By Parvaiz Bhat
Experts have recommended a number of measures for effective conservation of wetlands across Jammu and Kashmir which include involvement of society, strict control on encroachment and poaching, capacity building of the staff, increased and timely funding, maintenance of water regimes and besides other measures.
In a special issue of Buceros — a newsletter published by Environmental Information, Awareness, Capacity Building and Livelihood Programme (EIACP) which is a resource partner on Avian Ecology at Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and is sponsored by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change — issues facing the wetlands of Jammu and Kashmir have been broadly described by several subject experts who have given a number of recommendations for their effective management and conservation.
One of the key recommendations of the experts is about involving the society, especially nature-loving young people, for conservation of wetlands across Jammu & Kashmir. “Over the past few years, several birding clubs have come up in J&K, with hundreds of birdwatchers who are actively involved in birding. Besides bird watching, their active involvement in wetland conservation should be explored,” the experts have recommended.
Involving local community members in conservation exercises have already shown good results at one of Kashmir’s prime wetlands, Hokersar. Sajjid Faruk, wetland ranger at Hokersar, said that he and his other colleagues found the community knowledge quite useful for maintaining the water level and enhancing the water spread in the wetland for making it easy for the birds to land and forage in the wetland.
“The inputs of the local people were very useful. They shared their experiences about the network of canals in the wetland and told us how each of those canals differently influences the water-level in the wetland,” Faruk said. “When we analysed their information with the help of Google tools, it made a lot of sense to us and we straightway acted upon what the knowledgeable elderly people told us,” he added.
Hokersar is a famous waterfowl reserve and a wetland of international importance. According to Ramsar Sites Information Service, it is the pathway of 68 waterfowl species like large egret, great crested grebe, little cormorant, common shelduck, tufted duck and the endangered white-eyed pochard, visiting it from Siberia, China, Central Asia, and Northern Europe.
Recommending strict control on encroachments, the experts have observed in the Buceros report that the wetlands are threatened by continuous encroachment.
“Most wetlands are threatened with encroachment, which is largely at the behest of politically influential elements and land mafia. For example, Hokersar, which is surrounded by 10 villages, and located on an important (Srinagar-Baramulla) road and close to the Srinagar City, has over the years been subjected to slow encroachment. Fortunately, the Wildlife Department has taken concrete steps to demarcate the wetland boundaries and made several evictions. To control further encroachment, all wetlands should be demarcated properly,” the report says.
A NASA report has also revealed recently that Wular Lake, an ecologically crucial lake for Kashmir, has witnessed large reduction in size due to land conversions and deforestation in recent decades. This not only poses a threat of repeated flooding in Kashmir, but will negatively influence livelihood generation and availability of water for the communities, the NASA report said.
“Some of the bright green area on the eastern side of Wular Lake used to be open water. Nutrient-rich sediment and aquatic vegetation have filled in parts of the lake and contributed to its shrinking in recent decades,” the NASA report further said and added: “In a 2022 study, researchers in India—using data from the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) LISS-IV instrument—found that Wular Lake’s open water area had shrunk in size by about one-quarter between 2008 and 2019.”
In a detailed study of the lake, Wetlands International, a Netherlands-based not-for-profit that works to sustain and restore wetlands globally, had also revealed earlier that there was a 45 percent reduction in the lake area mainly because parts of the lake were converted for agriculture and willow tree plantations.
Wular Lake is crucial for saving Kashmir from floods. In recent years, Kashmir valley has witnessed repeated flood like situations following the devastating 2014 flooding. The lake is also important for livelihoods of people. “When I was young, this lake looked like a sea,” said Abdul Subhan Dar, an elderly villager living near Wular Lake.
“But, today, many of its areas have become very shallow while some have become playing-fields for children and grazing grounds for cattle,” Dar said and added that there is also considerable reduction in quantity of fish and fodder in the lake as compared to a few decades back. As per an estimate of Wular Conservation and Management Authority (WUCMA), Wular Lake has lost one-fifth of its water-holding capacity in three decades which is equivalent to an annual lake sedimentation rate of 2,470 acre feet.
