Political optics aside, conservation of Wular lake remains only a half-hearted effort
Can you imagine that WUCMA is run by just 5 officials, and they too have been assigned this job as an additional charge!
The Wular Lake, still considered one of Asia’s largest lakes, has shrunk by 40 percent during the past century.
.The lake, according to recorded evidence, was spread around 217.8 square kilometers in 1911. Now, as per the official data, it is just 130 square kilometers in size.
Obviously the water holding capacity of the lake has also reduced significantly over the decades, especially during the past 30 years, due to the accumulated silt from catchments, conversion of wetlands for agriculture, massive plantation of willow in and around the lake being some of the major contributors. The present view of this lake clearly describes its ordeal because of popular callousness and official apathy.
Until a few decades ago, the lake was full of life. It was the largest source of fish, water chestnut, and ‘Nadru’ (lotus stem – a trendy edible delicacy) in the Valley. However, toxins from the polythene products, dead animals, fertilizers, garbage, and sewage material have drastically reduced this production.
Elderly people living in the vicinity still recall that some fifty-sixty years ago, people even used to drink from this freshwater lake. Now, one sees only dirt and filth everywhere. Its water is polluted. Thanks to filthy Jhelum, which flows into the lake and contributes eighty percent of its water!
To cut the long story short, the government established Wular Conservation and Management Authority (WUCMA) in 2012, for the conservation and protection of the world-famous lake. WUCMA was supposed to be resourceful and efficient enough to take care of the lake in terms of restoring its past glory. However, even after nine years, the ‘Authority’ is run by just five officials, and they too have been assigned this job as an additional charge.
Even though the Wular was included as a Wetland of National Importance under the Wetlands Programme of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, for intensive conservation and management purposes in 1986; and also, it was designated as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention in 1990 – however the lake has only gone from bad to worse over the years.
Two years ago, the UT administration sanctioned Wular Action Plan of Rs 200 crores for its conservation and management. Since then, dredging work to pump out the slit from the lake is being done. However, some experts say that mere dredging is not enough for the conservation of the lake. They also say that even the dredging is not being done in scientific ways.
Pertinently, the conservation process of the lake is under the constant watch of the J&K High Court through a Public Interest Litigation (PIL). The court of Chief Justice Pankaj Mithal and Justice Vinod Chatterji Koul recently asked WUCMA to come clean with the time schedule for removing encroachments from the lake.
To understand the problems which are causes of the failure of the conservation of Wular over the years, KASHMIR IMAGES spoke to some experts. Here are the excerpts:
Since 2019, we have taken up the dredging process of 3.10 square kilometers of the lake under the Wular Action Plan. For this, we have employed cutter suction dredgers, and we are doing an excellent job in terms of swift and efficient dredging. Almost 97 percent of the work has been completed by now, which is well ahead of our scheduled date of completion. Earlier, we would use JCBs for the same work, which was time-consuming and comparatively less efficient. We spent most of the money on dredging, simply because the main problem is huge siltation in the lake, which has accumulated over the years.
Also, to further align our conservation efforts on scientific lines, we are taking various premier organizations like the National Institute of Hydrology, and IIMs, on board in the process of Wular conservation. National Institute of Hydrology (NIH) will be carrying a comprehensive study of lake hydrology, and accordingly will determine our future course of action.
Similarly, experts from NIH would conduct radioisotopic studies to provide us with an idea about the historical siltation patterns of the lake.
Although, for the revival and conservation of the lake, we have a number of initiatives in the pipeline; we want to restore the lake first. All other initiatives for the complete revival and conservation process would follow.
I can assure you that Wular is turning up as a new tourist destination in near future, and our job would be a successful lake restoration story. We are also building some infrastructure. For example, work on Wular Boulevard, a walkway along the periphery of the lake, has already been started. Wular would be added as a new eco-tourist destination in the Valley once the planned infrastructure is created.
