Even as the world observed Wetlands Day on February 2, we in Kashmir are yet far from understanding just what wetlands mean. Are wetlands those spaces which we fill with earth, soil and river bed material (nalla muck) to ‘create’ land for illegal construction; houses, workshops, godowns and shopping complexes?
In the year 1846, the economy of the then-regime of the Dogra maharajas was mostly dependant on Nawai Kishtee (tax on boats), Mahal Singhara (tax on chestnuts), Mir Bahri (tax on vegetables and Dal produce) and a tax on fishermen. Though the system was oppressive, the centrality of these taxes also indicates the importance and richness of our water bodies and wetlands. Kashmir, being a beautiful Himalayan Valley, has magnificent lakes, rivers, wetlands, canals, streams and nallas and kuols. Srinagar city was once famous for its water bodies, their products and a water transport system.
Our wetlands form a safe habitat for domestic as well as migratory birds and wildlife. Millions of migratory birds visit our water bodies and wetlands during winters from across the globe, particularly from the Siberian region. The health and eco-system of these wetlands is determined annually by the number of such avian guests which visit them.
Wetlands are areas covered with or soaked in water for the whole or part of the year. They are the link between land and water and are some of the most productive eco-systems in the world. Wetlands provide safe habitats for a variety of wildlife and plants. They clean, filter and store water, especially during heavy rains when streams and rivers have a heavy discharge of water and wetlands accept this heavy flow, even during floods, and release the same when the water level decreases in rivers. Wetlands act as vegetative factories and also release vegetative matter into rivers and lakes, which becomes food for fish and other water organisms.
Many countries in the world construct artificial wetlands as a water management tool as it has an important role in the environment and maintaining the eco-system. Temperature and humidity of the areas depend on the location and size of the wetlands and the water bodies. Fish and other water organisms are more dependent on a wetland eco-system than any other type of habitat.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is focusing on these wetlands due to the high number of species present in them, which are important constituents of a rich biodiversity and responsible for maintaining a safe eco-system. The loss of biodiversity occurs in wetland systems due to change in land-use, habitat destruction, increasing population and exploitation of recourses. The wetlands also provide livelihood to millions of people who live in and around them; and these people need to be well educated on proper functioning of a natural wetland.
The function of a natural wetland is not to manage waste water from drains and treatment plants, but, unfortunately, all the waste water from the city of Srinagar or treated water from sewerage treatment plants is drained into water bodies. Wetlands are the kidneys of our water bodies, since they act just like that organ works in human bodies, and filter and treat pollutants in natural water bodies. A growing population and man-made development around wetlands – which is expected to grow immensely over the next 50 years — is a major threat to water bodies in general and wetlands in particular.
Unfortunately, the wetlands of Kashmir, be it the famous Hokar Sar, Khushal Sar, Anchar Sar, Gill Sar, Pampore wetlands, or those in Shalbug, Mirgund, Wular or Haigam Rak and Barinumbal, are now endangered and near extinction. Filling of earth in and around these water bodies to increase the land area for construction purposes is a phenomenon seen almost everywhere in Srinagar. Wetlands, in short, have been devastated due to human greed.
Present day disturbances in the climate of Kashmir are also due to the inevitable extinction of these water bodies. The devastating flood in 2014, which rendered thousands homeless, millions jobless and badly affected our economy, was also due to the lack of respect and care we give to our water bodies and wetlands. The history of Kashmir is testimony to the fact that we had the world’s best flood management system in Srinagar because of the linking of our water bodies: be it our lakes, rivers, canals, streams and wetlands. But due to our greed, poor conservation and awful maintenance programs of our water bodies, we are witnessing such devastating results (such as floods, dry spells, scant snow in winter, ample rains in summer, hot days in winter and very high temperatures in summer).
Wetlands not only help us control and manage floods, maintain the water table, land stabilisation, water purification and the preservation of bio diversity but also give us an economic boost in the form of water produce, tourism and recreational sites. Human disturbances in the form of encroachment on water bodies and wetlands, filling them with earth to increase the land area, overgrazing in wetlands, disturbing the breeding ground of birds and plants are all a result of greed.
A common programme and effort is the need of the hour so we can follow a few simple steps for the conservation, preservation and development of wetlands and other water bodies, such as
1) Surveying and keeping inventories of wetlands.
2) Monitoring of wetland through satellites (e use of satellite imagery).
3) Educating the general masses.
4) Inducing environmental science in the curriculum from class 2 in schools.
5) Providing technical expertise to the government.
6) Conduct and facilitate field studies and experiments.
7) Proper planning and a conservation program of water bodies.
8) Restricting easy access to wetlands.
9) Proper notification and demarcation of wetlands.
10) Comprehensive master plan and blueprint of such areas.
11) Providing legal authority for protection.
12) Proper funding.
13) Creating green belts and buffer zones.
14) Planning, policing and public participation.
Celebrating some days or conducting seminars alone will not help. We need firm resolutions to safeguard these precious natural resources.
—The writer is a town planner