By: Suria Hamid
Wetlands are among the prized bounties nature has blessed Kashmir with. They play a crucial role in stabilising and sustaining the ecology. But our apathy towards conservation means that the valley’s wetlands are fast disappearing.
Kashmir has around 450 wetlands but only nine are notified and protected. They are Hokersar (13.75 sq km), Narkara (3.25 sq km), Manibugh (4.50 sq km), Chatlam (0.25 sq km), Mirgund (4 sq km), Shallabugh (16 sq km), Hygam (7.25 sq km), Malgam (4.50 sq km) and Ajus (1 sq km).
Hokersar and the Wular lake are Ramsar sites under the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. Because of its enormous biodiversity value, the Wular has also been designated as an eco-tourism destination.
The Ramsar Convention emphasises the conservation and wise use of wetland ecosystems that are crucial for biological diversity and human communities. It also encourages international cooperation and access to expert advice on problems related to the conservation and management of wetlands.
In Kashmir, as elsewhere, wetlands act as flood absorption basins and filtration bodies of nature, noted Abdul Rouf Zargar, Wildlife Warden Wetlands. They store excess water and discharge it slowly and steadily.
“At Shallabugh in September we make bunds to retain water. In March, when there is scarcity, we unplug the bunds to release the water for the human habitations and vegetation surrounding it,” Zargar explained.
“Wetlands purify the water which is then used for drinking and agricultural purposes. Wetlands also attract migratory birds as they are rich in flora and fauna. And this is the secondary use of our wetlands.”
In addition, wetlands offer aesthetic, tourism and commercial value. They provide sustenance to people and help in carbon sequestration, that is, they act as natural carbon sinks.
Yet, Kashmir has not done a good job conserving its wetlands.
Sheikh Ghulam Rasool, founder of the J&K Right to Information Movement, who has helped make public crucial information about conservation, said apart from their several other benefits, wetlands have long been a key source of income for people living near them. Indeed, he pointed out, until about 30 years ago, most people living near wetlands used to be fisherfolk, who depended almost entirely on wetland shores and aquatic life for their livelihoods.
In the past three decades, however, most of Kashmir’s wetlands have either vanished or shrunk and become polluted, said Ghulam Rasool. By way of example, he pointed to the condition of Srinagar’s Anchar lake, which is connected to the Dal lake via Nallah Amir Khan as well as to the Shallabugh wetland.
His point was supported by a resident of Nageen area near the Anchar lake. “We filled up this part of Anchar and built our homes. They said it was no problem. Now there are 20-30 families living here. All the waste from the locality is thrown into Anchar and biomedical waste from SKIMS goes into it as well. All this waste reaches Shallabugh. Migratory birds eat it and die. All the plants, fish, summer birds are badly affected.”
Ghulam Rasool also pointed out that the government filled up the Narkore wetland to settle the Dal dwellers, but because it failed to provide them livelihood opportunities, many have been reluctant to stay there. Arguably then it was a costly decision from the ecological point of view.
Another factor that has damaged Kashmir’s wetlands is “irresponsible tourism”. Because the state’s tourism sector is largely corporate-driven and not eco-friendly, more tourists have been coming to the valley than the capacity of its infrastructure and fragile ecology.
One solution to this problem may be encouraging rural tourism which is community-driven. And of course the state and the society need to think about the ecological and sociocultural costs of tourism and not merely the money it brings in.
The deployment of Indian troops in fragile ecosystems like glaciers and mountains and the carbon footprint of their infrastructure and activities – vehicles, 11 firing ranges across the valley, cross border firing – have taken a heavy toll on the environment as well.
The society hasn’t helped matters either, having adopted ecologically destructive lifestyles, particularly in the last few decades, not least the increasing reliance on vehicles run on fossil fuels. Similarly, wetlands act as kidneys of nature but their connectivity to rivers and lakes has been broken up by the construction of houses on or the filling up of inward water channels.
All is not lost, though. We need to take a series of steps to revive and conserve our wetlands. They include:
• Desilting and dredging them.
• Preventing pollution by setting up proper waste treatment systems.
• Banning plastic.
• Regulating sand mining and the use of pesticides.
• Demarcating the boundaries of water bodies and wetlands.
• Removing encroachments.
• Increasing afforestation.
• Promoting organic farming.