SHEIKH UMAR AHMAD
Kashmir is gifted with immense natural resources that give it a paradise personification on earth. Being geographically small and fragile ecosystem, it balances its eco-stability through natural endowments it holds. Of late, Kashmir is marred by political and geo instability that had put its ecology at the nuke’s end. Among other natural resources, wetlands in Kashmir are the largest ecosystems sustaining Kashmir’s diverse flora and fauna, both native and migratory since times immemorial. But, in a very recent negative development, Kashmir wetlands are dying slow death owing to growing encroachments, pollution and a lackadaisical attitude of the administration. Wetlands being an important bio-link between land and water are some of the most productive eco-systems in the world providing safe habitats for a variety of wildlife and plants. These act as a natural rain water harvesting units cleaning, filtering and storing the water, especially during heavy rains when streams and rivers have a heavy discharge of water and accept this heavy flow, even during floods, and release the same when the water level decreases in rivers. Wetlands also act as biomass factories releasing the vegetative matter into rivers and lakes, which becomes food for fish and other water organisms but eutrophication is a serious problem that has decreased the biological oxygen demand of water in these, thereby adversely impacting and decreasing biodiversity.
Artificial wetlands as a water management tool are used world over regulating the water traffic 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 resources. 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 urban sewerage of Kashmir is destined to these wetlands, thus decreasing the water retaining capacity of these ecosystems that negatively impact their potential as important flood channel.
Wetlands are the kidneys of our water bodies, since they act as filtration plants 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. The total area of 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. We have lost 22 wetlands to urbanization within and in the vicinity of Srinagar city alone, since 1970.
Wherever there is a need of land for infrastructure development, wetlands are the first choice. The impervious concrete surfaces in the southern areas of the Srinagar city, due to urban sprawl, have increased from 34 percent in 1992 to more than 65 percent at present, severely affecting the hydrological processes in the Jhelum basin. The hydrological functionality of the existing wetlands is adversely affected due to the encroachments, siltation and depleting stream flows under the changing climate, according to experts. 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 Wular Lake in Bandipora and its associated wetlands, which comprise an important habitat for migratory water birds within the Central Asian Flyway. Wular, the largest natural floodwater storage in the Jhelum basin, has significantly shrunk during the last 100 years. The open water surface has shrunk from 90 sq-km in 1911 to less than 15 sq-km in 2013. Due to shrinking and siltation of Wular and other water bodies along Jhelum river, the floodwater storage potential of the wetlands in the Jhelum basin has significantly reduced during the last few decades.
Unfortunately, the all important wetlands of Kashmir are now endangered and nearing extinction and if steps are not taken at first place, we will lose them in another couple of decades from now. 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 and other associated wetland areas engrossing the world’s attention to restore these natural filtration plants. The history of Kashmir is testimony to the fact that we had the world’s best flood management system in Kashmir because of the linking of our water bodies. But, due to our greed, poor conservation and awful maintenance programs of our water bodies, we are witnessing such devastating results as floods, dry spells, scant snow in winter, ample rains in summer, hot days in winter and very high temperatures in summer which is a very disturbing trend to follow.
Wetlands not only help us control and manage floods, maintain the water table, land stabilization, 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.
P.S: As responsible citizens, we need to protect our important natural resources for our own survival and to sustain them for the future generations, maintaining that ecological repertoire of resources. The administration at the helm needs to act now to curb this menace of encroachment in and around these wetlands to prevent pollution, overgrazing and give a serious thought for their protection.
—The author is pursuing a Doctorate in Biotechnology and is currently working as DST INSPIRE FELLOW at CSIR – Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine Canal road, Jammu, (J&K). He can be reached at: [email protected]