Dr Tina Bhat
The unique climatic conditions of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir support numerous wetlands. These wetlands offer socio-economic and ecosystem services in the form of water supply, commercial fisheries, agriculture, energy resource, wildlife habitat, recreation, tourism, cultural heritage, water purification, flood control ,water supply, environment restoration etc.
Indeed, the most parts of the region are entirely dependent on wetlands for food, domestic, agricultural and industrial requirements. They also serve as a means of livelihood for rural population and are greatly valued by many cultures. The term “wetland” is composed of two independent words namely ‘wet’ and ‘land’ which primarily gives the idea of a land absorbed with water and supporting a great variety of flora and fauna.
The wetland world encompasses all areas with water covered periodically, seasonally, or on a permanent basis such as flood prone areas located near river banks, rice paddies, swamps or lakes. The wetlands can also be explained as land transitional between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem where the water table is usually at or near the surface or the land is covered by shallow water.
Further, wetlands facilitate in regulating global climate change through sequestering and releasing a major portion of fixed carbon in biosphere. These wetlands also play a pivotal role in resolving the water crises worldwide. One of the most important benefits that wetlands provide is their capacity to maintain and improve water quality. Accordingly, healthy wetlands have a rich natural diversity of plants and animals that act as filtering systems, removing sediment and pollutants from water. However, the role of wetlands to sustain and improve water quality is under threat due to excessive human interface having a significant impact on water flows, nutrient balance and biodiversity.
Kashmir popularly known as Paradise on Earth for its beauty is replete with diverse types of fresh water bodies and bestowed with large number of impressive wetlands like Haigam Rakh, Mirgund, Shalbug etc. These wetlands not only help in decreasing the probability of floods but are extremely useful in removing pollutants from water, protect shorelines, habitat for wildlife etc. Sadly, the famous wetlands of the valley including Dal Lake, Anchar, Wular, Haigam, Malgam, Hokersar and Kranchu lakes etc. face a serious threat from anthropogenic activities like increasing human settlements, urbanization, siltation, expansion of agricultural fields and the expansion of roads. The major wetlands of Jammu and Kashmir include:
Hokersar: The Hokersar wetland in Kashmir popularly known as the “Queen of Wetlands’ was recently in news for being on the brink of extinction due to encroachment activities. This wetland is filled with the migratory birds who prey on fish and insects in this protected territory. Hokersar is an important shelter for migratory species during winters. Hokersar plays a vital role by performing as a flood controlling pools. Sadly, all kinds of waste generated by the people are dumped into this Wetland. Also, the encroachments result in the change of mud flats and grasslands into the agricultural lands thereby, dividing the habitat into small portions which affects the population of birds in the wetland. Furthermore, discarding domestic waste into the wetland has resulted in the excessive weed growth.
Gharana: Gharana wetland is located along the border in RS Pura tehsil of Jammu district about 30 kms from Jammu near Gharana village. Gharana wetland is a ‘Border Tourism Site’ nestled between the India-Pakistan. It has been the winter destination for Siberian birds. It is also known as “the bird- watchers’ paradise” The most of the inhabitants around Gharana belongs to economically poor section. Their main occupation is agriculture. The local residents bath and wash their cattle in the wetland water. The major problems faced by this wetland are dumping of solid waste, sewage etc. The use of fertilizers and manures in fields ultimately finds way to the wetlands and result in eutrophication. Further, fuel wood harvesting poses a greatest threat to the tree diversity of this wetland. Also, the woes of world famous Gharana wetland remained unaddressed even after numerous directions from the State.
Manibugh: Manibugh is situated near Pampore district of Kashmir and is the breeding ground and the meeting point of many birds. This wetland is identified as low water levels since they are surrounded by cultivation areas which wash organic and inorganic constituents in wetland.
Mirgund: Mirgund wetland of Kashmir is a shallow temporary wetland. Sukhnag and other adjacent channels are the rich source of fresh water supply used to irrigate the adjacent paddy fields. This wetland is extremely useful for harvesting grains and other livestock. Further, this wetland has not only fluvial type of fresh water origin but also promotes a rich aquatic culture. Regrettably, humanity is losing this pool to farming expansion.