The experts have also expressed concern about rampant poaching in the Buceros report and have recommended: “Poaching may be under control inside the protected wetlands, but continues to be rampant outside the protected wetland boundaries in adjacent paddy fields, and unprotected marshes and wetlands, which are foraging sites of waterfowl. Poaching can be controlled by a) ensuring conviction of and exemplary punishment to the poachers, b) banning the issuance of licenses for large fire-arms (rifles, and ‘sport’ and punt guns) in the name of ‘self-defence’ (instead, licences should be given for pistols in such cases), c) controlling the sale of certain cartridges used for poaching, d) training and capacity building of the wildlife staff to lodge complaints that can stand the scrutiny of the court, e) sensitizing the local communities and judiciary about the ecological values of wetlands and water-birds, f) recognising services rendered by the frontline staff by the institution and rewards for the staff members who show exemplary performance in controlling poaching, g) involving local youths in tourism and related activities, and h) involving religious leaders and organizations to raise awareness on conservation.”
According to the experts’ report in Buceros, while present management of J&K’s water bodies “is in good, technically sound hands, quite often the lack of resources and occasionally administrative apathy lead to several loopholes.”
The report further says: “Financial support required by these agencies, particularly, the Forest and Wildlife Departments, to meet the increasing demands of conservation and development of the water bodies under their administrative control, has not been up to the mark.” The experts have made several other recommendations for efficient protection of the J&K’s wetlands which include, as follows:
About the capacity building of the staff, the experts have advised: “Wildlife guards and watchmen play a vital role in implementing conservation measures in the field. Unfortunately, their role is often overlooked and thus, attention should be given to their capacity building and training. While most personnel are dedicated to their work, providing regular motivation is crucial. Further, a system should be developed to expose the field staff to conservation efforts being implemented in other states, by arranging visits to wetlands, such as Keoladeo and Sultanpur national parks. Such visits can demonstrate the positive impacts of effective poaching control, and make the staff appreciate the benefits of conservation efforts. Capacity building of wildlife guards and watchmen will eventually enhance their contribution to wildlife conservation in their respective areas.”
According to the experts, the funding should be increased for conservation work and should be released in a timely manner: “Wetland management and development is not possible without liberal financial support. The amounts allocated in J&K for wetland conservation are too meagre to cater to the actual conservation requirements. Therefore, there is an urgent need to enhance the fundings from multiple resources. Management interventions required in a wetland are often season-specific and time-barred. For example, desilting and de-weeding operations cannot be launched in peak summers when the water level in the wetlands is extremely high, or in winters, when migratory birds are visiting. This leaves a small window for conducting such operations, and if sufficient funds are not provided on-time, implementation of suitable conservation efforts are delayed.”
Natural water regimes should be studied scientifically, the experts have recommended: “The natural water regime of all the wetlands should be scientifically studied and then proper measures should be undertaken for its restoration/maintenance. As was observed in the case of Hokersar, a mistake by the Flood and Irrigation Department (in what was otherwise a well-planned intervention to prevent floods) partially dried up wetlands, which had to be subsequently restored by timely efforts of the Wildlife Department. Thus, experts from all fields, including hydrology, landscape ecology, wetland ecology, and development planning, should be involved, along with ornithologists and biologists to develop shortterm and long-term conservation plans. Particularly, a strict monitoring protocol should be developed for every wetland. Further, external agencies, such as Wetlands International South Asia (WISA) or BNHS, should be roped in to independently assess the health of the wetlands in J&K.”
The experts have further recommended: “Effective environmental awareness campaigns should be initiated in schools, colleges, and villages around each wetland. Notably, several villagers living adjoining the wetlands have never visited the wetlands as all they know is that the wetlands are protected areas with entry restricted for villagers. Consequently, they are completely disconnected with the wetland, birds, or ground staff. Nonetheless, the association can be strengthened by environmental awareness programmes implemented by local NGOs. However, local and national NGOs need governmental support. Although a slow process, changing the attitude of people is required.”
According to the experts, the wetlands need to be studied and monitored on long-term to find out the scientific solutions for their degradation: “J&K boasts several reputed universities and institutions. To study each wetland more comprehensively, both short-term and long-term research studies should be initiated in collaboration with the universities, local organizations, and national NGOs. The following are some of the potential research topics that can be considered: a) Long-term monitoring of waterfowl populations, b) migratory movements through ringing, banding, and telemetry, c) local movement of migratory duck/ geese during winter, d) habitat selection by resident and migratory waterfowl, e) breeding ecology of Mallard Anas platyrhynchos and other waterfowl, and f) behavioural changes at different protection levels/ regime. SKUAST-Kashmir has already conducted extensive research on most of these topics, thus, laying a strong foundation that can be further reinforced.”
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