To prevent more floods in future, there’s an urgent need to manage and restore our water bodies which act as important flood reservoirs
Kashmir Valley is essentially a flood plain of river Jhelum (the lone river of Valley) and its other tributaries (additional rivulets, streams, canals etc.). All the Valley Lakes and the vast associated swamps played an important role in maintaining the uniformity of flows in the river Jhelum. In the past, during the peak summers, whenever the river flows high, these Lakes and swamps act as places for storage of excessive water and thereby prevented large areas of the Valley from floods.
During the dry months of year, these water bodies and marshes released the stored water, hence helping in maintaining flows and moisture regimes in the Valley. The role of water bodies was best described by Lieutenant A.J. de Lotbiniere, State Engineer, Kashmir Darbar, in a memo dated 6th May 1912. According to him “Kashmir acts as great sponge at the head of Jhelum which held up the flood water and gradually oozed dry during the winter months”. Wular and other Valley Lakes, and the associated marshes were identified as important capital assets during the rule of Maharaja. Their importance was significantly recognized as flood reservoir providing protection to the life and property. This clearly indicates that Maharaja was well versed with Economic Ecology than that of the present day rulers. During the Maharaja rule in the year 1902 the drainage system was also improved all over the Valley.
The Maharaja with the help of the British had constructed an elaborate network of flood channels in the state. The recent reports revealed that the breadth of flood channels has reduced considerably or has been encroached completely. The last dredging of the Jhelum was conducted in 1950 between Sopore and Baramulla. After that no such work has been undertaken in the Valley till date. Today the rivulets, steams, ponds, water reservoirs etc. all over the Kashmir starting from Uri to Matri-Gawran; Kupwara to Verinag; Aharbal to Sonamarg, has been shrunken to half of their actual area and the need of the hour is to give immediate attention regarding this and restore these waterways.
A decade ago, when I visited Dr. A.M. Kak for authentication of identification of some macrophytes, he informed me about the actual area of Dal Lake during nineteen sixties. During my survey of the Lake, what I saw contradicted what Dr. Kak told me. It has been reported that in the year 1856 Dal Lake was 22 Km2 (7.44 x 3.5 Km) in area, and according to some published reports in the year 1988 the total area of Lake was recorded to be 10.46 K m2 and water holding capacity was estimated to be 9.83 x 106 m3. However, in the recent past much more area has been encroached from different sides by the local inhabitants. The connecting water channel of Dal Lake and Anchar Lake called ‘Nallakh Amir Khan’ is in its worst possible condition; which otherwise is the best possible strategy to manage flash floods of Kashmir Valley by diverting the excessive water in these two interconnected water bodies. During my research work I visited almost all the water bodies of Kashmir Valley. Throughout my intensive surveys I learnt that the filling and encroachment of water bodies has increased at an alarming rate in the recent past. In some villages all over the Valley we located some ponds, water reservoirs where we used to collect the macrophytes. But with the passage of time we noticed that most of these water bodies have been filled because of land use change.
The perusal of relevant literature revealed that during nineteen seventies some workers have collected most of the macrophytes from wetlands of Nowgam- Srinagar. During 2005-2007, we located some parts of these wetlands and collected certain aquatic plants. But in 2012, when I accompanied a research scholar (who had recently joined the Department), to survey the same area, we failed to locate any wetland with water depth more than one foot. Same is the case with Anchar Lake, Kushal Sar, Gil Sar, Barari Nambal, Mirgund wetland, Hygam wetland etc. Even most of these water bodies have been declared dead by various authors. During our survey of Wular Lake in the year 2012-13, we were surprised when we saw tippers, tractors (Vehicles) moving inside the Lake — the so called biggest freshwater lake of Asia! Some recently conducted studies revealed that the overall area of the Wular Lake has reduced by 45% (157.7 Km2 to 86.71 Km2) from the year 1911 to 2007. Similarly the lake has lost about one fifth of the water holding capacity.
From the present catastrophic floods we have learnt one thing that these water bodies not only support the rich biodiversity, provide a home to large number of birds and insects, make drinking water available to human beings, maintain ecological balance but these prized ecosystems are also important reservoirs of excessive water to check the floods. Dal Lake provides the best example during the recent floods that these water bodies have the capacity to safeguard the human lives and assets worth billions of rupees. There are some arguments that water bodies of Kashmir Himalaya have turned old. I totally disagree with these statements that these water bodies have aged. If Lake Bewaof Japan, the 6 billion year old Lake, has been be maintained by Japanese, then why not the Lakes of Kashmir Himalaya? It is now a well established fact that water bodies help to save the precious lives and the properties worth billions of rupees. The present devastating floods is a lesson for some people who vigorously advocate development works over ecology. We should bear one thing in mind that developmental works and ecosystem well-being should be assessed together before designing and/or initiating any future work plan in the state. Therefore, it is high time to manage and restore these water bodies in order to prevent such catastrophic floods in the state for times to come.
(Dr. Aijaz Hassan Ganie is a research fellow in Department of Botany, University of Kashmir. Feedback at email@example.com )