Captivating images of lakes and wetlands strike the imagination of general masses when the name of Jammu and Kashmir is mentioned. For years, the aquatic wonders have been the main attraction of tourists, at the same time supporting livelihood of local communities in multiple ways. These water bodies also provide safe habitats to the lakhs of migratory birds.
However, over the years, gradual siltation, steady encroachment and increasing pollution have put the wetlands eco-system and associated socio-economical benefits at receiving ends. And, in 2017 the situation only got worse.
Background The Jammu & Kashmir has 3651 big and small wetlands spread across 22 districts. Four wetlands are identified as Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance, highest among all Indian states. They are Surinsar-Mansar in Jammu, Hokersarand and Wular in Kashmir, Tsomoriri in Ladakh.
Srinagar Wetlands Loosing To Encroachments
Broadly there have been over a dozen comprehensive media reports throwing light on the deteriorating conditions of wetlands in the state. Most of these stories have predominantly mentioned the findings of couple of studies done in recent years.
Among these, the study titled Urban Sprawl of Srinagar and its Impact on Wetlands reveals that between 1911-2011, more than 50 per cent of wetlands areas have vanished as the city has grown 12 times in terms of population and 23 times in terms of area.
The study finds that Srinagar’s wetlands spread over 13,425.90 ha in 1911 and by 2004, this area had shrunk to 6,407.14 ha registering a loss of 7,018 ha in 95 years. Interestingly, the first Master Plan for Srinagar (1971-91) had acknowledged the existence of flood basins around Srinagar. http://www.firstpost.com/india/kashmirs-agricultural-fields-and-wetlands-are-falling-prey-to-large-scale-urbanisation-4055097.html (First Post, 18 Sept 2017)
Elaborating the study outcome further, another report writes that wetlands around the Dal lake, Khushalsar and Babademb within and Anchar, Shalbugh, Hokersar and Narkara wetlands along the periphery of the city have largely been transformed into residential colonies. https://reliefweb.int/report/india/shrinking-wetlands-leave-jk-high-and-dry (Relief Web, 25 May 2017)
In another report, author Arthar Parvaiz mentions that a series of environmentally destructive projects implemented by the state government, offices, hospitals and residences have been built over wetlands in areas like Bemina, Barzulla, Hyderpora, Sanat Nagar, Rawalpora and Natipora. Referring to Dec 2016, State Policy Document on Land Use he further stresses that Kashmir is losing its prime agricultural land and wetlands to rapid urbanisation and faulty land-use. http://www.firstpost.com/india/kashmir-losing-its-agricultural-land-to-rapid-urbanisation-and-unplanned-construction-reveals-revenue-report-4056757.html (First Post, 18 Sept 2017)
Threats Looming Over Narkara Wetlands
The study also finds that another important wetlands area Narkara, 12 km from Srinagar has also shrunk to 261 ha in 2010 from 342 ha in 1971, the govt agencies have no revenue records. http://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/one-more-to-go-58826 (Down To Earth, 15 Oct 2017)
The wetland acts as buffer zone during floods by preventing water from entering into uptown areas of the summer capital. In the devastating floods of 2014, the Narkara wetlands helped many surrounding areas from getting submerged. But round the year, different reports exposes how none other than the State Government itself was writing the script of Narkara wetlands destruction.
First, in July month, The Early Times candid report reveals how a Minister from ruling party tries to get the Narkara wetland land-filled for “personal and vote bank gains”. As per the report, the minister in particular wanted to earth-fill the wetland for construction of a govt office in the “first phase” and to make “in roads for construction of residential colony in the other portion of the wetland where many of his near and dear ones have illegally procured land for peanuts.” http://www.earlytimes.in/newsdet.aspx?q=208484 (Early Times, 23 July 2017)
In November month, the Kashmir Reader, report sounded another alarm bell for Narkara wetlands when Government decided to convert wetlands area into a campus for the Srinagar branch of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM). As described in the report the DPR of the project mentions that an amount of Rs 101 crore is required for filling earth into the marsh that is home to a number of birds and helps in maintaining the water table.
