Restore the glory of Hokersar wetland

Measures must be taken to prevent encroachment, siltation, pollution
Restore the glory of Hokersar wetland

Considered to be an important part of nature, wetlands help in filtering water and importantly act as buffer zones for floods. However, the condition of wetlands is deteriorating fast due to official apathy and public indifference in Jammu and Kashmir.

One of the important wetlands, Hokersar on Srinagar outskirts is also facing threat of extinction due to siltation, pollution and encroachment. Hokersar was known as Queen of Wetlands owing to its immense ecological value. Hokersar is an important refuge for migratory waterfowls, shorebirds, and trans-Himalayan species in winters.

In absence of sustained conservation, Hokersar is fast losing its carrying capacity and flora and fauna. Till a few decades ago, the wetland boasted of having vast expanse of water and marshy land. Now most of the wetland has dried up and turned into land.

Studies have revealed that Hokersar has shrunk from 18.13 sq km in 1969 to 13.42 sq km. Its open water body has shrunk from 210 hectares to mere 45 hectares during the period. 

Despite being a Ramsar site, a wetland site designated to be of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, no tangible measure has been taken to restore Hokersar.

Most of the open waters have been colonised by weeds and other aquatic vegetation. Some areas of the wetland that existed in 1969 have been converted to cultivate paddy over this period. A large stretch of the wetland has been converted into built-up areas and new colonies have come up in its vicinity.

Marshy areas within the wetland that form an important part of the habitat of the migratory birds, have shrunk, and are colonised by aquatic weeds.
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, especially Hokersar act as reservoirs of the floodwaters. 

Ecologically important wetlands in the Jhelum floodplains including Hokersar 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. 

Experts state that there has been a massive deterioration of the ecological status of Hokersar wetland due to encroachment which has squeezed its area. The problem has been compounded by poor management strategies of the wetland resulting in its siltation, uncontrolled growth, and proliferation of weeds. 

Major deterioration to Hokersar’s aquatic ecology occurred due to devastating floods of 2014 as floodwaters dumped tons of silt in it.  Subsequently Hokersar lost its hydraulic function of absorbing high inflow waters to release the same during dry spells. 

A study ‘Effect of Seasonal Variation on Pollution Load of Water of Hokersar Wetland’ led by a research group of Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Kashmir (SKUAST-K) has pointed towards its deteriorating water quality.

It states that the spatial and seasonal variation in water and sediment quality was found due to regular inputs of pollutants from natural and anthropogenic activities. “Results revealed that inlet had the highest physicochemical characteristics and elements load, followed by the center and Trapa abundance site, which they ascribed to human-induced activities that had intensified.

The pollutants and trace elements find their entry into the wetland as depicted by their higher values at inlet site for turbidity (2.06 NTU), water temperature (23.55 °C), electrical conductivity (0.233 dS/m), nitrate-nitrogen (0.046 mg/L), nitrite nitrogen (0.681 mg/L), ammoniacal nitro-gen (0.210 mg/L), calcium (48.60 mg/L), phosphate (0.071 mg/L), and potassium (0.456 mg/L and are a matter of great concern.” 

The wetland’s BOD level (95.05 mg/L) was also too high, indicating that this ecosystem was biologically highly polluted, it states. “Several strategies for the wetland’s conservation are advocated, including afforestation of the catchment region, prohibition of grazing in the watershed area, building a wastewater cleaning system, and continual monitoring of the lake ecosystem.

These treatments are projected to lower nutrient levels while also improving the wetland’s visual attractiveness,” it states.
As per a report of the Government of India, J&K has lost 2372 kanal of wetlands in the last more than a decade. We can afford to lose existing wetlands. 

Arrival and number of migratory birds to Hokersar shouldn’t be made an indicator of its condition. Claim of the Department of Wildlife Protection that it has retrieved over 2000 kanal of encroached land and tree plantations in Hokersar in the recent past shows enormous magnitude of encroachment..

Proper demarcation and fencing of Hokersar must be done to prevent further encroachment. There is a need for scientific measures to prevent further damage. Hokersar faces multi-faceted problems and needs inter-departmental coordination for expediting conservation measures.

There is a need to rope in national and global experts to save Hokersar wetland.  Let the restoration of Hokersar be made a model for conservation of other wetlands in J&K. 

Author is Executive Editor, Greater Kashmir

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