About ten lakh migratory birds recently left for their summer sojourn across continents after having lived winter months in the wetlands of Jammu and Kashmir to escape harsh cold weather back home. These wetlands fall along the Central Asian flyway of winter migratory birds and are thus an important ecosystem supporting equally important biodiversity.
Wetlands are essential for maintaining bio-diversity, water harvesting and water availability. As elsewhere the wetlands play an important role in the economic activities of the people in Jammu and Kashmir. Take the case of the state’s largest wetland, Wular Lake, which constitutes an important ecosystem in the valley and supports a lot of bio diversity. Besides being a huge reservoir of water and a rich repository of macrophytic vegetation and winter asylum to migratory birds, the lake provides livelihood to thousands of locals by contributing sixty per cent of the total fish catch in the valley as well as other products harvested from its waters.
The State is having 29 wetlands, 16 in Kashmir, eight in Jammu and five in Ladakh. Around 106 species of birds nestle in these wetlands including 25 species of land birds who visit them occasionally. The importance of these wetlands increases as they provide sanctuary to migratory birds some of them belonging to the endangered species. According to a survey of J&K wetlands, two near extinct species, White-eyed Pochard was found in seven wetlands in the state and Ibis in two wetlands in Jammu. The survey added that two endangered species Blacknecked Crane and Sarus Crane were spotted in wetlands in Ladakh and the Gharana wetland in Jammu region respectively.
Many of these wetlands are shrinking, a consequence of human greed and the pressures caused by rapid population growth. “We used to have 600 small and big wetlands around Kashmir valley. Now there are only 10 to 15 wetlands left and they too are on the verge of extinction”, said a senior functionary in the Centre for Environmental Law.
In the vast arid Jammu region, the scenario is no better with Nanga Wetland Reserve (1.21 sq km) in Ramgarh sector and Sangral Wetland Reserve (0.68 sq km) in Abdulliyan sector having totally vanished while many others have been severely reduced in size.
Sarpanch of Nanga village said that no migratory birds visit the area now. He added, “Huge wetland existed here about 25 years ago. It was a vast pond which has completely dried out. Elders told us flocks of migratory birds used to arrive in winters but with the passage of time inhabitants started using the land for cultivation and birds started ignoring wetland due to increased human activity.”
The conflict between man and nature is responsible for the dismal scenario. Reports suggest that local people over the years have been opposed to the coming of birds alleging that they damaged crops.
These water bodies could not be saved even after being declared as reserved wetlands way back in 1981. At theGharana wetland, which is of late emerging as an eco-tourist attraction, the villagers used to scare away the birds. But since 2003, situation has improved. The Wild Life Department has also been persuading locals not to resist the arrival of birds. The Department has been trying its best to get the maximum cooperation from the villagers by trying to provide compensation to the farmers, who suffer loss of crops,” said a Wildlife Warden, Jammu. The end result of all such measures has been to save the wetlands which have been facing decline.
Unchecked deforestation causing soil erosion and silting, human encroachments in and around the water bodies and apathetic attitude and unimaginative policies of the concerned authorities have led to the degradation and shrinking of area of wetlands, feel experts. They point out to Bemina residential colony, which, they say, used to be a wonderful wetland on the outskirts of Srinagar till the end of the 19thcentury. They add that this apathy continues and cite the case of Rakh Arath, a wetland, which is being filled for rehabilitating people living inside the Dal Lake.
“Not only people at individual level, but also the government at regulatory level interfered with wetlands. They changed the land use pattern not only within the wetlands, but also in the catchments….There was also reclamation process going on at individual and government level. All that resulted in the shrinking of wetlands and changed the environment of wetlands. When the environment changed, the habitat changed. That also impacted the birds which had a particular type of habitat in the wetlands”, said Prof. A. R. Yousuf of Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority.
The state’s two premier wetlands, Wular lake and Mirgund have been reduced to one-third of their original size to 58.71 sq kms and 1.5 sq kms respectively. “Wular, an internationally recognized wetland, was one of our best wetlands but in 1950s, 1960s and 1970s government authorities constructed dams around this water body and also reclaimed a large chunk of lake and started willow plantations. People also started cultivation of paddy in the erstwhile wetland area,” said Prof Yousuf.
The jewel in Kashmir’s splendid beauty, Dal Lake too has suffered from devastating impact of human greed and negligence. It has also drastically shrunk from 75 sq kms area to a mere 12 sq kms while another important wetland Haigamhas been reduced to almost half of its size of 7.25 sq kms, with other wetlands also facing the same fate.
The impending extinction threats have forced the Central and State governments to initiate action. The State government has launched some major initiatives complimented by the Centre to conserve the water bodies in view of their ecological and economic importance. “To sustain state’s tourism and safeguard economic resources the conservation of water bodies, forest wealth and bio-diversity of state is the need of the hour”, says the Chief Minister Omar Abdullah.
Realizing the unique hydrological and socio-economic values of the Wullar Lake, Union Ministry of Environment and Forests included it in its Wetlands Programme as a Wetland of National Importance in 1986. Subsequently, the lake was designated as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention in 1990. Besides the Wullar andHokersar, three other wetlands in Jammu and Kashmir, namely, Tsomoriri in Ladakh and Mansar and Surinsar lakes in Jammu division have been listed under the Ramsar Convention in order to protect and conserve them. The Union Environment Ministry has also listed them as protected by prohibiting constructions, setting up of industries in the vicinity and dumping of any waste or discharge of untreated effluents from industries or human settlements into them. It also set up the 12 member Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority over a year ago to implement and review an elaborate set of rules in this regard besides identifying wetlands across the country for conservation.
The State government has too been making efforts to save the water bodies which Chief Minister Omar Abdullah termed as ‘icons of our heritage, for which the entire people of the state feel concerned.’ A number of reports and action plans have appeared in recent years to come to terms with the problem of these lakes.
Responding to the urgency of the situation, the State Government set up several authorities namely the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA), the Wullar Manasbal Development Authority (WMDA) etc. to clean and conserve the lakes. As the LAWDA has been mainly engaged in regenerating Dal Lake and WMDA in conserving theManasbal lake, the State Government has decided to constitute Wular Development Authority for according focused attention to resurrect the Wular lake.
All these efforts would bear fruit provided there is peoples’ active cooperation. That is a crucial factor as has been seen in the conservation of Manasbal lake. Awareness has to be created on mass scale and authorities have to be sensitive to the problems of people displaced in the process. There has to be a peoples movement harmonized by the NGOs and media to complement the official effort. It may be a long and difficult way but will have to be treaded upon to save these ‘icons of heritage’ for ensuring healthy environment and safeguarding economic interests of local population.