In my residential area at Ali Kadal I have been educating the people by conducting door to door survey about the ecological importance of river Jhelum.
Since I live on the bank of river Jhelum I had written a series of applications to Commissioner Srinagar Municipal Authority (SMC) to provide alternative outlets to the slaughter house owners located on the banks of river Jhelum, for draining the waste of slaughtered animals.
What I observed during the years it used to be drained directly into the river Jhelum. Crossing the Ali Kadal bridge and other adjacent bridges in the city I usually observe that people throw garbage, construction waste, leftover food in polythene bags from the bridge.
Most of the time I counseled the people to desist from throwing garbage into rivers. I had taken the matter with concerned Mohalla Committee and drafted a letter to Commissioner Municipality to fence all the bridges in the valley; awaiting their response.
Mr Ajaz Rasool Technical Expert Wetland Authority shared the degradation of river Jhelum in its historical perspective. The degradation of the Jhelum catchment started in the 1960s when the authorities leased out forest areas to cut down the deodar trees, without having any afforestation programme into active consideration.
At the same time residential and commercial buildings were raised in the catchment areas of the river Jhelum without any check and balance. Pahalgam, where hotels were built in the middle of river Lidder in violation of the master plan over the years, is a vivid example in this regard. Government had installed two dredgers named Soya and Budshah for deep dredging in the river near Baramulla’s Seer area.
These two machines were functional till 1986; and thereafter the dredging process was halted for 26 years – till 2012. During these 26 years of inactivity the river was heavily silted, and in due course of time, the Wular Lake (nursed by Jhelum) lost its water volumetric capacity up to 30 percent. And, the 2014 floods degraded the river Jhelum and the Wular Lake further.
Water pollution and deterioration of water quality is another major issue faced by river Jhelum. Kashmir is a river valley civilization, most of the local population is situated on the banks of river Jhelum, right up to Srinagar city and down below to the Wular Lake.
All the waste from slaughter houses and human excreta coming from the city are drained into river Jhelum. We do not have any holistic sewerage project even in Srinagar. Free access of silt, liquid and solid waste has ruined the whole river and subsequently the Wular Lake too.
The only concrete effort to protect the river Jhelum was made in 1996-97 when the J&K government had approached the Ministry of Environment Forestry and sought a plan for Jhelum on the analogy of the Ganga action plan.
The plan envisioned laying of intercepting sewers and transmitting same to treatment plants in towns of Anantnag, Srinagar, Sopore, and Baramulla to ensure polluted water is not allowed to flow directly into the river. The Government of India approved the plan but there were some procedural hassles in releasing the funds.
Presently, the water quality of the river has extremely worsened. Just few years ago we saw a glimpse of water pollution in terms of ‘fish kill’ when hundreds of fish surfaced near the banks of river Jhelum at Chattabal Veer.
The investigation revealed that water pollution had caused the ‘fish kill’. The high biochemical oxygen demand concentrations in the water had diminished the oxygen into the water, and eventually fish were gasping for breath.
Nature has bestowed us with sufficient water resources but we have been failing to protect these natural gifts. Jhelum is our lifeline. If it is damaged beyond repair, it will badly impact each and every sector of life in Kashmir. The river Jhelum is known to provide livelihood to many fishing populace of Kashmir.
The experts reveal that fast urban growth coupled with intensified agricultural practices, disposal of municipal drainage and sewage has altered the aquatic ecosystem in the river Jhelum, which has resulted in alarming increase in eutrophication and pollution level of the water body.
The garbage of all sorts, including animal carcasses and plastic bottles, get stuck under bridges. The onslaught launched by the people of Kashmir on river Jhelum has no justification.
From industrial wastes produced by hotels and factories to household garbage, plastics and all kinds of scrap material left behind by the unmindful construction activities, everything seems to be finally finding its way into the river Jhelum.
The cost of fiddling with nature and mistreatment of Jhelum river were there for all to see in 2014 when the fury of flood caused destruction all around. Nearly nine years have passed since the floods nearly wiped off Srinagar from the map but very few lessons have been learnt.
Jhelum remains the dumping ground for all kinds of waste. Although the government has made considerable progress in terms of strengthening the embankments of the river to prevent another spillover there is no doubt that Jhelum is slowly dying due to exploitative human activity.
According to official sources, the water of the river is not only unfit for consumption but it has actually turned into a source for various water borne diseases.
