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Dying wetlands of Kashmir valley

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By: Abrar Yousuf Mir

The two union territories of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir have about three thousand six hundred and fifty-one large and small wetlands spread over twenty two districts of J&K and Ladakh. Of these wetlands, four are of international importance and are more important than any other state and federal territory of India. Among these four wetlands three are in J&K and one in Ladakh. Of the three located in J&K, two wetlands including Hokersar and Wular Lake are in Kashmir valley. Both have been declared as Ramsar sites by the ‘Ramsar Convention’ on wetlands. Ramsar convention is an intergovernmental environment treaty established in year 1971 by UNESCO. It provides for national action and international cooperation on conservation of wetlands and wise sustainable use of their resources. Ramsar identifies wetlands of international importance especially those providing waterfowl habitat.

For years, Hokersar and Wular Lake have been an attraction for tourists from across the world. At the same time, they support livelihood of local communities in multiple ways, such as fishing, farming, and jobs related to tourism. These water bodies also provide safe habitats to lakhs of migratory birds during their annual migration from various parts of the world and these sites also provide safe refuge to endemic flora and fauna. Unfortunately, both these wetland sites are miserable and declining due to gradual siltation, steady encroachment, increasing pollution and lack of conservation measures by the government. The World Wetlands Day is observed every year on 2nd of February and this is high time to start worrying about the position of these two Ramsar sites in Kashmir valley. The conservation challenges, if left unattended, could sound the death knell for these wetlands of international significance. Let’s look at the ecological health and conservation issues of the Hokersar and Wular wetlands.

Lake Hokersar, also known as the “queen of all Kashmir wetlands “, was recognized as a Ramsar site in 2005 but is shrinking at an alarming rate. It is situated about 10 km north of Srinagar. The Hokersar Wetland comprises a lake and a marshy area and is spread over an area of more than 7.6 square kilometres. It attracts migratory birds from various parts of the world. More than seven-thousand households are dependent on it as people fetch grass and other useful material from the wetland. Tens of thousands of different species of birds, including ducks and geese like tufted duck and graylag goose visit this wetland every year. Most of these birds move temporarily from various central Asian destinations and Siberia to breed here. This “protected” is facing threat from massive encroachments and the authorities in the Union Territory are still drawing up plans to preserve the wetland for many years. According to the official figures, the wetland has been subjected to encroachment in over 208.6 acres (1,669 kanals) in the past 25 years.

Experts claim that owing to heavy turbidity, several varieties of fish have vanished from the wetland and its size has shrunk from 18.75 square km to 12.7 square km. The wetland received tonnes of silt through its various tributaries during the 2014 Kashmir floods which has badly affected its ecosystem. From officials to common people, everybody is guilty of encroachment and this has decreased the number of migratory birds who used to visit from as far away as Siberia, Europe, China, Philippines and Kazakhstan between September and April annually. Siltation increases pollution load which adversely affects the aquatic life in the wetland, and causes eutrophication (excess of dissolved nutrients that stimulate the growth of aquatic plant life, usually leading to oxygen depletion) which eventually leads to a decline in the number of fishes. Besides, it also results in weed infestation which impacts the growth of hydrophytes , on which the migratory birds feed.

Unfortunately no progress has taken place for its conservation despite mounting public concerns, claims of government and judicial intervention. Owing to the water shortage in the wetland, tens and thousands of migratory birds are dying every day. If the higher authorities do not take immediate action regarding the worsening condition of the wetland, then the day is not far when lacks Winter migratory  birds from Siberia, Europe, Turkey, China, Philippines and Kazakhstan become homeless and people will have to say “Hokersar Wetland was”. After the September 2014 floods, authorities have not done anything to improve the deteriorated condition of this ecosystem. No doubt, dredging was started to remove the silt but it has failed to deliver results. Negligence of authorities has pushed the Hokersar wetland on the brink of extinction.

Wular Lake was once known as the largest freshwater lake in Asia. It is shrinking day by day and in my opinion it is no longer the largest freshwater lake in Asia. Wular Lake lies 40 km to the northwest of Srinagar. It plays a significant role in the hydrographic system of Kashmir Valley by acting as huge absorption basin for annual floodwater. The lake and its surrounding extensive marshes have rich natural wildlife.

The rivers Bohnar, Madamati and Erin from the mountain ranges and the rivers Vetasta (Jhelum) and the Ningal from the south bring hundreds of tonnes of silt into the lake every year. This rampant siltation and human encroachments have had devastating effects on the lake. In recognition of its biological, hydrological and socio-economic values, the lake was included in 1986 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. Subsequently in 1990, it was designated as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.

Wular Lake is a sustainable wintering site for a number of migratory waterfowl species such as Little Egzet, Cattle Egzet, Shoveler, Common Pochard and Mallard. Birds like Marbled Teal and Pallas´s Fish-eagle are species listened in the Red List of IUCN. Many terrestrial bird species observed around the lake are Short-toed Eagle, Little Cuckoo, European Hoopoe, Monal Pheasant and Himalayan Pied Woodpecker. Wular Lake is also an important habitat for fish and contributes about 60 percent of the fish yield of Kashmir Valley. The dominant fish species found in the lake are: Cyprinus carpio, Barbus conchonius, Gambusia affinis, Nemacheilus sp., Crossocheilus latius, Schizothorax curvifrons, S. esocinus, S. planifrons, S. micropogon, S. longipinus and S. niger. More than 8,000 fishermen earn their livelihood from Wular Lake. Increasing pollution from fertilisers and animal as well as human waste, the conversion of vast catchment into agriculture land, the hunting pressure on waterfowl and migratory birds, and the dumping of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) on the banks of Wular Lake are the biggest challenges which this wetland faces.

Nature often lends to human Societies a unique Cultural dimensions, and in our own times as freshwater becomes an increasingly rare source, it is important that we preserve these Wetlands of international importance because they help river systems and Recharge groundwater and also they help at the times of floods. Besides giving numerous other benefits. The role of Wetlands is proven and the consequences of their destruction is nothing short of disastrous. Currently wetland Hokersar has become waste dumpage site ,people near the wetland has posed significant threat to lake by solid house hold wastes  . Need of the hour is government must take some concrete steps to weed out the encroachments and dumpage of solid wastes particularly around Hokersar.

The bottom line is that our people particularly educated section should wake up and need to understand that wetlands are not wasteland, but biodiversity hotspots that provide habitat for huge flora and fauna and must be preserved for future generations. So, besides government efforts, non-government organizations, conservationists, activists, bird watchers and media should play their role in convincing the folks that conservation of these dying wetland is important.

The writer is from School of biological Sciences, University of Kashmir.

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