Kashmir’s polluted water bodies face existential threat
Due to the lack of proper waste disposal system, most of Kashmir’s water resources are getting polluted. The pollutants – garbage, liquid waste, human excreta, industrial waste, and so on – are directly or indirectly thrown into water bodies at most of the places across the Valley; experts are ringing the alarm bells saying water pollution levels are rising with each passing day.
Until a few decades ago, Kashmiris would use water of the Jehlum for drinking purposes, but now the same river is filled with dirt and pollution. The sewage, drainage from the residential and commercial places is emptied in the Jehlum almost everywhere from upstream in South up to down in the North Kashmir. And, the same is the case with Valley’s most of the lakes, which used to be a major source of food and drinking water until a few decades ago.
Experts believe that the continued degradation of water bodies will ultimately have adverse effects on every aspect of life in future. In fact, it has already started showing its effects. For instance, the deteriorated water quality and the harmful components of the pollutants in the water bodies has caused a drastic decline in the production of indigenous fish species —Kashir Gad — which eventually has impacted the livelihood of the fishermen community in the Valley.
To gauge the present scenario about the quality of water bodies, production of fish species, and the condition of the fishermen community, KASHMIR IMAGES spoke with some concerned experts.
Here are the excerpts:
In the Valley, water coming from all surface runoff ultimately drains into the River Jhelum, which is at the lowest ebb and of utmost importance, thus called the ‘lifeline’ of Kashmir. The river, however, has turned polluted, full of dirt and silt over a period of time. The silt into the river comes from the catchment areas, which start from the Pir Panjal range. Presently, the water quality of all – about 50 – tributaries of Juhalm is deteriorating.
The degradation of the Jhelum catchment started in the 1960s when the government leased out forest lands to cut down the deodar trees, without having any matching afforestation programme. At the same time, people started encroachment and changing of land use of the forest land in various parts of the Valley. Even the residential and commercial buildings were raised in the catchment areas of the Jehlum. The process is still going on. Pahalgam, where buildings are coming up even in violation of the master plan over the years, is a blatant example in this regard. The degradation of catchment areas resulted in the washing away of top soil with precipitation and consequent accumulation of silt in the Jehlum over the decades.
Although the government had installed two dredgers named Soya and Budshah (commissioned and inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister) for deep dredging in the river near Baramulla’s seer area, both the machines turned non-functional in 1986; and thereafter the dredging process was stopped for 26 years – till 2012.
During all these years the river was heavily silted, and eventually, the Wular Lake (fed by Jehlum) lost its water volumetric capacity up to 30 percent. And, the 2014 floods degraded the river and the lake further.
Apart from the siltation of river, water pollution and deterioration of water quality is another major issue of Jehlum. Since ours is a river valley civilization, most of the towns and cities are situated on the Jehlum banks, right up to Srinagar city and down below to the Wular Lake.
For instance, Srinagar’s old city is situated on the two banks of the river. All the liquid waste and human excreta coming from the city goes into the river through storm water surface or drains or otherwise. We do not have any holistic sewerage project even in Srinagar (the largest urban city of the Valley). Ingress of silt, liquid and solid waste have ruined the whole river and subsequently the Wular Lake too.
The only genuine effort to protect the Jehlum was made in 1996-97 when the J&K government had approached the Ministry of Environment Forestry and sought a plan for Jhelum on the pattern of the Ganga action plan. The plan envisaged laying of intercepting sewers and transmitting same to treatment plants in towns of Anantnag, Srinagar, Sopore, and Baramulla to ensure polluted water is not allowed to flow directly into the river. The GoI approved the plan but funds were never released.
Presently, the water quality of the river is extremely deteriorated. Just two years ago we saw a glimpse of water pollution in terms of ‘fish kill’ when hundred of fish surfaced near the banks of river Jhelum at Chattabal Veer. In an investigation, we found the water pollution had caused the ‘fish kill’. The high biochemical oxygen demand concentrations in the water had minimized the oxygen into the water, and eventually fish (oxygen-demanding specie) were gasping for breath.
To conclude, I would say that nothing is being done to ensure the Jehlum, its tributaries, and other water bodies across the Valley to make them pollution-free. Although pressure groups are working; all the details about water pollution are well documented; nothing is being done by the government. Shockingly, the garbage coming out from Sopore and Bandipora towns is dumped into the Wular.
To change the scenario for good, we need modern solid waste management schemes implemented here. Only then water quality in the rivers and lakes will be improved. If nothing is done, the water quality of these rivers and lakes will continue degrading. I am afraid, we will face frequent floods in the near future because the catchment areas are already degraded and are no more capable to retain the rainwater.
Nature has bestowed us with sufficient water resources but we have been failing to protect these natural gifts. Jehlum is our lifeline. If it is damaged beyond repair, it will impact each and every sector of life in Kashmir.
We have some scientific limnological parameters to gauge the quality of water in lakes, wetlands, rivers or streams to see whether it is conducive for aquatic flora and fauna including fish. Sometimes a water body can be useful for humans but harmful for the fish and vice versa.
The over-enrichment of nutrients commonly called eutrophication is responsible for reduction/deoxygenation of water. With this context, I can tell you that over the period of past 20 to 30 years, most of our urban as well as rural lakes and wetlands show the symptoms of eutrophication. This simply means the quality of water is not that good, particularly for the production of snow trout’s, including our native Schizothorax fish species – commonly called Kashir Gad.