Human excreta, animal carcasses, rotten food, single use plastic, and all kinds of waste thrown into the river by people living along the embankments has gradually disturbed the ecosystem of the river Jhelum.
The irony is that the big claims made by the then authorities in light of 2014 floods to save the river from unwanted human interference have proved vacuous. This can prove disastrous for Kashmir.
The government and local population cannot ignore the dying state of Jhelum. River Jhelum plays an important role in meeting the drinking water requirements of large number of people. In Kashmir, river Jhelum has been the locale of faith, fables and much more since centuries.
River Jhelum circulates everywhere like the blood running in a human body. From times memorial temples and mosques stared coming up along its banks. At many places, one can see temples and mosques facing each other on the banks of Jhelum like one at Batyar Ghat at Ali Kadal.
In the same river, Muslims used to take bath, make ablution and pandits would bathe early before moving to Sharika temple. Since centuries river Jhelum has washed our sins, body, clothes and turbans. It is a river of unpunctuated faith.
The problem of unauthorized encroachments since 1990 is worsened by the twin problems of pollution and siltation. Clearly, the lessons from the floods of 2014 triggered by siltation and encroachment of the Jhelum are still to be learnt. No conservation effort would bear fruit until effective measures are taken for controlling pollution and siltation of the riverbed.
Peripheries of the water bodies and water routes were encroached upon by the land mafia and subsequently residential and commercial buildings started coming up at these places.
If it was not for the constant freshwater inputs from Lidder and other major tributaries to Jhelum, we would see nothing but sludge flowing in river Jhelum. The degradation of green belt areas in the catchment of river Jhelum has resulted in erosion and heavy siltation in river Jhelum which need to be checked in near future.
According to experts 33% area of major and micro watersheds of Jhelum is prone to erosion. As the focus of successive governments was targeted on conservation of Dal Lake, the Jhelum is neglected since decades.
Over the years, at least seven sewage treatment plants (STPs) were established around Dal Lake, but none for the Jhelum to cater to the sewage emanating from houses, hotels and houseboats to be thrown into it without treatment.
The Jhelum, which snakes through Srinagar, receives massive quantities of solid as well as liquid sewage from major portions of the Srinagar city. In the absence of a proper drainage system and sewage treatment plants, residents have to put sewage directly into the water body.
Mostly, the sewage goes out through small drains into bigger drains and then into the Jhelum, which is unfortunately the biggest drain of Kashmir. The Jhelum has witnessed heavy pollution since decades, with tones of solid and liquid waste from home toilets being directly fed into it.
As reported by Dr Adnan AbuBakar, we have some scientific limnological parameters to gauge the quality of water in lakes, wetlands, rivers or streams to see whether it is conducive for aquatic flora and fauna including fish. The over-enrichment of nutrients commonly called eutrophication is responsible for reduction/deoxygenation of water.
Today, most of our water bodies contain high concentration of nitrogen and phosphorus with low dissolved oxygen, thus not conducive for the production of sensitive fish species as they cannot thrive well in eutrophic water.
As a matter of fact, the production of native Kashmiri fish has reduced more than fifty percent if compared to its production three decades ago. However, Cyprinus carpio or Common Carp (locally called Punjab gad), the exotic fish species thrives well in these waters.
Therefore, we see about 80 percent catch of these fish in comparison to snow trouts, as they require sufficient dissolved oxygen and low eutrophic conditions – which unfortunately is no more available in our water bodies – to survive and thrive.
A research study, “Massive land system changes impact water quality of the Jhelum in Kashmir Himalayas”, published by Prof Shakil Romshoo and others, to assess the changes in water quality from 1983 until 2016 shows an increase of nitrate-nitrogen in the river.
The concentration of nitrate-nitrogen in the river has increased from 185 to 672µgL-1, indicating an increase of 260 per cent over the years. It has happened due to the combined impact of urbanization, reckless application of pesticides and fertilizers, forest degradation and deforestation.
To conclude, I would say that still we have time to protect our rivers and water bodies provided the government comes forward to take the initiatives.
There are numerous examples across the world and across India, wherein government initiatives ensured protection of the water bodies even after they had deteriorated to a large extent.
We need a comprehensive plan and a proper implementation for our water bodies; otherwise, the time will come when we will lose all our water resources, and the coming generations will curse us for our negligence.
Dr Showkat Rashid Wani, Senior Coordinator, Directorate of Distance Education, University of Kashmir
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.