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Changed Wullar a flood threat

Encroachments and siltation of the largest fresh water lake in India, and the government apathy is threatening a major flood in Kashmir. Haroon Mirani reports.

Srinagar, Nov 10, 2011:

Encroachments and siltation of Wullar, one of the largest freshwater lakes in South Asia, may result in a major flood in Kashmir.

During the past few decades, the lake has lost 88 percent of its surface area due to unabated encroachments and siltation.

According to the National Wetland Atlas, during this period Wullar shrunk from 200 sq km to 24 sq km.

As Wullar is the only drainage for all rivers and lakes of the valley, the clogged lake could become a cause of a major flood in Kashmir.

In the past, the lake acted as a huge absorption basin for annual floodwater and retained enough water to thwart the possibility of a major flood.

The government planted around 2 million trees to avoid flooding of nearby northern Kashmir areas of Bandipora and Baramulla.

Greater Kashmir, a local English daily published from Srinagar, reported that 592 hectares of land from Bandipora side of the lake had been encroached upon.

“Of this encroached land, 206 hectares are under illegal occupation of government departments,” the newspaper reported. “Around 92 illegal constructions have been raised over the encroached land.”

The government-sponsored programmes of the agriculture department also drained wetlands in Sonawari area of Bandipora.

In addition to the government apathy, locals also have been responsible for the unabated encroachment over the lake.

According to Wetland International South Asia’s Comprehensive Management Action Plan (CMAP) for Wullar, the lake area was reduced by 45 percent mainly due to conversion for agriculture (28 percent) and plantation (17 percent).

Further associated marshes were reduced by 70 percent due to conversions into agriculture and housing.

“For stopping floods, measures were undertaken without considering the connectivity of wetlands,” CMAP reported. “No thought was given to understand the role Wullar played in drainage and retaining water.”

An official of the government’s irrigation department, who is not authorised to talk to the media, said Wullar now could not modulate floods, creating a dangerous situation in the valley.

“As its absorption basin is decreasing, any increase in the water level of the Wullar will trigger simultaneous increase in upstream water level of rivers and lakes, threatening every town and district including Srinagar,” he said.

The official showed a document of the department, which read: “From Sangam to Baramulla, Wullar is a very slow moving water body with bed slopes varying from one in 7000 to one in 12,000.”

According to irrigation department observations, rise of water level above 1579.26 M in the lake increases water levels over a long distance in the River Jhelum upstream and adjoining streams.

This rise reduces the river’s discharge capacity and increases seepage both from the River as well as from the streams.

It further causes strain on the embankments, making them vulnerable to dangerous breaches.

Jammu and Kashmir’s Minister for Public Health Engineering, Irrigation and Flood Control, Taj Mohuiddin during his recent visit to the lake gave a green signal to construct an auto spillway to control the lake’s water flow.

The government aims to limit the maximum level below the danger mark of 1579.26 M.

The spillway’s tender was recently floated for Rs 3.05 crore and it is proposed to be situated at a point known as RD 0 of outfall channel on the northern side of Wullar, about 35 km from Srinagar, the State’s summer capital.

According to irrigation department, the proposed auto spillway would help bring back the glory of Wullar by infusing freshness in the lake and countering the emerging threats of further degradation.

However, experts are skeptic about the auto spillway doing any wonders.

According to them, it would not make much difference to the deteriorating condition of the lake.

For centuries, Wullar has been a major source of livelihood for people living on its banks.

Fishing and harvesting water chestnuts from Wullar have been the major occupation of this underprivileged population of around 100,000.

However, Wullar’s degeneration is now affecting their livelihood.

Fishing in troubled waters

Wullar once used to supply 60 percent of all fish produce of Kashmir valley.

However, fishermen now complain that they are not able to grab big catch.

Last year, media in Kashmir extensively reported about the decline in valley’s fish production.

The reports blamed the wide scale construction of residential houses on the lake’s banks and pollution emanating from dozens of barracks of the troops and paramilitary troops located near it for the decline in fish produce.

Greater Kashmir quoted an expert as saying that 60 barracks of the troops had come up on the lake’s banks.

“Besides the sewerage and refuse outlets of various military camps and hotels in Srinagar city drain into the River Jhelum, which ultimately affects the aquatic life of the Wullar,” he said.

As the large size catch in the lake has got scarce, fishermen are employing exploitative means to fish, making matters worse.

The fishermen use nylon nets, locally known as Thani whose length ranges between 15 to 40 meter and width between 1.5 to 3 meters.

The Thani’s mesh size of 10 mm and mesh bar of 0.5 mm entangles fish of all sizes.

As the smaller size fish also get caught, the regenerative capacity of fish has been adversely affected.

