Vanishing wetlands of J&K

Ecologically important wetlands shouldn’t be treated as wastelands; conservation must be done with public participation
"In the last five decades, most of the wetlands have lost their carrying capacity mainly due to conversion into agriculture land or concrete landscape."
"In the last five decades, most of the wetlands have lost their carrying capacity mainly due to conversion into agriculture land or concrete landscape."File: Mubashir Khan for Greater Kashmir

Wetlands are considered to be nature’s kidneys. Boasting biologically diverse eco-system, wetlands filter polluted water and act as buffer for floods. Unlike in other parts of the planet, wetlands are treated as wastelands in Jammu and Kashmir facing brunt of societal greed and official apathy.

Due to unabated encroachments, siltation and pollution, most of the wetlands in J&K are battling for survival. We are fast losing wetlands to land fillings, garbage dumping and illegal constructions. Wetlands act as flood absorption basis.

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 last five decades, particularly in the south of Srinagar. Deterioration of wetlands has severely affected flora and fauna and habitation of migratory birds.

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.

Till few decades ago, wetlands in J&K were one of the major tourist attractions and sources of livelihood to vast population. 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 Shallbugh were added to the prestigious list last year.

Despite being a Ramsar site, no tangible measure has been taken to restore Wullar and its associated wetlands in north Kashmir which comprise an important habitat for migratory water birds within Central Asian Flyway.

Considered to be Asia's largest freshwater lake, Wullar is fast losing its grandeur to extensive pollution, siltation and encroachments. The wetland has been extensively encroached upon by massive plantations and extension of agricultural fields.

Hygam, also a Ramsar site, has also been encroached upon and converted into land for paddy cultivation over the last two decades. The wetland receives lakhs of migratory and resident bird species in winter and also supports mammals, amphibians, and fish.

Spread on 802 hectares equivalent to 1,28,420 kanals, Hygam has been disgustingly facing the onslaught of destruction by way of encroachments. Bala Nalla flowing from Baba Reshi is one of the main source of siltation and nutrients of Hygam. A team from Environmental Policy Group has described Hygam wetland as “dead and buried.

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 forty years.

Water quality of Hokersar has been extensively deteriorated. As per studies, inlet of Hokersar has the highest physicochemical characteristics due to increasing human-induced activities. The wetland’s BOD levels has been found too high, indicating that its ecosystem was highly polluted.

As per a report of the Government of India, J&K has lost 2372 kanals of wetlands in the last over a decade. Over 120 hectares (2372 kanal) of wetland were lost in J&K between 2006-07 and 2017-18.

255, 167 and 91 kanals have been encroached in Hokersar, Shalabugh and Hygam wetlands respectively as per the RTI reply by the Department of Wetland Protection J&K to social activist MM Shuja.

In most of these cases, as per the RTI reply only eviction notices and FIRs have been filed. On the petition of an environmental activist, Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) passed several orders for conservation of wetlands in Kashmir. However, conservation measures are missing on ground. 

The Supreme Court of India in 2017 referred an important Public Interest Litigation to High Court of J&K and Ladakh for monitoring the process of Eco-Restoration and appointed advocate Nadeem Qadri as Amicus Curie.  

Experts state that wetlands mostly in Kashmir have shrunk by about 50 percent in the last 100 years. The main reason for deterioration of wetlands has been anthropogenic stress due to increasing population resulting in encroachment and siltation. 

There are 1230 wetlands in J&K and comprehensive policy is needed for their protection. J&K Wetland Authority along with the Department of Wildlife Protection must develop inter-departmental coordination for expediting conservation measures..

In his message on the occasion of World Wetlands Day on February 2 this year, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha stated that Jammu & Kashmir is rich in wetland wealth which includes largest fresh water lake in Asia— Wullar, marshy lands like Gharana, deep lakes like Surinsar – Mansar and Manasbal and a number of alpine lakes like Tarsar, Marsar, Brahmasar among others.

LG Sinha stated that government has taken up restoration of wetlands on priority and urged all the citizens of J&K to actively participate in restoration of wetlands saying these play pivotal role in eco-system balance.  LG Sinha is right; active public participation is must especially in restoration of our natural assets including wetlands. There is need to organise awareness programmes for stakeholders to help in conservation of wetlands.

It is the people who live near lakes, forests and wetlands who matter most. Polluters have to be made protectors. People need to own wetlands as guardians of natural assets. It is now or never situation. Government must develop comprehensive scientific Action Plan for eco-restoration of wetlands and encourage public participation in restoration.

Author is Executive Editor, Greater 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.

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