Once known as Queen of Wetlands, Hokersar in last throes

Pollution, encroachments, siltation destroying habitat of migratory birds
A large stretch of the wetland has been converted into built-up areas.
A large stretch of the wetland has been converted into built-up areas.Mubashir Khan for Greater Kashmir

Srinagar: Known as Queen of Wetlands for its immense ecological value, Hokersar Wetland on the outskirts of Srinagar is facing threat of extinction due to extreme pollution, encroachments, and siltation.

Hokersar is an important refuge for migratory waterfowls, shorebirds, and trans-Himalayan species in winters.

It also acts as one of the water absorption basins, saving Kashmir from floods.

However, in absence of conservation measures, unabated encroachments, siltation, and pollution have severely affected flora and fauna of the wetland— destroying habitat of migratory birds.

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.

Marshy areas within the wetland that form an important part of the habitat of the migratory birds, have shrunk and have been colonised by the aquatic weeds.

Study carried out by the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Kashmir (KU) paints a grim picture of Hokersar.

The study states that Hokersar is facing the brunt of “societal greed and government apathy”.

The wetland has shrunk from 18.13 sq km in 1969 to 13.42 sq km.

Its open water body has shrunk from 210 hectares in 1969 to mere 45 hectares.

Hokersar has tremendous ecological and aesthetic importance and is home to millions of migratory birds that land here during winters.

Talking to Greater Kashmir, noted environmentalist Ajaz Rasool said, “There has been a massive deterioration of the ecological status of Hokersar Wetland due to encroachment which has squeezed its area. Poor management strategies of the wetland have resulted in its siltation, uncontrolled growth, and proliferation of weeds in it and affected navigability in the water channels within it.”

Ajaz, a hydraulic engineering expert, who had recently made a spot assessment of Hokersar, said major deterioration to its aquatic ecology occurred due to the highest recorded floods of 2014.

“The heavily silt laden floodwaters deposited enormous silt in the wetland along with other solid waste and compounded the already existing problems. A fatal blow to its hydrology occurred when the Irrigation and flood Control Department envisaged to mechanically dredge a deep channel across it through contract as part of their flood recovery work in phase-1,” he said.

The proposal for the dredging was studied and approved by the Departments of Water Resources and Environment.

The approval had put conditions based on the Environmental Impact Study that the executive agency should ensure maintaining a water depth of 4 feet (1.2 m) in the Hokersar wetland at all times of execution of work as also before and after execution.

Besides, there was a condition that the contractor would dispose of dredged material from the wetland area at least 2 km away from the boundary.

“Unfortunately both these conditions were violated by the contractor despite the Irrigation and Flood Control Department and Wildlife Department putting him on notice to do that,” Ajaz said.

The deep dredging of the channel across the wetland drained off its water, rendering a large area of it dry.

The dredged material was disposed of within the wetland, raising the ground level further.

“These adverse impacts resulted in Hokersar losing its hydraulic function of absorbing high inflow waters to release the same during dry spells. The biotic complex physical, chemical, and biological functions also got affected and the quality of water entering did not improve during its retention or outflow as should have been in a wetland,” he said.

Ajaz said that the visits by the experts of the Environment Policy Group (EPG) made the authorities implement execution of water regulatory gates at inlet and outlet of dredged channel in Hokersar to ensure maintaining required stipulated water depth.

This work taken up through IFC in the phase 2 of the flood recovery projects is scheduled to be completed by this year.

“Immediate action is required in removing encroachments on the peripherals of the wetland by the locals. It was also felt that the structural infrastructure capabilities of the Wildlife Department needs to be upgraded and improved for regular maintenance and upkeep of the wetland for its sustainability,” Ajaz said.

A recent 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.

“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 the 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 study revealed.

The wetland’s BOD level (95.05 mg/L) was too high, indicating that this ecosystem was biologically highly polluted.

“From the present study, it can be suggested that wetland management is crucial. The need of the hour is to limit the loading of effluents into the wetland. 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. The results of the present study have indicated that trace elements have made their entry into the aquatic biological ecosystem and are a matter of great concern. Concerned authorities at national, state, and district level should take immediate measures (such as complete ban on discharge of untreated industrial effluents and municipal sewage into the water bodies for restoration of wetland),” 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.

Over 120 hectares (2372 kanal) of wetland were lost in J&K between 2006-07 and 2017-18, according to a report by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI), a Department of the GoI concerned with coverage and quality of statistics.

Wildlife Warden Wetlands Ishfan Deva said efforts were on to remove encroachments from Hokersar.

Deva claimed that the Wildlife Department had retrieved over 2000 kanal of encroached land and tree plantations in Hokersar wetland in the last several months.

“We are making all efforts to restore the glory of Hokersar,” she said, adding that the Irrigation and Flood Control was making a sedimentation tank to prevent the influx of silt from inflow channels in Hokersar.

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