As far as the encroachment of the lake areas is concerned, we are duty-bound to remove it. Wular lake is fully demarcated with geo-tagged boundary pillars. Let me also emphasize that only 0.001 percent of the lake is under encroachment at this point in time. With joint efforts, out of the total of 640 kanals of encroached area, we have already retrieved more than 261 kanals. Most of the encroachments have been done in terms of the plantations. We are trying to repossess all the occupied area, which belongs to the lake. However, retrieving areas under human habitations, though very meager, would not be so easy because most of the occupants are landless; thus this has become a human issue. Some areas like Kanyari, where human habitation has taken place due to the floods of 2014, would be retrieved. The administration is working to rehabilitate the occupants at other places. We are trying to retrieve the land by motivating the concerned people. In this regard, we are in touch with the law enforcement agencies, as well as the local leaders, such as social workers, sarpanches, and panchs.
Furthermore, we are trying to ensure that no solid waste is deposited in the Wular. We made Sopore and Bandipora municipal bodies shut their dumping sites near or into the lake. Earlier, the solid waste from both the towns would go directly into the lake. Even the honorable high court has appreciated our efforts.
When we talk of the conservation of Wular lake, it primarily has two aspects: The quality of lake water and the quantity of water the lake stores.
Since 80 percent of water inflow to Wular comes from the River Jhelum, which is polluted and filthy; we find the water of the lake polluted as well. Although, the lake gets a portion of clean water from Madhumati, and Erin nallahs (streams) — it’s two other sources — it is little given the size of the lake.
Worst, municipal bodies at Sopore and Bandipora towns dispose of all the solid waste into the lake, which adds to the pollution. Ironically, the municipal committees, in this matter, play hide and seek game. When there is an outcry by the environmentalists and concerned people, they stop disposing of solid waste and garbage into the water-body. But as soon as the matter subsides, they start the filthy practice again. Unfortunately, neither of the towns has a sewage management system or a scientific solid waste management infrastructure in place as yet. To ensure, that solid or liquid waste doesn’t find its way in the lake, the government needs to provide a scientific waste management system and sewage treatment plants in these towns.
Also, we have to ensure that the Jhelum is not polluted, and its water quality is improved. Presently, we see all the junk and garbage, even the dead dogs and cows flowing into the lake through Jhelum. We will have a clean Wular only when we have a clean Jhelum. For this, we need to implement Jhelum Action Plan. This plan was prepared on the basis of the Ganga Action Plan years ago; and was approved in the 10th plan, but remained only on papers as it was neither initiated nor funded.
Now, coming to the volume of water that can be stored in the lake; Wular has lost its storage capacity over the years, mainly during the past three decades, because of the silt that has accumulated into it. Earlier, the lake would absorb the floodwaters during high river flows or even during the peak of floods in Jhelum because it had huge marshes around it acting as sponges. In winter, when the flow of Jhelum used to be less, the marshes would release the water. This was its wetland function which has been lost. The Wular has lost its 30 percent volumetric storage capacity due to siltation. Previously, we had a process of dredging out the Jhelum outflow channel near the Seer area of Baramulla where the river slope is much steep compared to its reach prior to it. This would help us taking out deposited silt and sand resulting in an increase in velocity of flow that would consequently result in draining of silt from Wular lake as well due to the draught created. This dredging was started in 1960 when then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated the commissioning of two dredgers named Soya and Budshah for deep dredging in the River Jhelum outflow channel near Baramulla. Everything worked smoothly until 1986 when the machines stopped functioning and the dredging was stopped. Instead of replacing the old machines, we chose to stop the dredging process, which eventually filled the lake by way of accumulation of silt in it.
When I analyzed the 100 years flow data of the Jhelum in 2007, I found the lake had lost more than 25 percent of its volumetric storage capacity in the past 30 years. The I&FC department purchased two new dredgers in 2012 and resumed the dredging operations at Sopore and Baramulla which proved effective to limit flood damages during the highest floods of 2014. Presently, under the Wular conservation project dredging is being carried out in the lake itself. This selective dredging is envisaged to aim at restoring the lost volumetric storage capacity of the lake by doing it in a scientific manner. But, unfortunately it is being done in a random way in total disregard to the natural lake bathymetric profile which could ensure proper water circulation in all parts of lake area. For this, the managers of lake should have scientifically determined the lake bed profile as it existed 30 years hence. Moreover, 2014 floods have brought further silt from the catchments, which has adversely got deposited in the lake. A reappraisal for same should also have been made. But all this logical scientific rationale has yet not been taken into account. It is essential that we do the selective dredging in consideration to restore lost storage capacity as also to revive the natural lake bed profile of the lake, which will help us to restore and regulate the flow of water into it. That done, will provide the required dividends of the conservation project.
