The two Union Territories of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir State have about three-thousand six-hundred and fifty-one big and small wetlands spread across all twenty-two districts of both J&K and Ladakh. Of these wetlands, four are of international importance and of greater importance than those in all other Indian states and Union Territories. Among these four wetlands three are in J&K and one in Ladakh. Of the three located in J&K, two wetlands including Hokersar and Wular Lake are in Kashmir valley. Both have been declared as Ramsar sites by the Ramsar convention on wetlands.
Ramsar convention is an intergovernmental environment treaty established in year 1971 by UNESCO. It provides for national action and international cooperation on conservation of wetlands and wise sustainable use of their resources. Ramsar identifies wetlands of international importance especially those providing waterfowl habitat.
For years, Hokersar and Wular Lake have been an attraction for tourists from across the world. At the same time, they support livelihood of local communities in multiple ways, such as fishing, farming, and jobs related to tourism. These water bodies also provide safe habitats to lakhs of migratory and endangered birds during their annual migration from various parts of the world and these sites also provide safe refuge to native vegetation and wild animals. Unfortunately, both these Ramsar sites are declining due to gradual siltation, steady encroachment, increasing pollution and lack of conservation measures by the government.
The World Wetlands Day is observed every year on 2nd of February and this is high time to start worrying about the state of these two Ramsar sites in Kashmir valley. The conservation challenges, if left unattended, could sound the death knell for these wetlands of international significance. Let’s take a look at the health of the ecosystem and conservation challenges in the Hokersar and Wular Wetlands.
Shrinking Hokersar Lake
Hokersar Lake, which is also known as “Queen of all wetlands of Kashmir”, was recognised as a Ramsar site in 2005 but is shrinking at an alarming speed. It is situated about 10 km north of Srinagar. The Hokersar Wetland comprises a lake and a marshy area and is spread over an area of more than 7.6 square kilometres. It attracts migratory birds from various parts of the world. More than seven-thousand households are dependent on it as people fetch grass and other useful material from the wetland. Tens of thousands of different species of birds, including ducks and geese like tufted duck and graylag goose visit this wetland every year. Most of these birds move temporarily from various central Asian destinations and Siberia to breed here.
This “protected” is facing threat from massive encroachments and the authorities in the Union Territory are still drawing up plans to preserve the wetland for many years. According to the official figures, the wetland has been subjected to encroachment in over 208.6 acres (1,669 kanals) in the past 25 years. Experts claim that owing to heavy turbidity, several varieties of fish have vanished from the wetland and its size has shrunk from 18.75 square km to 12.7 square km. The wetland received tonnes of silt through its various tributaries during the 2014 Kashmir floods which has badly affected its ecosystem. From officials to common people, everybody is guilty of encroachment and this has decreased the number of migratory birds who used to visit from as far away as Siberia, Europe, China, Philippines and Kazakhstan between September and April annually. Siltation increases pollution load which adversely affects the aquatic life in the wetland, and causes eutrophication (excess of dissolved nutrients that stimulate the growth of aquatic plant life, usually leading to oxygen depletion) which eventually leads to a decline in the number of fishes. Besides, it also results in weed infestation which impacts the growth of hydrophytic plants, on which the migratory birds feed. Unfortunately no progress has taken place for its conservation despite mounting public concerns, claims of government action, and judicial intervention.
Owing to the water shortage in the wetland, tens and thousands of migratory birds are dying every day. If the higher authorities do not take immediate action regarding the worsening condition of the wetland, then the day is not far when people will have to say “Hokersar Wetland was”. After the September 2014 floods, authorities have not done anything to improve the deteriorated condition of this ecosystem. No doubt, dredging was started to remove the silt but it has failed to deliver results. Negligence of authorities has pushed the Hokersar wetland on the brink of extinction.
Dying Wular Lake
Wular Lake was once known as the largest freshwater lake in Asia. It is shrinking day by day and in my opinion it is no longer the largest freshwater lake in Asia. Wular Lake lies 40 km to the northwest of Srinagar. It plays a significant role in the hydrographic system of Kashmir Valley by acting as huge absorption basin for annual floodwater. The lake and its surrounding extensive marshes have rich natural wildlife. The rivers Bohnar, Madamati and Erin from the mountain ranges and the rivers Vetasta (Jhelum) and the Ningal from the south bring hundreds of tonnes of silt into the lake every year. This rampant siltation and human encroachments have had devastating effects on the lake. In recognition of its biological, hydrological and socio-economic values, the lake was included in 1986 as a Wetland of National Importance under the Wetlands Programme of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, for intensive conservation and management purposes. Subsequently in 1990, it was designated as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.
Wular Lake is a sustainable wintering site for a number of migratory waterfowl species such as Little Egzet, Cattle Egzet, Shoveler, Common Pochard and Mallard. Birds like Marbled Teal and Pallas´s Fish-eagle are species listened in the Red List of IUCN. Many terrestrial bird species observed around the lake are Short-toed Eagle, Little Cuckoo, European Hoopoe, Monal Pheasant and Himalayan Pied Woodpecker. Wular Lake is also an important habitat for fish and contributes about 60 percent of the fish yield of Kashmir Valley. The dominant fish species found in the lake are: Cyprinus carpio, Barbus conchonius, Gambusia affinis, Nemacheilus sp., Crossocheilus latius, Schizothorax curvifrons, S. esocinus, S. planifrons, S. micropogon, S. longipinus and S. niger. More than 8,000 fishermen earn their livelihood from Wular Lake. Increasing pollution from fertilisers and animal as well as human waste, the conversion of vast catchment into agriculture land, the hunting pressure on waterfowl and migratory birds, and the dumping of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) on the banks of Wular Lake are the biggest challenges which this wetland faces.
Importance of Wetlands
Wetlands have in many cases made human civilisation possible. Human beings have traditionally benefited from the crucial role of wetlands in agriculture. Bird dropping and sedimentation have brought fertility to the soil. It is the habitat of freshwater water and the fish themselves are an abundant food source. Grasses and reeds are used for weaving baskets and mats.
As freshwater becomes an increasingly rare source, it is important that we preserve these wetlands because they help river systems and recharge groundwater and also help at times of floods. The consequences of their destruction will be nothing short of disastrous. What is needed is the will of people to protect these valuable landscapes. Wake up before it is too late.
—The writer is pursuing master’s in Chemistry at Kashmir University. [email protected]