SRINAGAR: Making a mockery of the National Wetland Conservation Mission, a lack of eco-centric models is pushing the Khushar Sar – a lake converted into wetland on the fringes of Old City here – to the verge of extinction.
Thousands of gallons of untreated sewage are dumped each day into the wetland, turning its waters poisonous and leading to the extinction of natural vegetation, fish and other aquatic life, besides engulfing the neighbourhood with a foul stench. The lake has also put neighbouring residents at risk of life threatening diseases.
Nestled between Hawal and Zadibal areas, Khushal Sar is connected to another wetland, Gilsar, which receives waters from the Dal Lake. Both gradually flow into Anchar, which itself is connected with the Dal Lake through a waterway called the Nullah Aamir Khan.
Unregulated urbanisation along the wetland peripheries has resulted in encroachment of the wetland and shrunk it to no more than a few square kilometres. Ironically, no one owns the wetland, and authorities are shifting the blame for its condition from one department to another. The Srinagar Development Authority (SDA), the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) and the Lakes and Water Ways Development Authority (LAWDA), formed to look after water bodies, have all said it does not come under their domain.
“If one goes by the name and apparent functioning of the department, it should come under us,” said an official of LAWDA, “but our domain has been restricted to the Dal and Nigeen lakes only. Khushal Sar is no-man’s land.”
As per a survey by the Kashmir University Earth Sciences Department, there has been a nearly 40 percent decrease in the wetland’s size.
Spread over a sprawling 0.96 square kilometres, as of 1965, it is now a mere 0.6 square kilometres, a worrying sign for environmentalists, owing to its importance for biodiversity and climate change.
“These wetlands trap excess carbon dioxide and nitrogen from the atmosphere, thereby directly reducing chances of global warming. Degradation of these wetlands has visible consequences as we receive less snowfall and the normal cycle of the seasons has changed to some extent,” said Maqsood Ahmad, a PhD scholar at Kashmir University.
Experts say the water’s turbidity has increased manifold, affecting vegetation and aquatic life. The Nadru (lotus root), once the pride of the lake and a major source of livelihood for the lake’s vegetable growers, has vanished. “We used to extract and sell it for our livelihood but now nothing remains. Fish have also gone. Not even a single insect lives here,” said Mohammad Husain Wani, a local.
Every year, these wetlands attract lakhs of avian visitors that flock to Kashmir from parts of Siberia and Central Asia. Nearly 68 species of water fowls are believed to swarm here. Among the dozen-odd resting places for these winged guests, Khushal Sar once assumed paramount importance. More than six known plant species grow in these marshes, some of which serve as food for these birds, though a few others are believed to have a deleterious effect on the local biology. “The entire area used to be abuzz with a cacophony of sounds breaking the routine stillness in the early days of my youth, but there is only a deafening silence and a foul smell now,” said another local.
This wetland was the breeding ground for certain resident birds like Marsh Harrier, Purple Swamp Hen, Moorhen, Mallard Duck and Common Red Shank. All have moved to other spaces for lack of the vegetation which used to serve as their food.
Seventy-year-old Ghulam Mohammad Dar recalls the time when he would take his boat and row towards Eidgah and Ali Masjid to offer prayers. Now, as he laments, the entire area has been filled up and converted into residential colonies. “The land mafia, which is in a nexus with the administration, filled a major portion of the lake to turn it into colonies. No one questioned them,” he said.
He said one can easily spot these colonies on the peripheries of Khushal Sar around Zoonimar and Saidapora. Fidousiya Colony is a one such, created after filling a vast area of Khushal Sar. The mesmerising sight of tree lines and outstretched waters have been blocked by shining roof tops.
Kashmir University earth sciences department’s head of department Dr Shakil Romshoo, who has carried his research studies on water bodies in the Valley, explained the lake’s importance saying it is one of the urban wetlands that, just like sponges, soak all natural drainage. The fact that these wetlands were all linked made them an excellent means to divert water during floods, besides their helping in maintaining the ecological and hydrological balance.
“It is linked to Nigeen Lake along with Gilsar Lake via Nalamar canal. So almost all the water bodies were linked together and in case of emergency or excess water in the major water bodies, they would house all extra water,” he said.
LAWDA public awareness officer Tariq Malik revealed that the High Court has issued directives for the preservation and conservation of Khusar Sar and other wet lands. “We are going to do a survey on Kushar Sar and then we can formulate planning how to conserve and preserve it.”
When asked about land encroachment on Khushar Sar, he said, “We cannot say anything at this moment as we are working under the directions of the High Court. It will take some time to come up with statistics and data, and then we can take proper action.”