WORLD WETLANDS DAY | Wetlands in Kashmir on verge of extinction

Encroachments, siltation, pollution affect flora, fauna of nature’s kidneys; experts call for sustained conservation
The total area of the major wetlands in the Jhelum basin with an area greater than 25 ha has decreased from 288.96 sq km in 1972 to 266.45 sq km at present.
The total area of the major wetlands in the Jhelum basin with an area greater than 25 ha has decreased from 288.96 sq km in 1972 to 266.45 sq km at present. Mubashir Khan for Greater Kashmir

Srinagar: As people around the globe commemorated World Wetlands Day, Wetlands in Kashmir are on the verge of extinction in absence of sustained conservation measures by Government.

World Wetlands Day, commemorated on February 2 world-wide, marks the signing of a convention on wetlands, called the Ramsar Convention, on this day in 1971 in the Iranian city of Ramsar for conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands. The day is a global awareness campaign celebrated every year to highlight the value of wetlands. In Kashmir, many functions marked the day with passing of resolutions to restore wetlands.

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. But in the last five decades, most of the wetlands, referred to as nature's kidneys have lost their carrying capacity 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 ha has decreased from 288.96 sq km in 1972 to 266.45 sq km at present.

It has been observed that in and around Srinagar city only, 20 wetlands have been lost to urban colonies during the last five decades, particularly in the South of Srinagar.

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, 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.

The major factors for deteriorating condition of wetlands are excessive habitat destruction, pollution and heavy human interference—affecting flora and fauna besides 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 Wular and its associated wetlands which comprise an important habitat for migratory water birds within Central Asian Flyway.

Considered to be Asia's largest freshwater lake, Wular lake in north Kashmir is fast losing its grandeur to extensive pollution, siltation and encroachments. Belying tall claims of the government of launching an ambitious project to salvage Wular, it has been extensively encroached upon by massive plantation of trees and unbridled extension of agricultural fields.

Hygam, also a Ramsar Site, has also been extensively 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 was the main source of siltation and nutrients of Hygam.

A team from Green Citizens Council, also called Environmental Policy Group (EPG), which made on the spot assessment of Hygam Wetland recently described the wetland as “dead and buried.”

Situation in another Ramsar site, Hokersar wetland is worst with unabated encroachments, siltation and pollution taking heavy toll the water body. In absence of any conservation measures, Hokersar has been pushed to the verge of extinction

Hokersar, is facing the brunt of societal greed and government apathy. Studies reveal that the wetland 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.

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

“Our wetlands are important source of tourist attraction and provide livelihood to vast population..Jammu & Kashmir is proud to Rank Fourth in the country to have 5 RAMSAR sites (Wetlands of International Importance) out of 75 RAMSAR sites in the country. Wullar, Hokersar and Surinsar-Mansar were already declared as RAMSAR sites while Hygam and Shallbugh have been declared as RAMSAR sites in June 2022,”

“The Government of Jammu and Kashmir has taken up restoration of wetlands on priority. Various departments of the Government are working for restoration of wetlands under their respective jurisdictions. NGOs, PRIs and cognizant citizens are complementing the efforts  of the Government. I appeal to all the citizens of Jammu & Kashmir to actively participate in restoration of wetlands which play a pivotal role in eco-system balance,” the LG stated.

Environmental lawyer Nadeem Qadri said the key for Wetland Conservation is active involvement of local stakeholders and community

“Seven Ramsar sites in J&K and Ladakh need immediate eco-restoration as the High Court Orders needs to be implemented in letter and spirit. In 2017 Supreme Court of India referred the important PIL to High Court of J&K and Ladakh for monitoring the process of Eco-Restoration, as I was appointed Amicus Curiae. We are closing monitoring seven Ramsar Sitse and other 1230 Wetlands which have been documented by the Department of Ecology, Environment and Remote Sensing,” Qadri said.

“The wetlands play an important role in carbon sequestration and act as kidneys of earth, we as responsible citizens must raise voice for these critically important ecosystems. I am confident that J&K Wetland Authority along with the Department of Wildlife Protection must develop inter-departmental coordination for better results on ground,” he said.

“Wetlands are not wastelands, the policy makers must develop a comprehensive Wetland Management Action Plan for close monitoring and Eco-Restoration of important Wetlands of J&K,” Qadri added.

Ajaz Rasool, hydraulic engineering expert and environmentalist said that the Wetlands in the valley have shrunk by about 50 percent in the last 100 years.

“The main reason for deterioration of wetlands has been the anthropogenic stress due to increasing population resulting in encroachment, siltation due to erosion of topsoil in contributory catchment owing to degradation of forests. “Further growing pollution and disposal of wastes in the wetlands result in deterioration of their water quality. Overall neglect and lack of awareness in conserving wetlands and usually thinking that there are waste lands have resulted as wetlands to deteriorate and degrade,” Ajaz said. However as of now, he said the importance of wetlands in aquatic eco-system has been recognised and the Central and State Wetland Authorities have been formed for eco-restoration of the degraded wetlands on scientific basis to conserve them on sustainable basis enhance their wise use so that these also provide livelihood to its stake holders.

“It is hoped that whatever wetlands now exist in the valley will thus be taken care of to conserve and sustain them for future upkeep of the hydrological eco- system of the valley help in flood management as also to negate the adverse affects of climate change which has attained the proportion of being a global problem,” he added.

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat, on whose petition the National Green Tribunal (NGT) passed orders for conservation of wetlands in Kashmir, stressed for sustained measure to save the wetlands.

“When I moved the petition, I didn’t know its national impact or whether the NGT would take it so seriously. I was only concerned about Wular, Hokersar and Kreechu Chadhara wetlands of Kashmir, but the NGT cited non-compliance of the Supreme Court order and directed the National Wetlands Committee to compile data about the status of compliance of environmental norms in respect of all significant wetlands in the country.”

“Wetland conservation plan in Kashmir must incorporate all aspects of hydrology, livelihood issues, catchment treatment, bathometry," Dr Bhat said.

“Public participation can help to restore the glory of our wetlands. People need to own the wetlands as guardians of natural assets. Government needs to take all stakeholders along to conserve wetlands,” said environmentalist activist Manzoor Wangnoo who has launched cleaning drives in Gilsar and Khushalsar wetlands in Srinagar.

Environmental Policy Group (EPG) convener Faiz Bakshi said majority of wetlands in Kashmir are in bad shape. “It is due to apathy of concerned officials who don’t provide factual report about deteriorating condition of wetlands in meetings of wetland committees. Conservation of wetlands must be monitored by non-official experts,” Bakshi said.  

Wildlife Warden Wetlands Ishfan Deva said drive has been started to remove encroachments from wetlands, especially Hokersar.

“We have retrieved over 2000 kanals of encroached land and tree plantations in Hokersar wetland. Our focus is to restore area of wetlands and simultaneously started conservation measures. Irrigation and Flood Control is making a sedimentation tank to prevent influx of silt from inflow channels in Hokersar,” Deva told Greater Kashmir.

Chief Wildlife Warden J&K (Principal Chief Conservator of Forests) Suresh Kumar Gupta has been maintaining that the government was making efforts to conserve wetlands in J&K. “We have started conservation measures in wetlands and are taking action against encroachers.”    

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