Wetlands across Kashmir valley shrinking at alarming pace

Wetlands in Kashmir are shrinking at an alarming pace due to unplanned urbanisation, siltation and lack of conservation measures by the state government, experts have said.
Wetlands act as flood absorption basins by retaining excess waters and are also referred as the Earth’s kidneys for helping absorb wastes like nitrogen and phosphorous.
Citing Kashmir “geomorphic setup”, an expert said in view of its flat topography, the Valley is highly vulnerable to flooding, but most wetlands, which acted as reservoirs of floodwaters, have lost their carrying capacity due to “haphazard urbanisation and encroachments.”
“Ironically, most wetlands and water bodies in Jhelum basin are gasping for breath due to both official and public apathy. The flood vulnerability of the Jhelum basin has been exacerbated during the last few decades as most of the wetlands in the river’s floodplains, which used to act as storage for the floodwaters, have been converted into agriculture land or built up,” said Prof Shakil Romshoo, head, department of earth sciences at the University of Kashmir.
According to experts, several important wetlands in the Jhelum floodplains like Hokarsar, Bemina, Narakara, Batamaloo numbal, Rakh-e-Arth, Anchar Lake and Gilsar are ruined due to rapid encroachment and urbanisation.
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 urbanisation 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,” Romshoo said.
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.
Elaborating, Romshoo said, during the 2014 floods, it was observed how residential colonies in the city, which had never flooded in the past, got inundated up-to 19 feet.
“This happened because of the loss and degradation of wetlands in Srinagar, including Hokarsar, Bemina, Narakara, Batamaloo numbal, Rakh-e-Arth, Anchar Lake and Gilsar,” he said.
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 Wullar Lake in Bandipora and its associated wetlands, which comprise an important habitat for migratory water birds within the Central Asian Flyway.
Wullar, 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 Wullar 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,” an expert said.
A study carried out by the department of earth sciences, University of Kashmir, states that Hokersar—a Ramsar site—has shrunk from 18.75 sq-km in 1969 to 12.8 sq-km at present. Its open water body has shrunk from 1.74 sq-km in 1969 to less than one sq-km at present.
The Haigam Wetland Conservation Reserve has also shrunk considerably mainly due to paddy cultivation.
“The silted and clogged wetlands in the Jhelum basin, if not de-silted expeditiously and adequately, would become a cause of a major flood in Kashmir in near future. There is a need to restore the natural drainage capacity of the Srinagar city to tackle the storm runoff and floodwaters as a part of the Srinagar Master Plan,” Romshoo said.
In 2017, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court treated an order of the Supreme Court as Public Interest Litigation on preservation of wetlands in the State.
Last month, the High Court issued notice to the union ministry of environment, forest and climate change after “impleading” it as a party in the PIL.
“The High Court has taken strong note of failure of the government to take measures for conservation of wetlands in the state. There are 1,230 wetlands identified in Kashmir, however, only four have been identified under the Ramsar Convention sites. The problem is compounded as there is not a single department to work for conservation of wetlands in the state. The HC has issued notice to the ministry of environment and climatic change to inform it on the issue of the constitution of a state wetland authority,” said amicus curiae of the PIL, advocate Nadeem Qadri.
Regional wildlife warden Kashmir, Rashid Naqash, said carrying capacity of various wetlands in Kashmir has been reduced due to anthropogenic and other reasons.
“Demarcation of notified wetlands in the state has been started. Conservation of wetlands can be started after we demarcate the wetlands. We are also rejuvenating flood mitigation of Hokersar wetland according to age-old alignment to increase its water holding capacity. But restoration of wetlands needs multi-disciplinary approach,” he said.