Surprisingly, a high-level site approval committee, comprising director IIM, Lucknow, joint secretary, Ministry of Human Resource Development, and commissioner secretary, Higher Education department, has already approved the site and the government has initiated the process for transfer of land. However, the Education Minister Syed Altaf Bukhari told Kashmir Reader that he would never allow the use of wetlands for the IIM’s construction. https://kashmirreader.com/2017/11/18/alarm-sounds-for-narkara-wetland-as-govt-plans-to-turn-it-into-site-for-citys-iim/ (Kashmir Reader 18 Nov 2017)
Similarly, some Government officials are reported as privately admitting that the project would prove an environmental disaster as the area is a detention basin designed to allow 72-hour detention period, to surplus flood water of Doodganga nallah. Notably, HC while hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by Environment Policy Group (EPG) has directed the government to maintain the status-quo at Rahk-e-Arth in Narkara area and demarcate the wetland area. http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/srinagar-city/authorities-to-vandalise-narkara-wetland-for-setting-up-iim/265751.html (Greater Kashmir, 12 Nov 2017)
Further, referring to a Right To Information (RTI) response filed with the Rakhs and Farms department, (RF) the custodian of the Narkara wetland, a report reveals that department had received no communication from the government on IIM proposal in Narkara wetland. The land for IIT campus is also classified as wetland in the Directory of Lakes and Water Bodies of J&K State, prepared by the Dept of Environment and Remote Sensing, according to Kashmir Reader. https://kashmirreader.com/2017/12/05/site-of-iim-srinagar-is-wetland-that-protects-city-from-floods/ (Kashmir Reader, 5 Dec 2017)
The latest report refers to an official handout in which chief secretary BB Vyas is mentioned as saying that if the site is not found feasible then suitable land for the IIM should be looked while asking the divisional commissioner Kashmir to finalise the site at the earliest. https://kashmirreader.com/2017/12/16/iim-srinagar-find-alternative-if-narkara-site-not-suitable-cs-to-div-com/ (Kashmir Reader, 16 Decr 2017)
Wular Worries Grow Bigger
Wular Lake (Wullar) in Northern Bandipora district is one of the largest fresh water lakes in Asia. The lake basin was formed as a result of tectonic activity and is fed by the Jhelum River. The lake’s size varies seasonally from 30 to 260 sq km according to one report. In addition, much of the lake has been drained as a result of willow plantations being built on the shore in the 1950s.
Acknowledging its ecological importance, Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change under the Wetlands Programme recognized the Wular lake was as a Wetland of National Importance in 1986. In 1990, it was designated as a Wetland of International Importance under Ramsar Convention. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wular_Lake
As per a Wetland International Study, the area of the lake has been reduced by 45 % from 157.74 sq km in 1911 to 86.71 sq km in 2007 mainly due to conversion of parts of the lake for agriculture and govt’s willow tree plantation project in 1970s. Originally the lake was spread over 217.8 sq km. In a July 2017 report, India Water Portal finds sustainable removal of willow trees and dredging as a win win formula for local people and environment. http://www.indiawaterportal.org/articles/managing-willows-wular-lake (India Water Portal, 10 July 2017)
But another report in The Wire reveals that the Rs. 800 million Wular Lake Conservation Project being implemented by Irrigation and Flood Control Department since 2011 has constructed only a 1.5 kilometre long bund and a 112 metre long iron bridge-like structure at Nengli-Sopore till 2014, writes, Athar Parvaiz in The Wire August 2017 post.
The Wular Conservation and Management Authority (WUCMA), also involved in the project, has spent Rs. 600 million to carry out dredging on one km, afforestation on 1200 hectares in catchments of the lake and on demarcation of 130 sq km of the lake’s boundary from 2012 to 2016. The agency is looking for second phase and has a budget of 60 million.
The willow plantation had led to fragmentation of wetlands, rapid siltation, water quality deterioration and social conflicts. Also despite all the ongoing conservation effort the poaching of otters and water birds in and around the lake is rampant. https://thewire.in/166233/project-to-save-kashmir-wular-lake/ (The Wire, 09 August 2017)
According to a study by Wetlands International, 32,000 families including 2,300 fisher households living on Wular’s shores depend on it for livelihood. However, with rising siltation, encroachment and pollution eating into wetlands area and damaging aquatic biota the livelihoods of the dependent community have been affected severely number of people reports, Athar Parvaiz in The Wire post. https://thewire.in/176667/kashmir-wular-lakes-livelihood/ (The Wire, 09 September 2017)
Further, a Third Pole report mentioned that the deforested hills have been the prime cause of the heavy siltation of wetlands and water bodies in Kashmir. The report based on a study finds that 18% of the forested area has degraded into sparse forest or scrublands from 1972 to 2010 in South Kashmir. It also states that land use changes and water scarcity have further aggravated the erosion process in catchment of Jhelum River. Climate change has been playing its part in all this adding to the siltation load in the river that feeds the Wular Lake, Kashmir’s largest flood basin, says the report.
