Adeela Hameed

Climate Change, Urban Development-Kashmir’s Wetlands

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Unchecked urbanization harms the sustainability of our wetland ecosystems, and Narkara is already there!

Kashmir valley, part of the North-western Himalayas, is home to a vast number of wetlands. However, many of these fragile ecosystems have unfortunately disappeared in just a few decades. Data obtained from LANDSAT-EMT (2010) showcases an alarming 50% decrease in wetland area in Srinagar alone, over the past 100 years.

Increased development has led to the decline of these natural flood sponges. Kashmir has lost a majority of flood basins in and around Srinagar city and wetlands of importance around Dal lake. Areas like Babademb, Khushalsar, Shallabug, within, and Narkara, Hokera, along the borders of Srinagar, have been transformed into residential colonies.

Talking to Kashmir Images, Prof. (Dr.) Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, Supervisor, National Himalayan Cryospheric Research Laboratory, University of Kashmir, explained that wetlands are capable of protecting the Valley from disasters.

“Wetlands in Kashmir form a part of our natural water system that has the capability to prevent disasters like the 2014 floods. However, unreasonable land-filling and absence of breathing space affect their buffering potential to hold back floodwater and stormwater run-off”, Prof. Romshoo said.

As per the Census of India (2011), Srinagar city carries a total population of 12.2 lakh with the number projected to cross the 23.5 lakh mark by 2021. Given the situation, residents continue to look for land where there is none, eventually making way and landfilling low-lying regions of cities and towns. And wetlands are one of these several, ecologically sensitive, low-lying regions that bear the brunt of over-population.

But, there’s more. The impacts of climate change are posing an added threat to the wetlands.

Climate change effects are being seen all around the globe now. And Kashmir valley is not exempt from these. This places Kashmir’s wetlands in an even graver spot. Now, these wetlands are threatened not only by an explosive population but by extreme climate events as well.

Explaining the effects of climate change on wetlands, Prof. Romshoo emphasized how threatening the situation might turn out to be in the future.

“Extreme climate events mean the load on our Valley’s wetlands is increasing. These may eventually lead to habitat loss for endemic and migratory avian species, or worse, loss of absorption capability of wetlands and the agricultural/residential lands in their periphery”, he explained.

Hokersar and Wular, the largest wetlands in Kashmir, have been identified as Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance. This designation calls for an even robust approach for the protection of wetlands. However, Survey of India Topo Sheets (1971) and Landsat-ETM (2010) claim that Srinagar’s wetlands, spread over 13,425.90 hectares in 1911 had shrunk to 6,407 hectares by 2004, registering an estimated loss of 7,018 hectares in 95 years.

Narkara is a semi-urban wetland, with human settlements, agricultural fields, and tablelands called karewas as its catchment, situated on the outskirts of Srinagar. This wetland, too, has shrunk to an awful extent in the last 50 years.

Local residents of Narkara and its flood-spill channel say the shrinking wetland remains an important presence in their lives.

“This is our home. Day in and out we work to feed our families. And Narkara has been there for us, watching over us and protecting us. So, it pains me to see it in shambles,” Shakeela Begum said.

As per a recent study, there has been a decrease in the agricultural area by 78% from 1965 to 2016. The wetland reserve is now primarily an urban locale and the area under construction has mushroomed almost 28 times in the past half-century. The built-up area covers nearly 37.12% of its total catchment.

Narkara area is basically a detention basin. It is designed to allow a 3-day detention period for surplus flood water arriving from the Doodhganaga stream. However construction along the peripheries, both residential and commercial, has reduced its carrying capacity explained Iftikhaar Ahmad Kakroo, Chief Engineer, Irrigation and Flood Control department, Srinagar.

“The land around Narkara is distributed equally between the government and local stakeholders, with the locals having been mandated to use it for agriculture purposes only. Unfortunately, rampant construction is seen around the government-owned parts of Narkara and the area around its spillway channel, greatly reducing its carrying capacity”, he said.

