Once pristine, Hygam wetland on verge of extinction, courtesy govt apathy

Encroachments, siltation affect fragile eco-system; arrival of migratory birds to Ramsar site hit
However, in absence of a regulation, Hygam has been considerably encroached upon and converted into a land for paddy cultivation over the last two decades.
However, in absence of a regulation, Hygam has been considerably encroached upon and converted into a land for paddy cultivation over the last two decades.Special arrangement

Srinagar: The failure of the government to take sustained measures for the conservation of the Hygam Wetland in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district is taking a toll on its fragile ecosystem and has led to decrease in the arrival of the migratory birds to the water body.

Hygam, a Ramsar Site (a wetland site designated to be of international importance under the Ramsar Convention), is an important part of Jhelum floodplains and one of the associated wetlands of Wullar comprising an important habitat for migratory water birds within the Central Asian Flyway.

The wetland receives lakhs of migratory and resident bird species in winter and also supports mammals, amphibians, and fish.

However, in absence of a regulation, Hygam has been considerably encroached upon and converted into a land for paddy cultivation over the last two decades.

A team from Green Citizens Council also called Environmental Policy Group (EPG) made an on the spot assessment of Hygam Wetland recently.

“Hygam is dead and buried,” Faiz Bakshi, Convener of EPG told Greater Kashmir.

“There is nothing for Hygam to be called a wetland. According to locals and experts, till a few decades ago, the wetland used to attract millions of migratory birds by this time of the year. Ironically, we did not even see a migratory bird in the entire so-called wetland. This is heartbreaking and pathetic.”

He said Bala Nalla flowing from Baba Reshi was the main source of siltation and nutrients of Hygam.

“Dead logs and fallen trees stop the movement of water. The wetland has been extensively encroached upon by unscrupulous people who have cut water supply by creating embankments to prevent flooding of their houses and are cultivating paddy,” Bakshi said.

As per the recent report of the Government of India, J&K has lost 2372 kanal of wetlands.

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 the coverage and quality of statistics.

As a result, the total number of wetlands decreased from 404 in 2006-07 to 403 in 2017-18, a decrease of one wetland.

This brought the total amount of wetlands down from 1,64,230 hectares in 2006-07 to 1,64,110 hectares in 2017-18.

The main factors are excessive habitat destruction, pollution, and heavy human interference.

Former Advisor to Governor and retired IAS officer Khurshid Ahmad Ganai told Greater Kashmir that Hygam wetland has been declared a Ramsar Site under the Ramsar Convention on wetlands.

“This means it is a very important wetland at par with Hokersar and needs to be conserved to maintain the environmental and biodiversity balance in the area in particular and Kashmir in general. But little or no work is going on in Hygam for its restoration and conservation. I am told that the local people have encroached upon part of the wetland area and even plantations have come up and some areas have been brought under crops. This is totally unacceptable. Encroachments need to be removed and all old waterways flowing into the wetland restored,” said Ganai, who is also a member of EPG.

Elaborating, he said that the Wildlife Department should prepare an Integrated Management Plan (IMP) under the National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems (NCPA) and submit it to the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change, GoI.

“Funds provided under NCPA can then be used for restoration and rejuvenation of Hygam Wetland. The J&K government at the highest level needs to take necessary steps to restore and protect this important wetland. Otherwise, we may not be able to retrieve it from the irreversible damage that is likely if no action is taken now,” Ganai said.

Lamenting over the deteriorating condition of Hygam Wetland, Ajaz Rasool, a member of EPG and a hydraulic engineer, said, “Encroachments, siltation, dry patches, unkempt wetland that was never maintained on scientific lines are the only remnants of Hygam wetland.”

He said that the local stakeholders told the EGP team that the wetland that used to yield fish, nadru, water chestnuts, and was a renowned bird sanctuary, was now devoid of such characteristics.

“Most of the areas of wetland were dry or had little water which was polluted with floating solid waste debris, plastic bottles, and tetra packs. Having walked around the wetland for 10 km and riding in the boats, it was observed that a contingent of labour force comprising a dozen people or so were removing dense weeds to carve out a water pool where feeding material for birds could be dropped to invite them. Spending the whole day we could not sight a single migratory bird there,” Rasool said. “The managers of the Wildlife Department have not taken regular annual maintenance measures for upkeep and conservation of this wetland. Are we then allowing this newly enlisted Ramsar Site to disappear from the map?”

Citing Kashmir's "geomorphic setup", experts said that in view of its flat topography, Kashmir is highly vulnerable to flooding, but most wetlands, which acted as reservoirs of floodwaters, have lost their carrying capacity due to haphazard urbanisation and encroachments.

Raja Muzaffar Bhat, environmental activist and a member EPG, said Hygam, which is spread on 802 hectares equivalent to 1,28,420 kanal, was disgustingly facing the “onslaught of destruction”.

He said that the State Wetlands Authority constituted under the Wetland Conservation and Management Rules 2017 had a role to play to save and conserve Hygam.

“Deputy Commissioner Baramulla should constitute a team to look into encroachments and start fresh demarcation in the area. The illegal land that has been encroached upon should be retrieved and those officials of the Wildlife and Revenue Departments who have facilitated encroachment in the past should be punished. The illegal apple orchards should be cut down and persons involved booked,” Bhat said.

Elaborating, he said that the restoration of water flow into the Hygam Wetland was an important issue as many encroachers had illegally constructed houses on the wetland which had starved large tracts of wetland not getting the water, which is the lifeline of a Hygam Wetland.

“Deep dredging should not be done as that prevents the birds from getting nutrition. Only manual de-weeding can be done and that is the best solution. No use of JCBs should be allowed for dredging,” Bhat said.

He suggested that Information Education Communication Programmes should be held in Hygam and its surrounding villages so that religious leaders and students are sensitised by the government by hiring services of NGOs, academicians, and technical people to protect wetlands.

“The government should come out with a whitepaper on why the migratory bird population has come down to a great extent?” Bhat said.

In August this year, the government included two wetlands Hygam and Shalbugh on the Ramsar Site list.

Hokersar and Wullar Lake and Surinsar-Mansar were already designated as Ramsar Sites owing to their ecological importance.

Ramsar is an inter-governmental treaty conceived in 1971. The Ramsar Site framework helps in better conservation of wetlands on an international scale.

In September this year, the High Court had sought a report on the status and present position of wetlands included in Ramsar Sites in J&K from the government and also directed the Union Ministry of Environment to submit the Action Taken Report (ATR) on the issue.

The court has made it clear that the importance of preservation of wetlands and water bodies cannot be sufficiently emphasised as well as the need to set up a regulatory mechanism for all wetlands to maintain their ecological character and ultimately support their integrated management in the three regions of J&K.

Chief Wildlife Warden J&K (Principal Chief Conservator of Forests) Suresh Kumar Gupta said that the government was making efforts to conserve wetlands in J&K. “We have started conservation measures in wetlands including Hygam. We have also filed status of wetlands in the National Green Tribunal. In Hygam, we have been taking action against the encroachers and demolishing illegal embankments to restore natural water flow to the wetland. Due to our action, there have been law and order issues also. It will take some time to restore the wetland,” Gupta told Greater Kashmir.

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