Interestingly, the silt load of nearly one million cubic meters (MCM) stands removed at a cost of Rs 600 million. An estimated 20 MCM of slit load remains and WUCMA will soon start work to de-silt the remaining amount with the help of Rs 4 billion project. https://www.thethirdpole.net/2017/09/18/increased-siltation-raises-kashmir-flood-threat/ (The Third Pole, 18 Sept 2017)
Amid the glooming scenario, there is encouraging story of a Bilal Ahmad Dar, who has been passionately collecting solid waste from Walur Lake despite all the hardships. Rewarding his effort, noted filmmaker Jalal Ud Din Baba has made a documentary titled “Saving the Saviour” on this 15 year old Wular Warrior from village Lahawarpora in Bandipora.
The film has won the Special Environment Award by the United Nations on the 22nd World Water Day in the US this year. Further the Bilal has been made a brand ambassador of the Srinagar Municipal Corp, and has also been mentioned by PM Shri Narendra Modi on Mann ki Baat. http://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/art-and-culture/warrior-of-wular-lake-srinagar-4962371/ (The Indian Express, 01 Dec 2017)
The video shows how Billa is collecting garbage from the Wular lake to save the lake.
Hokersar Wetlands Continue To Shrink
Hokersar wetlands is a world class wetland spread over 13.75 km2 (including lake and marshy area) at a distance of 14 km north of Srinagar. Thousands of migratory birds from Siberia and Central Asia use the wetlands as their transitory camps during Sept-Oct and again around spring. As per forest dept, 5 lakh migratory birds had visited the lake by May 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Srinagar
But, as per Relief Web report, in last three decades, Hokersar wetland has been reduced to less than half its size even as the area of the Anchar wetland reduced by more than a third. https://reliefweb.int/report/india/shrinking-wetlands-leave-jk-high-and-dry (Relief Web, 25 May 2017)
Further, The Indian Express report describes that the gradual encroachment and siltation has started affecting the sojourn of winter birds. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/in-valley-without-tourists-hokersar-is-alive-with-beat-of-wings-4996278/ (The Indian Express, 24 Dec 2017)
Emphasizing on the need for dredging of silted up portion of Hokersar wetlands, in May 2017, Mir Zahoor Ahmad, Minister of State for Forest and Environment asked the concerned department to dredge the silted up portion of lake and directed the concerned agencies for demarcation of the wetlands and immediate eviction of encroachments.
According to Forest Department, it has submitted an estimated cost of Rs 9.5 crore plan for the development of Hokersar Wetland apart from a project for the restoration of the wetlands to be started. http://dailykashmirimages.com/Details/mir-zahoor-for-proper-dredging-of-wetlands/140048 (18 May 2017)
Gharana Wetlands Vanishing Fast
Gharana (Ghar-ana meaning welcome home) is a paradise for migratory birds. It is located along the border in RS Pura tehsil of Jammu district about 30 kms from Jammu near Gharana village. Every year, Gharana and its adjoining wetlands of Makwal, Kukdian, Abdullian and Pargwal receive about 10000 to 20000 migratory birds in winter. Researchers of Jammu University have reported 170 resident and migratory birds species dependent and visiting the wetlands.
As per the Economic Times report, the wetlands is notified as a protected site in 1981 and an area of 80 ha is reserved for this wetland. However, even 36 years after, revenue department is yet to demarcate wetlands area. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/bird-watchers-paradise-gharana-wetland-dying-a-slow-death/articleshow/50423874.cms (The Economic Times, 3 Jan 2016)
According to State revenue records originally the wetlands area comprised of 97 kanals and 17 marlas of land. But today these have shrunk to bare 15 kanals and the rest of it has been seemingly grabbed. http://www.dailyexcelsior.com/vanishing-gharana-wetland/ (Daily Excelsior, 1 June 2017)
For so many years, the Gharana wetlands have been the winter destination of birds coming all the way from Siberia. It is also recognized as Important Birding sites by the Bombay Natural History Society, despite that, their existence is under threats as these wetlands are fast being encroached and the Government has been the silent spectator to the deterioration of the wetlands. http://jammulinksnews.com/newsdetail/15633/Jammu-Links-News-GHARANA_WETLAND_Abode_of_Migratory_Birds (Jammu Links News, 28 Feb 2015)
Pollution, Poaching Impacting Migratory Birds Sojourn