Urbanization has drastically increased after 1980. It was also observed that soil erosion has decreased from 106 tonnes in 1965 to 62 tonnes in 2016 in the catchment area of Narkara. The reason for this reduction can be ascribed to the development of concrete structures on the barren and agricultural land area.

What adds to the misery is the back-end political support to land brokers for continuing illegal construction and development.

“A no-construction zone has been dictated along the banks of the channel as well as Narkara, the low-lying detention basin. In spite of this regulation, huge commercial towers keep coming up in the area”, the Chief Engineer deliberated.

The J&K government had been proposing to build an Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Krishi Vigyan Kendra, and Sabzi Mandi over hundreds of kanals of Narkara. This was decided without getting approval from the Rakhs and Farms department (custodians of Narkara) and the Irrigation and Flood Control department, Srinagar. The government had also issued about 100 kanals of the wetland for starting Transworld Muslim University.

Moreover, an amount of Rs 101 crore would be required for filling the earth into this marsh. This comes from the detailed project report prepared by the public works department (R&B), Kashmir. Henceforth, the IIT project has been stalled as the High Court issued a stay order on construction and urban development in and around Narkara. The PIL was filed by Environment Policy Group – an NGO based in Kashmir.

The Rakhs and Farms department has compiled a datasheet for Narkara, mentioning its status and conservation efforts, if any, by the government. When asked about it, an official from the department expressed his concern for the impoverished wetland.

“Although Narkara has been designated a low-lying wetland and is home to multiple species, with numerous ecosystem benefits, however, no conservation and management plan has been formulated by the government due to lack of institutional mechanism,” he said.

This leads to a debate on whether the government is keen on working for the wetland or will it let Narkara die like numerous others in Srinagar.

The presence of wetlands in any region is beneficial to the community, both human and wildlife, in more than one way.

Locals, living in and around Narkara and its flood-spill channel, are of the same opinion as well. Residents are aware and know of Narkara’s importance. A resident, who owns an agricultural plot near Narkara, spoke about how the land-use pattern has changed over the last few decades.

“We are allowed to practice agriculture provided we don’t encroach upon the wetland area. We have been here for ages but new colonies developing along the bunds have greatly impacted Narkara. Illegal construction of commercial complexes and associated roads ate up most of this wetland,” Rafiq Ahmad said.

Reckless urbanization, within Narkara and its catchment, will not only affect the hydrology and ecology of this semi-urban wetland but increase the chances of flooding in this part of Kashmir’s Himalayas.

Several colonies along the spillway channel were spared from the wrath of the 2014 floods that wreaked havoc in Kashmir. One of the residents dispensed all gratitude to Narkara for saving lives.

“We didn’t know what to do. It was scary. But Narkara, this low-lying area, sponged off all the water from this channel. The extent of damage, both to life and property, would have been tremendous had the wetland not been there,” Ghulam Nabi said.

Wetlands in semi-urban or urban areas, such as Narkara, not only act as flood protection systems and water purifiers but are home to a large variety of migratory avian species.

Russian and Central Asian fowl species have recognized Narkara as their breeding ground during winters. Apart from these, Mallards, Indian Moorhens, Purple Moorhens and Dabchicks are also found in Narkara.

Bird watching has been a fun activity for young adults residing around the wetland. One of the boys talked about his interests and how peaceful the wetland is during avian migration.“We usually arrive early in the morning to watch birds perch here. There are hundreds of them every year. It feels peaceful watching them flutter here and there. It warms my heart,” Gulshan said.

But the expansion of residential and industrial areas has led to disruption of avian breeding cycles and may, in fact, affect their migration as well. This is pointed out by the census data from J&K Tourism which explains that the population of migratory birds has reduced to just 3275 from the previous lakhs of winter visitors in Narkara.

This data might dispirit Gulshan. And if the birds would one day stop visiting Narkara, a young man’s dream of finding peace with nature might end. However, for now, he continues to enjoy the company of these imperial creatures from the other side of the world, letting his heart settle as he waves goodbye.

Adeela Hameed produced this story under a fellowship supported by TERI and Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

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