In my research, when I compared the water (from the Valley’s water bodies) quality data of 1974 with the data of 2020, I found the water quality has worsened in all these years. Today, most of our water bodies contain high concentration of nitrogen and phosphorus with low dissolved oxygen, thus not conducive for the production of sensitive fish species as they cannot thrive well in eutrophic water. As a matter of fact, the production of native Kashmiri fish has reduced more than fifty percent if compared to its production three decades ago.
However, Cyprinus carpio or Common Carp (locally called Punjaib gad), the exotic fish species thrives well in these waters. Therefore, we see about 80 percent catch of these fish in comparison to snow trouts, as they require sufficient dissolved oxygen and low eutrophic conditions – which unfortunately is no more available in our water bodies – to survive and thrive.
The degradation of water occurred mainly because of both liquid and solid waste enter these aquatic systems from the catchment areas. Take example of Dal Lake, wherein partially treated wastewater from Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) and houseboats continue to go into it further deteriorating its water quality as these STP’s show only 30 to 40 percent efficiency in treating N & P (Nitrogen and Phosphorous).
J&K Lake Conservation and Management Authority may have succeeded to remove the encroachment and helped enhance the size of the lake by dredging during the last 25 years of its existence, but it has actually failed to improve its water quality. That is simply because of the preference given on engineering works and lacking scientific acumen in their management part.
The same is the case with Jehlum River, as of today we do not have wastewater treatment management system and Jehlum continues to suffer and water is turning eutrophic day by day. Since most of the water bodies in the Valley are located in the floodplain of Jehlum, which finally drains into Wular, the lake once being famous for its crystal clear waters has lost its sheen as a result of eutrophication. Wular, one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia, once the largest fisheries resource in Kashmir valley is also showing decline in fish production, thereby jeopardizing the livelihood of large population dependent on it. Wetland International South Asia (WISA) had made a comprehensive management action plan (CMAP) for the Wular in 2007, with emphasis on improving its water quality on scientific lines. However, government of J&K revised it to RMAP and largely ignored the management on water quality aspect, thereby making it more of engineering plan rather than a scientific one.
Population growth and urbanization are the main reasons for all kinds of pollutions in Valley be that air pollution, land pollution, water pollution, and so on.
The conflict and political uncertainty that started in the early 1990s pushed the swift urbanization across the Valley, as people migrated or shifted to the towns and cities for safety and security reasons.
With this, most of the swage load from the highly populated towns and cities found their way into the lakes or rivers. With mass urbanization, we saw how the land mafia got active everywhere. Peripheries of the water bodies and water routes were encroached upon by the land mafia and subsequently residential and commercial buildings started coming up at these places.
Besides, population growth and urbanization, mass tourism is also one of the key reasons for water pollution.
Also, the conversion of paddy land into orchards at a large scale also added to the problem. For the past two-three decades, we have been using pesticides exponentially in our orchards. Since Valley is a bowl-shaped place, thus everything including pesticides contaminated water ultimately gets into the lakes and water bodies and then finally into river Jehlum.
I also believe that pharmaceutical waste, the most hazardous pollutant, has added to water pollution. For instance, we all know that in the early years of its inception, SKIMS used to threw its waste and garbage directly into Anchar Lake. After many years of this destructive practice, the hospital installed its treatment plant which is working since then. Yet, as per the experts, there are some chemicals found in pharmaceutical waste, which are hard to change their nature even after putting through a treatment plant. As the result, the lake has lost its past glory and its waters have turned highly polluted.
I strongly believe that governments, that be, are responsible for the water pollution. Seeing the population growth, urbanization, mass tourism, deployment of forces on fragile places, and other factors, the government, long ago, should have made a plan and implemented it to safeguard the water bodies in the Valley. Instead of protecting water bodies, the government built drainage networks to ensure out flow into the lakes and rivers. People cannot be blamed until the government provides alternatives to them.
To conclude, I would say that still we have time to protect our rivers and water bodies provided the government comes forward to take the initiatives. There are numerous examples across the world and across India, wherein government initiatives ensured protection of the water bodies even after they had deteriorated to a large extent. We need a comprehensive plan and a proper implementation for our water bodies; otherwise, the time will come when we will lose all our water resources, and the coming generations will curse us for our negligence.
We have around 3500 licensed fishermen in Bandipora and about 1500 in the Sopore area, whose livelihood is dependent on food production – fish, Nadru (Lotus Stem), and Water Chestnut – from the Wular Lake.
Wular used to be the largest fish producer in Kashmir until a few decades ago. Our elders would say Wular lake produces fish worth a Manwat (1.4 Kg of weights in ancient Kashmiri) gold every 24 hours. Even in my teenage, some twenty-five years ago, I used to catch fish up to 30 kg of weight a day. Now I feel lucky if I succeed to catch two-three kilo fish a day. Worst, the traditional Kashmir fish (Kasher Gad) is hardly found in the lake. The pollution in the lake has drastically reduced the production of indigenous fish species. We have only imported fish specie (Punjaib Gad) in our lake now. This specie was imported here because it can survive and thrive even in the polluted water. Earlier, we also used to sell Hoggard (dried fish), as there was plenty of Kasher Gad available to us. Punjabi Gad is not fit to be dried.
Not only the Kashmiri fish, even Nadru (lotus stem) production has reduced in the Wular due to the pollution and deteriorated water quality.
All this has impacted our livelihood. Even though our forefathers have been fishermen by profession for centuries, our new generation is avoiding the traditional trade because it does not fetch adequate earnings anymore.