Hygam: Hygam is one of the famous wetland areas in district Baramulla in Kashmir. Hygam Wetlands has dense settlements and the people in this area are dependent on fishery business. This wetland is of strategic significance for the national and international tourists for habiting rich source of natural beauty in the waters. The lush green grass under blue sky and waters with the snow capped mountains have an alluring impact on the tourists. Besides, Hygam wetlands have the rich source of aquatic culture attracting photographists.
Surinsar-Mansar: Mansar Lake is situated 62 km from Jammu. This wetland is revered through ages due to its religious importance and scenic beauty. It is rich in micronutrients which turns it an attractive habitat, breeding and nursery ground for migratory birds. The migratory breeding birds visiting this wetland during winters include Night Heron, Grey Heron, Indian Coot, Indian White Wagtail, Rufous Black Shrike etc. A number of trees like Pinus roxburgii, Acacia nilotica, Mangifera indica, Calotropis, Morus nigra, Solanum nigrum, Adhatoda vesica and ornamental plants like Vinca rosea, Bottle brush, Thevetia, Tradescantia etc. add to its beauty. However, illegal occupation of wetland areas by unauthorized persons has resulted in the shrinking of these wetlands. The water body is slowly poisoned by the use of pesticides in the surrounding farmland, direct influx of untreated sewage water and solid waste generated by eateries and hotels. The plastic bottles and polythene bags litter the lake at several places and fishes and freshwater turtles can be seen scavenging on the plastic waste.
Presently, the wetland ecosystems are under tremendous stress due to massive land system changes and infrastructure development, as well as intensification of agricultural and industrial activities. Henceforth, there is a growing voice that draws the attention of the Government leading to adoption of various policies and approaches for conservation, protection, and management of wetlands.
Therefore, devising safe and effective science-based and technologically sound strategies for by the state and territory Governments’ primary plays a vital responsibility for maintaining adequate quality wetlands with the support of jurisdiction-specific guidelines, regulations, policies, processes and standards. However, the various approaches to maintain and/or improving the quality of wetlands include: regulating high value wetlands through environmental assessment, legislation and processes to review potential developments, monitoring and assessment to determine whether the condition of wetlands is improving or declining, effective management such as on-farm nutrient management and salinity management aimed at reducing water quality pressures, rehabilitation and restoration of wetlands etc.
Significantly, therefore, the preservation of these wetlands calls for efforts by the UT Government and other stakeholders including local residents, researchers, academicians, NGO’s etc. in the following ways:
* Research and/ or academic fraternity can contribute significantly by raising awareness, capacity building events and activities encouraging the protection of these wetlands.
* The local residents also play a pivotal role in collecting and analysing data pertaining to the existing conditions of the wetlands and biodiversity supported by them.
* Setting up of eco-development community across different districts at state level. Thus, local residents can be held responsible for conservation and management of these unique biodiversity hotspots.
* The members of the community should develop a scientific acumen enabling them to counter the environmental challenges.
* Reducing the use of chemical argo chemicals/ fertilisers in the field around the wetlands.
* Further, Government interventions play a central role in building awareness in developing scientific citizenship behaviour for attaining sustainable success of wetlands.
* The Government should impose strict regulations and thus, local residents should be held liable for illegal practices i.e. filling, cleaning or disposing off wastes in the wetlands.
The Government should restore the encroached areas of wetlands.
Development of the appropriate forum responsible for resolving the conflicts on wetlands issue must be set up.
* The State Government must allocate appropriate funds towards the preservation of these wetlands.
* Restoration strategy calls for collaboration with the Government, researchers, and other stakeholders should set principles for establishing priorities and decision making for effective long term conservation strategy. Further, these restoration goals require intensive planning, leadership, funding and active involvement from all the stakeholders.
* Directing the Pollution Prevention Programme through environmental awareness programme.
On the basis of the foregoing discussion, it may be inferred that wetlands are among the most productive life support systems in the world and are of immense socio-economic and ecological importance to mankind. They are critical for the maintenance of biodiversity and perform a pivotal role in the biosphere. The wetlands are also termed as “Earth’s kidneys” as they provide almost similar functions of sustaining the balanced and healthy ecology by absorbing wastes and sustainable management of water and sanitation for humanity.
Dr Tina Bhat