Kashmir Valley, love is in the air -- along with a thick cloud of grey smoke from thousands of cooking fires as platoons of wedding chefs, or wazas, slow-cook lamb and chicken over wood fires, sometimes for days.

Epic wedding banquets, each with dozens of courses that include succulent lamb kebabs, mutton meatballs and chicken curries, are an engine of Kashmiri culture. But they are also an environmental hazard: About 15,000 trees a day are cut down for these nuptial feasts, say researchers from Mercy Corps, an international aid group.

So now, in its latest attempt to find creative ways to fight climate change, the group is trying to reduce the carbon footprint of Kashmiri weddings.

"The Big Fat Kashmiri Wedding is going green," said Usmaan Ahmad, who is overseeing program development for Mercy Corps in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir. "If wazas go green, it's the perfect way to demonstrate the substitution of cleaner energy not just for weddings but for heating households, too."

As world leaders at the U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen struggle to hash out a plan for cutting emissions on a global scale, leaders in ecologically fragile regions such as Kashmir are coming up with small-scale solutions to shrink their carbon footprint and stave off or survive the effects of global warming, largely thought to be caused by greenhouse gases.

In Bangladesh, for instance, aid groups are building "floating villages," with schools and health clinics on boats, and offering special classes to help educate farmers and women about building shelters to survive flooding expected to be caused by warming.

Kenya built its first wind farm atop the Ngong Hills. It harnesses the breezes that sweep through the Rift Valley to generate clean power for the energy-starved East African nation.

The Himalayan region of Kashmir is home to glaciers that provide fresh water for one-fifth of the world's population. But scientists and United Nations researchers say the glaciers are shrinking faster than expected and, at the current rate, could disappear within 30 years.

"If we don't stop the glaciers from disappearing, this could become another potential for conflict over water supply," said Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, a glaciologist at the University of Kashmir. "If we can get weddings to go green, that means we are motivating people on the ground. That is a powerful thing."

Mercy Corps workers are persuading wazas to cook their wedding delicacies with something they had never thought possible: weeds from Dal Lake and other household waste such as potato and fruit peels that are mixed with clay, heated, then crunched into cleaner-burning briquettes.

The project is part of grass-roots efforts here to fight global warming in places that are most affected by the phenomenon.

In the nearby region of Ladakh, retired civil engineer Chewang Norphel, known as "Glacier Man," came up with a novel way to artificially create glaciers.

He builds small stone walls to slow the downhill flow of glacier runoff, causing it to freeze faster during the winter months.

"Norphel is a real, live example of acting locally and not just waiting to see what happens on the international level," said Nawang Rigzin Jora, minister for tourism and culture in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

To bring attention to the plight of those suffering most from the adverse effects of climate change, Mercy Corps and the state's Tourism Ministry organized the first-ever rock concert in Srinagar, to coincide with the opening of the Copenhagen talks. U.S. singer-songwriter Terra Naomi teamed up with Kashmiri crooner Waheed Jeelani for a local rendition of her hit single "Say It's Possible," inspired by the award-winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth."

In Kashmir, social activists fear that the valley's natural beauty -- its apple orchards, stream-laced pine forests and lakes filled with pink lotus flowers -- is quickly disappearing.

Many scientists say man-made greenhouse gases are causing weather patterns to become more extreme.

In Kashmir, subtle changes in temperature have affected the region's vegetation. For centuries, Kashmiri folklore and botanical records show that the valley's narcissus flower usually blooms in April and May. But in recent years Kashmiri farmers and horticulturalists say the flower is blooming as early as January.

"That shows just how much nature's calendar is in disarray," said Ahmad of Mercy Corps.

Standing over steaming caldrons, the wazas at a local kitchen said they were skeptical of cooking their beloved dishes over biomass fuel briquettes made from weeds and food scraps.

"It might change the taste," said Fayaz Ahmed, 30.

"We've been cooking this way for over a hundred years, but if people want their wedding dishes cooked in a new way, we can try it," he said, ladling a massive mutton meatball out of a steaming pot.

"We will see what the lamb tastes like."

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