To ward off extreme cold in their summer homes in Siberia and Central Asia, thousands of migratory birds have started to flock to Kashmir.
Migratory birds have been keeping their date with Kashmir for centuries together. Supporting rich-biodiversity and fishing resources, a network of wetlands in Kashmir provide these winged visitors’ safe habitat.
Nestled in mountains, Wular lake and its associated wetlands comprises important habitat for migratory water birds within Central Asian. Owing to its location at the western extremity of the Himalayas, the, lake has been an important flyway and staging ground for migratory birds including shorebirds, gadwall, and pintails, Migratory birds including Tufted Duck, Gadwall, Brahminy Duck, Garganey, Greylag Goose, Mallard, Common Merganser, Northern Pintail, Common Pochard, Ferruginous Pochard, Red-Crested Pochard, Ruddy Shelduck, Northern Shoveler and Common Teal, are mostly sighted birds in Kashmir wetlands.
Due to its rich bio-diversity and capacity to host the avian visitors, Wular has been included in the Ramsar Convention making its conservation mandatory for the government. The lake and its satellite wetlands, including Haigam, Hokersar, Mirgund and Shallabugh, have also been included in the network of important bird areas. The migratory birds use the lake for feeding during the night when there is no disturbance from fishermen or hunters while, during night, they seek refuge in Hokersar and nearby wetlands. During March-June, large areas of Wullar and the floating vegetation, trees, bushes and reed beds serve as breeding and nesting sites for some of the bird species.
However, due to unabated encroachments, siltation and pollution in the last few decades, most of the wetlands in Kashmir are battling for survival. Considered to be buffer zones for floods, wetlands have been turned into wastelands in absence of sustained conservation measures. It is alarming that 637 kanals of wetlands in Kashmir have been encroached upon. As per official figures, 255 kanals of Hokersar Wetland Reserve, 91 kanals of Hygam Wetland Reserve, 167 kanals of Shallabugh Wetland Reserve, 1 kanal of Freshkoori Wetland Reserve, 122 kanals of Mirgund Wetland reserve respectively have been encroached upon.
This encroachment is in addition to 6315 kanals of land in wetlands which is under seasonal paddy cultivation by locals in summers. “There has been no effort to retrieve the encroached areas in wetlands in Kashmir. In most of the cases, only eviction notices have been served or FIRs have been registered. We are fast losing wetlands,” says MM Shuja, a noted social activist who obtained information on encroachment of wetlands through RTI from Wildlife Warden Wetlands Division Kashmir. The flat topography of river Jhelum, spanning 175 sq km from south to north Kashmir, makes J&K’s summer capital Srinagar vulnerable to flooding. Wetlands on the left and right of Jhelum act as reservoirs of the floodwaters. However, in the last five decades, most of the wetlands have lost their carrying capacity mainly due to conversion into agriculture land or concrete landscape.
Ecologically important wetlands in the Jhelum floodplains like Hokersar, Bemina wetland, Narakara wetland, Batamaloo numbal, Rakh-e-arth, Anchar lake and Gilsar have been degraded due to rapid encroachment and urbanisation. The total area of the major wetlands in the Jhelum basin with an area greater than 25 hectares have decreased from 288.96 sq km in 1972 to 266.45 sq km.20 wetlands have been lost to urban colonies during the last five decades, particularly in the south of Srinagar. Deterioration of wetlands has severely affected flora and fauna and habitation of migratory birds.
Condition of another Ramsar site, Hokersar wetland is worst with unabated encroachments and siltation. Once known as Queen of Wetlands for its immense ecological value, studies reveal that Hokersar has shrunk from 18.13 sq. Km in 1969 to 13.42 sq km in 2008, a loss of almost 5.2 sq. Km during the last 40 years. Water quality of
Hokersar has been extensively deteriorated. As per studies, the inlet of Hokersar has the highest physicochemical characteristics due to increasing human-induced activities. The wetland’s BOD level has been found to be too high, indicating that its ecosystem was highly polluted. Hygam, also a Ramsar site, has been disgustingly facing the onslaught of destruction by way of encroachments. Kashmir based Environmental Policy Group (EPG) has described Hygam wetland as “dead and buried. After a visit to Shallabugh wetland last month, a team of EPG comprising environmentalists raised a red flag over the deteriorating condition of the wetland. “Condition of wetlands in Kashmir is dismal and deteriorating. There is no water management in these wetlands which have been turned into barren lands. We have taken up the matter with a global wetlands conservation organisation,” says EPG convenor Faiz Bakshi.On February 2 1971, a convention on wetlands called the Ramsar Convention was signed in the Iranian city of Ramsar for conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands. This day is commemorated in J&K just by organising customary functions with passing of resolutions to restore wetlands. However, on the ground, the condition of wetlands is dismal and worrying.
J&K ranks fourth to have five Ramsar sites out of 75 sites in the country. Wullar, Hokersar and Surinsar-Mansar were already declared as Ramsar sites while Hygam and Shallabugh were added to the prestigious list last year.
There are 1230 wetlands in J&K and as per an official report, J&K has lost 2372 kanals of wetlands in the last over a decade. We need to look beyond the number of migratory birds and work on improving their habitat. Wetlands in Kashmir have potential to become one of the preferred eco-tourism spots. Our wetlands can become a major attraction for global bird watchers. There is also a need to prevent poaching of these migratory birds. We have to treat these avain visitors as our guests by preserving their habitat.
More scientific than engineering measures are need of the hour to prevent further deterioration of these wetlands. It is our collective responsibility to contribute our bit to restore the glory of these wetlands. As humans we have no right to destroy wetlands as these equally belong to birds, animals and micro-organisms on this planet too!
Author is Executive Editor, Greater Kashmir