VALLEY’S VANISHING WETLANDS

  • ARIF SHAFI WANI
  • Publish Date: Jul 21 2019 10:29PM
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  • Updated Date: Jul 21 2019 10:29PM
VALLEY’S VANISHING WETLANDSPhoto: Mubashir Khan/GK

Unplanned urbanization, siltation and encroachments are taking a heavy toll on wetlands in Kashmir, severely affecting fragile eco-system of the Valley. The problem is compounded by lack of sustained measures by Central and State governments to conserve these natural filters and flood water soakage systems.

Nestled between mountains, Kashmir’s geomorphic setup makes it highly vulnerable to flooding. Known as ‘Earth’s Kidneys’, wetlands act as flood absorption basins by retaining excess waters and absorbing wastes like nitrogen and phosphorous. However, wetlands of Jhelum plains including Wullar, Hokersar, Haigam, Mirgund, Shallabugh, and Narkara have lost their carrying capacity mainly due to haphazard urbanisation and encroachments.   

The total area of the major wetlands in the Jhelum basin with area greater than 25 hectare has decreased from 288.96 sq km in 1972 to 266.45 sq km at present. Studies have revealed that southern areas of Srinagar city have lost 20 wetlands to urban colonies during the last five decades. 

Despite being a Ramsar site, a wetland site designated to be of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, no tangible measures have been taken to restore Wullar in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district and its associated wetlands. These wetlands comprise an important habitat for migratory water birds within the Central Asian Flyway.

Wullar, the largest natural floodwater storage in the Jhelum basin, has significantly shrunk during the last 100 years. Experts said its open water surface has shrunk from 90 sq-km in 1911 to less than 15 sq-km. Due to shrinking and siltation of Wullar and other water bodies along Jhelum river, the floodwater storage potential of wetlands in the Jhelum basin has significantly reduced during the last few decades. 

Situated on Srinagar outskirts, Hokersar till a few decades ago was known as the ‘Queen of Wetlands’ owing to its immense ecological value. Hokersar is an important refuge for migratory waterfowls, shorebirds and trans-Himalayan species during winters. In the absence of any conservation measures, Hokersar has been pushed to verge of extinction. 

A study carried out by the Department of Earth Sciences, Kashmir University paints a grim picture of Hokersar. The study reveals that the wetland area has shrunk from 18.75 SqKms in 1969 to 12.8 SqKms. While the open water body has shrunk from 1.74 SqKms in 1969 to about 2 SqKms at present.  

Being a Ramsar site, the Government of India is bound to conserve Hokersar. India is a signatory to the Ramsar Convention (The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially as Waterfowl Habitat), an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilization of wetlands.

Till a century ago, Srinagar had a unique ecological setup with extensive areas under wetlands, lakes and water channels. According to experts, several important wetlands in Jhelum floodplains like Bemina, Narakara, Batamaloo numbal, Rakh-e-Arth, Anchar and Gilsar are facing threat due to rapid encroachment and urbanisation. 

“We have lost 22 wetlands to urbanisation within and in the vicinity of Srinagar city alone since 1970,” Prof Shakil Romshoo, head, department of Earth Sciences at the University of Kashmir told Kashmir Ink.  

Srinagar city bore the brunt of floods in 2014 as habitations on both sides of Jhelum were submerged for several weeks. On September 7 last year, the water level in Jhelum broke all records— crossing 33-feet at Sangam in Anantnag (Islamabad) and 23-feet at Ram Munshi Bagh in Srinagar.  

Romshoo said most of wetlands and water bodies in Jhelum basin are gasping for breath due to both “official and public apathy.” “The flood vulnerability of the Jhelum basin has been exacerbated during the last few decades as most of the wetlands in the river’s floodplains, which used to act as storage for the floodwaters, have been converted into agriculture land or built up,” he said.   

Elaborating he said during the devastating 2014 floods, it was observed how residential colonies in the city, which had never flooded in the past, got inundated up to 19 feet. 

“This mainly happened because of loss and degradation of Srinagar wetlands including Hokarsar, Bemina, Narkara, Batamaloo numbal, Rakh-e-Arth, Anchar and Gilsar,” he said.

The hydrological functionality of the existing wetlands has been adversely affected due to encroachments, siltation and depleting stream flows under the changing climate.

The Haigam Wetland Conservation Reserve has also shrunk considerably mainly due to paddy cultivation. Romshoo warned that if the silted and clogged wetlands in the Jhelum basin are not restored, it would become a cause of a major flood in Kashmir in near future. “There is a need to restore the natural drainage capacity of the Srinagar city to tackle the storm runoff and floodwaters as a part of the Srinagar Master Plan,” he said.  

“Wetlands like Batmalun Nambal, Rekh-i-Gandakshah, Rakhi-Arat and Rakh-i-Khan and the streams of Doodganga and Nalla Mar have been completely lost while other lakes and wetlands have experienced considerable shrinkage during the last century,” states a study by Humayun Rashid, scientist of Department of Ecology, Environment and remote sensing on loss of wetlands in Srinagar.

“The Nalla Mar was lost to a road, Doodhganga nalla was converted into buildings and shopping malls, Bemina and Batamaloo wetlands have been converted into residential colonies,” it states.  

Majid Farooq, Scientist and State Coordinator Climate Change Cell, said that drainage channels of the city have been blocked and the link between them has been cut off due to unplanned urbanization and encroachment. 

“The wetlands have lost their power absorb water the way they used to a century ago and save the city from floods. These wetlands used to act as sponges during floods and we have already witnessed the consequences of September 2014 floods.” he said.  

Farooq, who has conducted extensive studies on climate change, said the loss of wetlands in Srinagar has a bearing on microclimate of the city. He said meteorological data recorded during the past century suggests a rising trend in both the mean maximum and minimum temperatures. The mean maximum temperature in Srinagar has risen from 19.8 to 20.32 ºC during 1980 to 2018. 

“The increase in the built-up land leads to increase in the temperatures during summers due to creation of urban heat islands as microclimate of the city stands altered due to undesired land use change,” he said. 

Freshwater wetland ecosystems of valley serve for several aspects of hydrologic regime, including water holding capacity, depth, and duration of inundation, which are firmly coupled to precipitation and temperature variability. “Any variation in wetland hydrology affects primary and secondary productivity, diversity of wetland flora and fauna, and ecosystem goods and services including retention and purification of water, ground water recharge, carbon sequestration, and secondary productivity,” Farooq said.  

He said communicating with policy makers and the public requires aligning wetland science and specific climate mitigation and adaptation and resiliency ecosystem services with the concerns and mindset of the audience

“All wetlands are local and require protection or restoration at appropriate regional and local scales. Only a coordinated approach among departments can provide resilient wetland ecosystem services and protect communities that buffer wetlands from climate impacts,” he said.  

In 2017, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court treated an order of the Supreme Court as Public Interest Litigation on preservation of wetlands in the State. The High Court last year issued notice to the union ministry of environment, forest and climate change after impleading it as a party in the PIL. 

Regional Wildlife Warden Kashmir, Rashid Naqash, said carrying capacity of various wetlands in Kashmir has been reduced due to anthropogenic and other reasons.  “Measures are on to conserve the wetlands in Kashmir. We have stared demarcation process of Hokersar,” he added.