Apart from siltation and encroachments, reports show, the increasing pollution adversely affecting the aquatic life and migratory birds dependent on wetlands in the State. One such report by Indian New England finds that fish are dying because of eutrophication (excess of nutrients leading to oxygen depletion), turtle doves have almost stopped visiting paddy fields to pick grain. The report also says that alarmingly, lesser number of migratory birds have so far come to the Valley in 2017. http://indianewengland.com/2017/11/environmental-doomsday-kashmirs-vanishing-fish-turtle-doves-migratory-birds/ (The Indian New England, 14 Nov 2017)
Similarly, bird lovers have been reporting of birds going out of Kashmir valley around mid-winter in the past few years because of their dry habitats as per Sunday Guardian article. Experts hold rapid urbanisation, increasing noise pollution (vehicular) and government apathy behind the untimely departure of wingy guests. http://www.sundayguardianlive.com/news/11844-kashmir-s-parched-wetlands-make-winged-visitors-stay-difficult (The Sunday Guardian, 27 Dec 2017)
In addition to the pollution, rampant hunting of wetland birds has become a cause of concern. Generally, such incidents do not find mention in local media. Here is a detailed Free Press Kashmir report about migratory and wetlands birds being poached in the Hokarsar and Anchar wetlands. https://freepresskashmir.com/2017/05/09/following-a-poacher-in-the-heart-of-kashmirs-wetlands/ (The Free Press Kashmir, 9 May 2017)
Raising the issue further Afsan Rashid in her latest report exposes the failure of Forest Department in taking actions against poachers. The locals around these wetlands also have confirmed the broad day light poaching “in connivance with the department”. https://freepresskashmir.com/2018/01/09/poachers-paradise-its-bird-butchery-happening-inside-kashmir-wetlands/ (Free Press Journal, 9 Jan 2018)
Governments Actions Far From Adequate
According to a First Post Report, over all the state government has registered more than 400 cases against encroachers of wetlands and water bodie and 718 people have encroached 422 acres in five wetlands —Hokersar, Hygam, Mirgund, Chattlum and Fresh Kori — in Kashmir Valley.
As per the report, three major wetlands of Shallabug, Chanthang-Pangong Tso and Tsomoriri, spread on an area of 398 sq km in Ladakh region, have also recorded encroachments.
In Srinagar, the total area of Dal-Nageen Lake has shown a marginal decrease from 25.86 sq km to 25.76 sq km in 2009 as per satellite imagery. The civic body was successful to foil ponds land grab attempt at Patoli Mangotrian, Paloura and Upper Paloura areas in Jammu.
The forest department is also contemplating dredging operations in the wetlands in Kashmir, a proposal for which has been submitted to the MoEF&CC under the National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems (NPCA).
The report further lists measures for prevention of pollution of Wular lake through scientific techniques. There is a Rs 34.04 crore plan having provisions for enhancement of sustained livelihood of dependent communities, including fishermen dependent on Wular. http://www.firstpost.com/india/jammu-and-kashmir-718-people-booked-for-encroachment-on-water-bodies-wetlands-3490485.html (First Post, 28 May 2017)
Judiciary Intervention:- In its August 2017 landmark decision, J&K HC have directed govt to demarcate the wetlands and take measures to conserve water bodies in the Valley. The court also ordered immediate demarcation of wildlife rich forests, wildlife sanctuaries and conservation reserves by the concerned authority.
The court also ordered Commissioner & Secretary Irrigation Dept to convene a meeting and submit action plan regarding building interconnections between wetlands and rivers. The Court further asked, concerned Principal Development Authority to file fresh response about the details of map and network of wetlands interconnected with River Jhelum.
The PIL filed by one Peer Noor-ul-Haq, seeking directions to remove encroachments to restore Padshahi canal, an age-old irrigation passage which lies at Nallah Sindh near Wayil Bridge in Ganderbal district of central Kashmir. Later, HC expanded the purview of the PIL and issued directions for safeguarding the Jhelum, the lifeline of Kashmir Valley. http://www.risingkashmir.com/news/hc-directs-govt-to-demarcate-wetlands-conserve-water-bodies- (Rising Kashmir, 19 Aug 2017)
Concluding Remarks:- From above reports it is clear that like past many years, siltation, encroachments, pollution and poaching, this year too, have remained as key threats adversely affecting the wetlands in the State. It is oblivious that wetlands have been playing critical role in ensuring water security and protection against floods. They have also been providing livelihoods and revenue sources to local people and government. Despite that, State and Central Government have failed to reverse their degradation in 2017. Hope, 2018 proves better and brings in changes helpful in the restoration of Jammu & Kashmir wetlands to their previous glory.
Compiled by Bhim Singh Rawat (firstname.lastname@example.org)