To conclude, it may also be pointed out that the method for the constitution of Authority for the Wular conservation project is laid out in its report, which provides the requisite professional disciplines to be placed under one roof and have the infrastructure capacity build-up for executing the Wular Conservation and Management. However, the Authority falls short of that at present. Its constituents have been derived of officers from other government departments, and instead of an autonomous body, the Authority works as yet another government department.
While talking about the conservation of the Wular lake, we have to keep its various aspects and perspectives in mind. This is one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia and is notified as one of the RAMSAR sites. Also, we have to see from the perspective of livelihoods. There are as many as 33 villages directly or indirectly dependent on the lake, in terms of their fisheries, agriculture, and allied activities. Moreover, the lake has huge ecotourism potential. This beautiful asset in the shape of a natural lake has been completely ignored over the years by the successive governments.
We have seen only the Dal Lake put on a tourism map by the government and concerned agencies. But the fact is that we have some beautiful assets in the shape of natural lakes and wetlands, in north and south Kashmir as well. And, the Wular is the richest of them.
That said, tourism and other components come secondary, and the conservation of the Wular comes first. Firstly, the lake is to be safeguarded, protected and monitored. Then the allied things can be added to beautify it further.
Moreover, the Wular would be an alluring tourist destination after it is perfectly connected with the adjoining places like Baba Shakur-ud-Din Wali (RA), forests in Rampora, Rajpora, and Chitrnar forest academy. Also, the lake has some beautiful components, like Higam, Shalabug, and Manasbal along with it. The Wular is incomplete without the associated wetlands. For example, we have six to seven wetlands only in the Ganderbal district. And all these wetland zones are to be seen as associated with the Wular lake. It is called an ecosystem. For the conservation of the lake, the conservation of the ecosystem is a primary thing to do.
However, it is sad to see that in the name of Wular conservation, the whole focus is on dredging, and the rest is ignored. You would be surprised to know that of Rs 200 crores sanctioned for the preservation of Wular, almost 80 percent of the money has been spent on the dredging by now. To be more specific, Rs 174 crores out of Rs 200 crore have gone to only Reach Dredging Limited, a Kolkata-based company. It is astonishing that the drudging company is supposed to excavate just three square kilometres of the lake of 27 square kilometres of the critically silted area.
I have no problems with the dredging if is to be done for the conservation of the lake; but you must also have a look at the original DPR, which was prepared by the Wetlands International South-Asia. It identifies as many as five things that must be worked concurrently. These include water management; livelihood enhancement of the people living in the fringes of the lake; ecotourism; biodiversity conservation; and catchment area treatment. But the government specifically remained confined to drudging only. Although, dredging is a part of water management, it is only one part of the conservation process.
Furthermore, the involvement of the stakeholders is missing in the conservation theory and efforts of the government. Local stakeholders should have been made part of this conservation process. But they have been left out. It is a very isolated approach to saving the lake from the problems without involving the local stakeholders.
Therefore, my contention before the court was: why is it that none from the 33 villages’ situated around the lake has got a single job from the eco-restoration process? Also, we have to see this issue from the perspective of it being a very important livelihood generation part of north Kashmir.
As for as the encroachment of the lake is concerned, a local politician, for the sake of his vote-bank politics, somehow justified occupation of the area belonging to the lake by the local people after the floods of 2014. Apparently, the politicians are least bothered about the importance of the lake. Now the court has given the direction to the government asking to remove the encroachments.
Sadly, the lake has already lost its glory and most of its area. When you look from the historic perspective, this lake was 270 square kilometres some half a century ago or so. Now it has shrunk to just 136 square kilometres.
I personally know the officials of the Wular Conservation & Management Author (WUCMA). They are the most honest and brilliant people. But the fact is that this authority is subjected to a systematic failure by the government, in terms of scarcity of resources and manpower. As many as 225 posts had been recommended for this authority when it was established. No vacancy has been filled till date. The authority is run by only five people, and they too are ad- hoc. How on earth, an ‘Authority’ managed by just five people can ensure the conservation and protection of a 130 square kilometre lake?