World Wetlands Day is celebrated on 2nd of February every year to commemorate the day on which the Convention on Wetlands was adopted in the year 1971. The main purpose of celebrating this day is to promote the conservation and wise use of wetlands. Just as forests are called the ‘lungs of the earth’, wetlands are the ‘kidneys’ that regulate water and filter waste from the landscape. They provide tremendous ecosystem services such as fresh water supply, regulation of regional climate, flood control, harbouring biodiversity, and providing refuge to many important migratory birds.
Wetlands play a major role in the livelihoods of local people as well. A wealth of natural products is produced in wetlands. The rootstocks of lotus plant locally known as ‘Nadru’ which grows extensively in the water bodies of Kashmir valley are harvested in wetlands. Besides this, water chestnut (Trapa natans) locally known as ‘Gaer’ extracted from the freshwater wetlands of valley are a means of subsistence for many people. Importance of water chestnut in Kashmir dates back to times of Sir Walter Lawrence when the main crop of the valley was destroyed due to floods in 1893. It was the flour of water chestnut that saved people from starvation. Traditional reed mats, locally called ‘Wagoow’, made from the wild vegetation that grows on the wetlands of Kashmir valley have been a source of livelihood for many people associated with the craft.
Public awareness is an important factor in saving wetlands of Kashmir. Let us celebrate this day by understanding the various local factors that are contributing to ecological disturbances in the wetlands of Kashmir valley.
At present, the wetland ecosystems of valley including Dal Lake, Anchar, Wular, Haigam, Shallabugh, Narkara and Hokersar are under tremendous stress due to massive land use changes and large-scale encroachments. The gradual squeezing of these wetlands is affecting their buffering capacity to withhold flood waters and storm-water runoff. This was witnessed during the 2014 floods when residential areas on the outskirts of Srinagar, which used to be traditional floodplains, were inundated for more than three weeks. Srinagar city often gets affected during incessant precipitation events as the drainage channels that used to drain out storm-water runoff have mostly been taken over by concrete surfaces. As a result, urban water-logging has become a growing menace.
Nowadays, wetlands in Kashmir are being treated as wastelands and are being used for construction whenever land is needed. The ‘queen wetland of Kashmir’, Hokersar, has lost 5.75 sq km of area during the last four decades. Experts say that the open waters of the wetland have been colonised by weeds and other aquatic vegetation. Owing to the increased silt load, encroachments and unplanned urbanisation, Hokersar is on the brink of extinction as per various environmentalists. The siltation of wetlands in Srinagar is of prime concern and should be looked into by the policy-makers so as to restore their original water-holding capacities, thereby reducing the vulnerability to floods. Besides this, robust management strategies must be adopted for conservation and protection of wetland ecosystems in the valley to ensure sustainable socio-economic and ecological benefits.
Wetlands are nature’s gift to humanity and we must realise their importance before it is too late. Let us all pledge to prevent heedless human intervention or else the wetland ecosystems will keep ailing.
—The writer has a Master’s in Environmental Science from Kashmir University. She teaches at Kashmir Harvard Higher Secondary Institute, Habak Naseem Bagh Srinagar. [email protected]