CMAP also confirmed this disturbing fact.

The fish production loss has created a cutthroat competition among the fishermen, often leading to feuds and conflicts.

The major fish species found in the lake used to be Common carp, Rosy barb, Mosquito fish, Sattar snow trout, Chirruh snow trout and Chush snow trout.

Most of these species have been scarce or are on the brink of extinction.

The local specie Schizothorax, which is very sensitive to pollution, is also endangered in Wullar.

However, the government data never reveals the true picture of fisheries in Wullar.

Even CMAP revealed that the fisheries department fudges the fish productivity report by showing increase of almost 20 percent in production.

According to latest reports, a population of around 100,000 lives in 31 villages of Bandipora and Baramulla district around the Wullar.

Most of them depend on the lake for their livelihood.

Some are fishermen, others gather chestnuts and still more rely on harvesting lotus stem.

Everyone among them is concerned about their livelihood.

“There was a time when people used to go to lake, gather chestnuts and live a comfortable life,” said one Ghulam Rasool, sitting on the lake bank. “Now chestnuts are rare.”

Pointing toward a village Banyaari Garbi, where most people have changed their occupation from gathering water chestnut and fishing to working as construction labourers, Rasool said: “People are becoming migrant labourers in their own community.”

The youth too do not see a future while earning livelihood from the lake.

Bahauddin, 21, of Banyari Sharki has taken the job of a sand miner in the River Jhelum.

“My forefathers were either fishermen or gathered chestnuts from Wullar but the lake has nothing left for us now,” said Bahauddin, whose father passed away last year after a brief spell of illness. “I earn four times more in the sand mining job than from fishing or collecting chestnuts.”

People like Bahauddin have no faith in the government.

“The government is non-existent,” he said. “The politicians only show up during elections.”

He complained that the area does not have a road network, piped water was still a dream and electricity was almost non-existent.

“Our village (Banyaari Garbi) is yet to get a road link and in absence of a bridge, we’ve to cross the river on boats,” he said.

Most of these villagers are extremely poor.

According to the CMAP report, the prevalence of poverty in the area ranges between 41 and 52 percent against the state average of 3.91 percent.

More than half of the lakeshore population falls below the poverty line with limited access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities.

Banyaari, Bakhsibal, Tsringpora and several other villages lie around the point where River Jhelum converges with Wullar.

People living there do not get potable drinking water.

Resultantly, they are forced to drink from the water of River Jhelum, which after flowing through Srinagar and other towns is loaded with dirt.

“We’ve no other option but to drink this polluted water,” said Bahauddin.

On whether they boil the water before consumption, Bahauddin smiled and said: “You must be kidding, aren’t you?”

Consumption of unsafe water makes these people susceptible to a number of diseases.

With the nearest hospital 10 km away from these localities, a curable ailment often becomes a cause of death.

“A number of people in our locality died because we couldn’t take them to the hospital due to the absence of a road link and lack of transport,” said Bahauddin.

A road network is not going to be laid in the area in the foreseeable future as the government is acting at a snail’s pace.

“For the past five years, the government has been conducting a survey to lay a 10-km road stretch from Hajin to Banyari,” said Javed Ahmad, a labourer from Bakhshibal village.

“Even the new bridge is being constructed at a place far away from the population and the main road,” he said. “This is done to make the ruling party’s workers happy as they live adjacent to the construction site.”

Indo-Pak conflict

The Wullar is not only a cause of concern for the locals but the Tulbul barrage over it has become an issue between New Delhi and Islamabad.

Back in 1980s, Government of India decided to construct a barrage 439-feet long and 40-feet wide at the end of the Wullar lake having a maximum storage capacity of 0.30 million acre-feet of water.

Its aim was to regulate the release of water from the natural storage in the lake and maintain a minimum draught of 4.5 feet in the river up to Baramulla during the lean winter months.

However, as soon as work on the project started in 1984, Islamabad raised a serious objection to the project, terming it a violation of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT).

Under the treaty, Pakistan has unrestricted rights of the use of water over Indus, Jhelum and Chenab rivers that flow through Jammu and Kashmir.

After Islamabad’s objections, New Delhi stopped the work on the barrage but the issue keeps coming during talks between the officials of the two countries.

Meanwhile, the state government claims that Jammu and Kashmir is at loss due to Pakistan’s objection.

“It would’ve made entire River Jhelum navigable from Khanabal to Baramulla and regulated water flow during winter months, ultimately benefiting Pakistan as well,” an official spokesman said. “And of course, with this initiative, Wullar lake will get a new lease of life.”

This is the Third part of series of features published under Centre of Science and Environment’s Media fellowships on Water Bodies in India.




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