Our ailing wetlands

2nd February is celebrated every year as international wetlands Day.  On this day, both the developed and the under developed countries refresh their minds and reorganize their policies on climate change, global warming and balance of water land ratio.

Mother Earth is under a constant threat due to unplanned urbanization, haphazard industrialization, deforestation and excess excavations on its crust; though it has its own defense mechanisms for restoration and survival. If we try to understand its defense system and compare it with that of a human body one can understand the theories of nature quite comfortably. Wetlands are very important constituents of an ecosystem and act like kidneys in a human body. These kidneys need to be maintained with delicate care like in human bodies. Kidneys which not only flush toxic waste from our body but also purify our blood which circulates back to our system. Wetlands act on the similar analogy in our ecosystem with some additional purposes of safeguarding our biodiversity and the environment of our water bodies.

This important day marks the date of the adoption of the convention on these wetlands on 2nd Feb 1971 at Ramsar in Iran. The standing committee of this convention on Wetlands has a huge membership worldwide and provides a platform for raising public awareness about the importance and values of wetlands. Such awareness programs are given wide publicity in all member countries every year with different names and themes such as Water and Waste Management, Recycling of Waste Water, Climate Change, Global Warming and Safeguarding Our Rich Biodiversity. The latest fields which have been added to its programs are safe disposal of toxic waste, electronic waste and non-biodegradable wastes.

Kashmir being the beautiful mountainous valley surrounded by mighty Himalayas has magnificent lakes, rivers, canals, streams, nallas and vast wetlands. Srinagar was famous for its water bodies, their products and water transport. Our wetlands form a safe habitat for domestic as well as migratory birds besides wild life. Millions of migratory birds visit our water bodies and wet lands during winters from across the globe particularly from Siberian Region, Russia, and North China. Health and ecology of our wet lands and other water bodies is determined annually by the numbers of guest birds i.e., if number of visiting birds is more than the previous year’s, water bodies are healthy, and if the number is less, like we have witnessed from last consecutive years, we need to improve the health of these water bodies.

Wetlands are the areas filled or soaked with water for the whole of the year. Wetlands are the vital links between land areas and water areas. Wetlands provide safe habitats for a variety of wildlife and plant life. It cleans, filters and stores water especially during heavy rains when streams and rivers flow to their full  capacities and wetlands accept this heavy discharge and release the same to rivers when the water levels decreases in them.

Many of the countries in the world construct artificial wetlands as a water management tool as it has important role in the environment and maintaining ecosystem. Temperature and humidity of any area depend on the location and size of the wetlands and the water bodies. Fish and other water organisms are more dependent on wetlands and its ecosystem than any other type of habitats. World wildlife fund organization is focusing on these wetlands due to the high number of species present in these wetlands which are the important constituents of rich biodiversity and responsible for maintaining a safe ecosystem. Loss of biodiversity occurs in the wetland due to change of land use, habitat destruction, increasing population and exploitation of resources.

The wetlands in addition to being vital ecosystems for the species dwelling in them, also provide livelihood to millions of people who live in and around them; they are to be educated in proper functioning of natural wetlands. The function of a natural wetland is not to manage waste water from drains and treatment plants but unfortunately our entire waste water from the city of Srinagar or treated water from sewage treatment plants are discharged directly to the water bodies.

Growing population and an unplanned development around the wetlands, that is expected to grow over the next 50 years, is the major threat to the water bodies in general, and wetlands in particular. Most unfortunately the wetlands of Kashmir like Hokarsar, Beyari Nambal, Haigam Rakhs, Wular wetlands, Mergur wetlands, Shalbug wetlands, Pampore wetlands, Gill Sar, Anchar Sar or Khushaal Sar are now endangered, and just near extinction. Filling of earth in and around these water bodies to increase land area by land mafia for construction of workshops, residential areas and commercial areas can be seen everywhere in and around Srinagar. Wetlands are worst affected due to human greed.

Present day disturbances in climate of Kashmir at local level can be attributed to the inevitable extinction of these water bodies. Recent devastating floods of September 2014 which had rendered thousands homeless, millions jobless and had destructed our economy was the result of the respect, love and care we give to our water bodies and wetlands. History of Kashmir is testimony to the fact that we had the world’s best flood management system in Srinagar because of the linking of our water bodies from lakes to rivers to canals to streams to kulls and wetlands. But due to our greed, poor conservation and maintenance management programs, we had to see such devastating results (such as floods, dry spell, no snow fall in winters or more snow fall, ample rains in summer, hot days in winter and unusually high temperature in summer). Wetlands not only help us control and manage floods, maintain water table, land stabilization, water purification, preservation of biodiversity and maintaining required ecology and ecosystem but also gives us economical boost in the form of water produces, tourism and recreational sites. Human disturbance in these wetlands in the form of encroachments, filling water bodies with earth to increase the land area, overgrazing in wetlands, disturbing the breeding ground of animals and plants and interference in flora and fauna are the major aspects of destruction of wetlands.

The lack of knowledge and awareness among the general masses is the main cause of encroachment of water bodies especially wetlands in our state as these wetlands are left unattended and without proper protection. We have left hardly any water body pollution free to satisfy our greed, otherwise nature provided us these water bodies to fulfill our need. Lack of required efficient sewage drainage system and disposal of used water that too untreated into wour rivers, lakes, water bodies has killed most of the wetlands of our state. Encroachment on such water bodies by land grabbers under political hands unabated in our state has turned most of the wetlands and other water bodies into marshy lands and finally by earth filling these beautiful wetlands are now most ugly housing colonies giving a view of slums. Rakh Arth , Gillsar, Anchar, Nallahmar, Bababemb, Khushalsar are just examples of yesteryears.

Lack of check dams also reduces the capacity of water bodies as the depositing of silt and run off material from streams and canals is not checked which finally gets deposited in these wetlands. The biodiversity which is the main constituent of our survival in our ecosystem needs these wetlands for its proliferation and propagation.

A common consciousness is need of the hour to follow few simple rules or steps for propagation, conservation, preservation and development of wet lands and other water bodies.

  • Surveying, mapping and maintaining proper inventories of wetlands. Aerial photography satellite imageries can be of great use.
  • Monitoring of wetlands and other water bodies through satellites.
  • Educating general masses especially living near around these water bodies and wetlands through different modern means of communications.
  • Providing expert advices to government departments and NGOs concerned with conservation programs of water bodies, lakes and wetlands.
  • Conduct and facilitate field tours and studies and experiments.
  • Proper planning and conservation on short term and long term basis.
  • Restricting easy access to wet lands and proper watch and ward.
  • Proper notifications and demarcation of water bodies especially to wetlands on the pattern of birds and animal sanctuaries and national parks.
  • Comprehensive planning of such areas with long term blueprints.
  • Legal authorities, policing with public participation.
  • Proper funding and budgeting
  • Creating and maintaining proper Green belts, buffer zones around wet lands and other water bodies

We have become so insensitive towards our water bodies in general and to our Wetlands in particular on a societal level as well as at administrative level which clearly show how educated and concerned we are towards our water bodies and to our environment particularly.

Author is a town planner.