Wetlands of J&K | Importance, threats and conservation

Amit Sharma
Wetlands are lands where the water table is typically at or near the surface or the land is covered by shallow water and are in the process of shifting from terrestrial to aquatic eco-systems. Ramsar is the convention which deals with conservation of wetlands across the globe. India is a party to Ramsar convention.
As per Ramsar convention, ”Wetlands are areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six meters.” The Ramsar wetlands of India are dispersed across 18 States and cover 11,000 square kilometres, or roughly 10% of the nation’s total wetland area. At present, there are 75 Ramsar sites in India. Sundarbans is the largest Ramsar Site of India. Chilika Lake (Orissa) and Keoladeo National Park (Rajasthan) were recognized as the first Ramsar Sites of India. Uttar Pradesh has the most number of Ramsar Sites in India. Renuka Wetland in Himachal Pradesh is the smallest wetland of India. According to the ISRO’s National Wetland Inventory and Assessment (NWIA), India’s wetlands cover an area of roughly 1,52,600 square kilometres. Mission Sahbhagita was established by the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in 2022 with the goal of creating “a healthy and effectively managed network of 75 wetlands of national and international significance.” The 2023 theme for World Wetlands Day is ‘Wetland Restoration’ which highlights the urgent need to prioritize wetland restoration.
In accordance with the Ramsar convention, five wetlands in Jammu and Kashmir are considered to be of international significance. Shallabugh, Hygam, Surinsar-Mansar, Hokersar, and Wular Lake are among them. Out of these five, Shallabugh and Hygam have been added to the list in year 2022.
Shallabugh wetland
The 16 square km Shallabugh marsh is located inside the Ganderbal district. West of Anchar Lake, near the Sindh River’s delta, is where you’ll find the Shallabugh Wetland Conservation Reserve. As a result, Shallabugh’s reed beds and floating aquatic plants form the ideal home for 21 significant resident and migratory bird species. This generates the ideal semi-aquatic ecosystem. Many vulnerable and endangered species, such the Eastern imperial eagle, Yellow-eyed pigeon, and Wood snipe, are seen here, as well as extinct ones like the Steppe eagle, Pallas’ fish eagle, and Black-bellied tern.
Hygam wetland
The wetland is 40 kms from Srinagar and located in district Baramulla of Jammu & Kashmir on the flood plains of river Jhelum. It is located along the Central Asian Flyway, and every year, over 40,000 different species of migratory and resident birds are counted there. Common pochard, common carp, and Eurasian otter are among the mammals, amphibians, and fish that can be found in the marsh. It is also recognized as an Important Bird Area (IBA).
Hokersar wetland
This wetland is located in the south Srinagar. It is the only location where Kashmiri reed beds still exist and it also serves as a migration route for 68 species of waterfowl that originate in Siberia, China, Central Asia, and northern Europe, including the endangered White-eyed Pochard, the Large Egret, and Great Crested Grebe. Typha, Phragmites etc species, which range from shallow water to open water aquatic flora, are typical marshy vegetation complexes that are present.
Wular Lake
It is located in 40kms Northwest of Srinagar city. The Kashmir Valley’s hydrographic system benefits from Wular Lake’s function as a sizeable absorption basin for the annual floodwaters. Many migratory waterfowl species, including the Little Egret, Cattle Egret, Shoveler, Common Pochard, and Mallard, can be found in Wular Lake. Many terrestrial bird species observed around the lake are Short-toed Eagle, Little Cuckoo, Monal Pheasant and Himalayan Pied Woodpecker. Additionally, Wular Lake is a crucial fish habitat and provides roughly 60% of the Kashmir Valley’s fish harvest.
Surinsar-Mansar Wetland
It is located in Samba district of Jammu region. A semi-oval-shaped body of water, Mansar Lake has 86 Algal genera and 207 species, which support a diverse array of aquatic life, are at the middle of the shallow littoral zone, enabling the abundant growth of Macrophytes. Surinsar Lake is oval shaped. The lake’s banks are covered with a continuous strip of diverse macrophytic vegetation. Additionally, the lake is home to five different fish species. Numerous resident and migratory waterfowl species can be found in both lakes, as well as rare little freshwater medusa.
The ecological importance of these lakes to the ecosystem has been prominent. About two-thirds of the J&K fish catch comes from these wetlands, which are incredibly productive ecosystems. These wetlands are essential to the ecosystem of the watershed. Shallow water and abundant nutrients are the ideal conditions for the growth of organisms that form the base of the food chain and provide food for a variety of fish, amphibians, shellfish, and insects thus maintain ecological cycle in J&K. Wular lake wetland acts as permeable natural barriers that continuously collect and release floodwaters, rainwater, and surface water. Additionally, its vegetation reduces soil erosion and slows flood flows, resulting in lower flood heights. Wetlands’ microbes, plants, and fauna are involved in the global cycles of water, nitrogen, and sulphur and store carbon dioxide in their plant communities and soil rather than releasing it into the atmosphere which improves the environmental conditions of J&K. Surinsar-Mansar wetland is essential for travel, tourism, and the cultural and spiritual well-being of people. It provide habitat for animals and plants, and support a variety of life, including animals and species that is unique to this area. By eliminating or keeping inorganic nutrients, or by digesting organic wastes and lowering suspended nutrients, they contribute to improving the quality of water. Wetlands are frequently referred to as the “Kidneys of the Earth” for this purpose.
There are some threats to these wetlands which is present in different form at different levels which disrupts their ecosystem. It includes growing pollution. As they are unable to remove growing amounts of mercury, plastic, and other industrial pollutants, there are concerns that the problem of groundwater pollution is getting worst. The introduction of alien species for instance, the introduction of invasive plant species like Salvinia and water hyacinth has caused much native vegetation to go extinct. Urban wetlands are under more pressure as a result of unplanned urbanisation and broad encroachment of these sources of water.
Following the threats, Department of wildlife protection under J&K Government is responsible for the conservation of wetlands. Various initiatives have been taken by Government of India such as Amrit Dharohar Yojana, 2023, Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017, and National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems (NPCA) program 2015. There is urgent need to conserve the wetlands which is to be done with collaborative efforts of different stakeholders at their respective levels. Significant steps which can be taken are as
(i) Establishing an eco-development community in several districts. Therefore, it is possible to hold locals accountable for the preservation and management of these wetlands.
(ii) Minimizing the application of fertilizers and other chemicals in the fields surrounding wetlands.
(iii) Collaborative efforts of the government, researchers, and other stakeholders for setting priorities and making decisions and actively participating and engaging in extensive planning, leadership, funding, and restoration goals.
(iv) Environmental awareness initiative to guide the pollution prevention programme.
Thus, Wetlands are valuable habitats that have significant ecological, economic, and cultural significance. For the sake of both people and the ecosystem, wetlands must be preserved and restored. Wetlands are important, and by appreciating this, we can protect them and ensure a sustainable future for future generations. This will help us to achieve the target of India’s zero carbon emission by 2070.