“I really wonder what gives us the right to wreck this poor planet of ours.” – Kurt Vonnegut
Wetlands are among the most vulnerable and threated ecosystems. They provide us with a number of economic and ecological services including nutrient removal from water as well as carbon sink and ground water recharge. Wetlands regulate climate by apprehending and retaining carbon. They play an important role in the ecosystem as a rich storehouse of biodiversity. In view of the continuous human interference these sensitive ecosystems are under grave threat. In spite of tremendous benefits, human beings are continuously altering these delicate ecosystems due to unprecedented population growth and unchecked urbanisation. Untreated wastes are being directly dumped into them. Consequently, these land system changes have altered the trophic status of the wetlands.
The lakes and wetlands across Kashmir are giving alarming indications of disintegration. Other than acting as flood sinks, they undertake a crucial role in supporting the livelihood of nearby populace. Over the last two decades earth observation data along with remote sensing technology has been widely used to assess the land use and land cover changes in these ecosystems and their adjacent areas. This is being done to observe the change on these sensitive ecosystems due to continuous shifting land cover dynamics. Studies have suggested that in the last five decades there have been significant changes across Kashmir valley, which are evident in the areas around the wetlands.
In case of extension and improvement of the Srinagar city, the area of wetlands has declined rapidly. Srinagar has lost more than half of its wetlands just in the past two decades, principally to new ‘developed’ urban areas, mainly due to the lack of any land use guidelines for the region. Land Use Plan 2021 for Srinagar Metropolitan Area (accessible at http://www.sdasrinagar.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/land-use-map.jpg ) has failed to delineate ecologically sensitive zones in the vicinity of wetlands of Srinagar city and does not place any prohibition on construction of houses in the vicinity of wetlands.
Khushal Sar, an urban wetland, situated in the heart of Srinagar city has been a casualty of enormous anthropogenic interference which has degraded the socially significant ecosystem. The main cause of degradation of this wetland is the mammoth increment in home-grown sewage that channels into the wetland without treatment. The Department of Geoinformatics, University of Kashmir, had conducted a vital study on Khushal Sar. The study is an effort to assess land system changes in and around Khushal Sar wetland over 53 years, from 1965 to 2018. The study has been done using high-resolution aerial photographs, satellite data, ground observations and fragmentation model to look at how the natural landscapes have been eradicated due to land system changes in general and urban sprawl in particular. This study assumes importance in observation of the fact that the natural landscapes in Srinagar City have been taken over by impervious surfaces that have blocked the natural drainage.
The study is an effort to extensively review the changes of about 52 years from the year 1962 to 2018. The analysis of the land use land cover showed a 1600% expansion from 1980 to 2018 in built-up area inside the wetland. It is appropriate to specify that there was no development inside the wetland in the 1965 satellite information. Our investigation additionally demonstrated 600% expansion in the road network inside the wetland zone. The aquatic vegetation likewise demonstrated an expansion of 150% from 1965 and 2018. This examination additionally flagged that agricultural areas within the wetland have vanished. The outcome indicates that water spread, plantation and marshy areas have also decreased by 74%, 62%, and 33% respectively.
The study additionally demonstrated that Khushal Sar wetland lost ~ 17 ha from 1980 to 2018 to unlawful built-up that surfaced inside the wetland. The impromptu urbanisation and filling of Mar Canal have stifled the wetland. They have not just diminished the water holding limit of this wetland but additionally disrupted the hydrological network with other neighbouring water bodies, which was clear during the September 2014 floods when wetlands where severely inundated.
The irresponsible unplanned urban growth within and around the wetland has not only caused deterioration of the chemical quality of the water of the wetland but also made the peripheries of the wetland be used as dumping ground for solid waste. While the built-up is the predominant land use type covering 65% region of Khushal Sar, there is no sewage treatment plant for cleaning the home-grown sewage that empties legitimately into the wetland. The study also indicates that the production of lotus stem (cash crop) from the Khushal Sar wetland declined due to shrinkage in open water and propagation of exotic weeds.
Other than the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) set up in 1997 for lake and wetland protection, Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) and Srinagar Development Authority (SDA) are duty bound to ensure the sustainable urban development of the city environs. These three organisations have neglected their mandate to check encroachment of wetland zones. Unplanned urbanisation has come up both inside and around the wetland. Our investigation also showed decrease in water spread and increment in aquatic vegetation, which is characteristic of nutrient enrichment due to home-grown sewage from the nearby built-up area. The lack of sewage treatment facility is as much responsible for the degradation of the Khushal Sar wetland.
—The writer is a PhD scholar with the Department of Geoinformatics at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Kashmir. [email protected]. The study was conducted by the writer under the supervision of Dr Irfan Rashid and it has been published in the Journal of Environmental Monitoring and Assessment (12 September, 2020).