August 2004 News

Kashmir wetlands may vanish in seven years

5 August 2004
News Network International

Baramulla: In the past 50 years, two-thirds of Kashmir's wetlands have vanished. So says a billboard outside Haigam conservation reserve, a premier wetland in the Baramulla district of Jammu and Kashmir that is plagued by massive silting and encroachment. Silt has reduced the Haigam wetland to almost half its original area of 7.25 sq km. 'Five decades earlier, water levels in Haigam were over 10 feet but now the maximum depth is two and a half feet,' says Ali Mohammad Mir, 73, a former wildlife guard who has been witness to the decline of the wetland and blames official apathy for it, reports IANS. Environmentalists too warn that wetlands in Kashmir are rapidly shrinking due to official apathy and rampant encroachment, endangering thousands of animals and migratory birds. The state boasts of 16 wetlands, nine of them in Kashmir Valley. Experts predict these will vanish in around seven years if the authorities continue to neglect them. The Hokersar wetland, situated 16 km north of Srinagar, has also shrunk to 4.5 sq km compared to its original area of 13.75 sq km. Hokersar hosted 450,000 migratory birds last winter, but wildlife experts caution that the number of winged visitors has been steadily declining. Worse, a large number of satellite wetlands found in areas adjourning bigger water bodies have completely vanished due to rampant urbanisation and encroachment. Says Haneefa Banoo, a scientist with the environment and remote sensing department 'In 1998 we spotted 500 lakes and water bodies in the valley. The number must have decreased in the past four years.' Wildlife expert Muhammad Shafi Baccha says 'Human folly has spelt doom for the wetlands. The damage can be arrested if officials and citizens take initiative.' Baccha says the diversion of flood channels to wetlands has caused them to dry up. For instance, an initiative to siphon water from the Doodhganga canal into the Hokersar wetland to prevent heavy flooding in Srinagar city turned out to be a disaster. Over the years, the canal has deposited thousands of tonnes of silt into the wetland. Many say that though government departments have funds, they lack coordination in implementing programmes to manage wetlands. Last year Rs.3.2 million was spent under the National Wetland Management Action Plan funded by the central ministry of environment and forests. 'Last year we reclaimed hundreds of hectares in Haigam that had been encroached upon by locals for paddy cultivation,' says Mushtaq Ahmad Parsa, head of the north Kashmir chapter for wildlife preservation. A public interest petition in the state high court has also helped retrieve wetlands that were encroached upon way back in 1981. Encroachment is affecting other water bodies as well. In Wullar Lake, which is a world heritage site, thousands of hectares of encroached land has been identified, according to the environment and remote sensing department's Shahniyaz Naqshbandi. Shrinking wetlands have affected the behaviour of water birds. Cormorants, which thronged these wetlands in the past, have gone down in number because of shallow water. Says assistant wildlife warden Muhammad Ramzan Dar, 'The winged visitors have become more sensitive. They abandon the wetland over the slightest provocation, unlike in the past when even booming hunter guns did not scare them.' The wildlife protection department is embarking on a massive de-silting and de- weeding campaign to regain the wetlands. The forests and environment ministry has approved Rs.5 million for the purchase of equipment to facilitate manual de-weeding in Hokersar wetland. Similar experiments are being undertaken in the Haigam and Mirgund wetlands. The wetland preservation campaign seems to be gaining popularity among the public as well. Says Khazir Muhammad Kotroo, the member of an NGO 'We are ready to offer voluntary services for preservation, but the government must take the initiative in such efforts.'  


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