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Kashmir Newz Specials

Dying Wullar

Faced with unabated encroachment, massive siltation and official indifference, Kashmir’s Wullar faces a bleak future, especially as the state government fails to aggressively implement a centrally approved Rs 386 package to save the lake. Haroon Mirani reports.

Srinagar, Oct 26, 2011:

Wullar
Located between Bandipore and Sopore, some 70 km from Srinagar, Wullar Lake is often termed as mother of all lakes in Kashmir due to its sheer size. According to state tourism department, surface area of Wullar varies between minimum of 30 to maximum of 260 square kilometers depending on the season. The lake is about 16 km long and 9.6 km wide with ill-defined shores.

However, the figures released last year by National Wetland Atlas reveal a grim scenario. “Originally occupying an area of 20,000 ha (200 sq km), it (Wullar) has now shrunk to a mere 2400 ha (24 sq km),” says the Atlas, which was prepared by Space Applications Centre (ISRO) Ahmedabad and University of Kashmir as part of the project on National Wetland Inventory and Assessment.

Situated at an altitude of 1,580 m, Wullar used to be one of the largest fresh water lakes in South Asia. The local population used the fresh and clean water for drinking. But now pollution has taken its toll of water quality, while encroachment and siltation has shrunk it way below its old glory.

According to statistics with Tourism department, the maximum depth of the lake at present is about 14 meters but as the rampant pollution level is increasing, the depth too has got reduced to about 2 meters at some places. But Wetland International Southasia (WISA) contends the figures and says that Wullar is a shallow lake with a maximum depth of only 5.8m. The discrepancy in figures suggests that the government has never fully assessed or investigated the lake.

The WISA report also points out that, “As per the Directory of Wetlands of India (MoEF, 1990), the area of the lake is 189 sq km. The Survey of India maps of 1978 indicate the lake area to be only 58.7 km in winter. The revenue records, however, indicate the lake area to be 130 sq km,” says the report.

Benefits of Wullar The biodiversity and its ability to support a wide range of ecosystem gives Wullar a central role in regulating an ecology that stretches far beyond its borders.

According to WISA report, “Wular with its associated wetlands supports rich biodiversity and provides important habitats for migratory waterbirds within Central Asian Flyway.” Every winter millions of birds of different varieties come to Wullar as well as its connecting network of marshes and wetlands to breed. The lake supports thousands of families who live along its shorelines and rely solely on fishing in this vast water body. According to some estimates sixty percent of entire fish catch in Kashmir valley comes from Wullar. Water Chestnut farming follows fishing as the second biggest trade that provides livelihood or additional income to around 40,000 people. Besides protecting Kashmir from floods, Wullar also regulates water sustaining agriculture and hydropower projects that are located downstream, both of them are under the danger of becoming unviable and costly if the water level in the lake goes on decreasing.

“The catchments of the lake support coniferous forests, alpine pastures and orchards, adding to the natural grandeur of the wetland,” the report further says.

The lake is bound by hills in the north-east and north-west and the floodplains of the Jhelum cover it in in south-east and south-west. Together with its marshes it used to act as a sponge to absorb excess floodwater. The lake is also referred as delta of river Jhelum. Together with Manasbal Lake, it is also the deepest water body in the valley and is drained by the Jhelum river into Indus river downstream in Pakistan. Wullar also gets its water from other streams and tributaries like Ningli, the Pohru, the Madhumati, the Arin and other small rivulets.

The lake is also one of the Kashmir Valley’s important tourist attractions. Zainalank, an artificial island created by King Zainulabidin in 15th century, is an important tourist spot in the lake. The island built to provide refuge to fishermen during storms floats on huge logs of wood.

In 1990, realizing the importance of Wullar as a wetland of great biodiversity and highest socioeconomic value, India designated it as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.

The lake is also one among the five protected wetlands in Jammu and Kashmir besides being designated by Ministry of Environment and Forests as a national wetland.

Problems

One of the biggest problems faced by Wullar Lake is silting. Every year thousands of tonnes of silt is deposited in the lake, which is constantly decreasing its depth and water absorbing capacity.

The degradation of forests in its catchment areas has added to the misery. “One fifth of the water holding capacity has been lost over last three decades due to siltation from degraded catchments and wetland conversions for agriculture and willow plantations,” says WISA report on Wular.

The forest cover in Kashmir has dwindled by over half of what it was 30 years back and the catchment areas of Wullar have remained no immune to it. According to state Forest and Environment Minister Mian Altaf Ahmad, the total geographical area of Jammu and Kashmir is 101,387 sq km while the forest cover is spread over 16,309 sq km -- half of what it was in 1981. Earlier the forests in its catchment areas used to retain the rainwater but the water rapidly runs-off with heavy silt load and deposits it into the lake.

Encroachment has been another problem for Wullar Lake. During the last twenty years all around the lake illegal settlements have come up and people have also converted large parts of lake into agricultural land. The issue of relocation of these people is going to be very difficult and going by experience with settlement of Dale Lake dwellers, it will take decades to accomplish.

The relocation of such a huge population is a sensitive issue and government is yet to issue guidelines in this regard. Some of the heavily populated settlements include major villages like Zalwan, Kulhama and Zoorimanz. There are total of 31 villages living around Wullar Lake and most of them have intruded into lake area.

All the refuse and sewerage from these settlements is dumped in the lake. The agricultural land uses fertilizers and pesticides, which also ultimately finds its way in the lake. Upstream on Jhelum river the situation is no different as the river has become the drain for entire Srinagar and other towns adjacent to the river. The polluted water enters into Wullarwth damaging consequences.

There is an immediate need for construction of sewage treatment/disposal plants at Bandipora and Sopore towns and other towns and municipalities in order to stop the inflow of sewage into the lake.

Over the years the authorities have been unable to strictly implement Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules as notified by the Centre, which prohibit constructions and industrial units in the vicinity of the water body and dumping of wastes into it. This is resulting in steady increase of polluting industries along its banks.

The lake has also suffered due to ill-conceived policies of past state governments. Bandipora district used to be ravaged by successive floods from Wullar during 70’s and 80’s. To deal with the problem, government in early 1980’s initiated planting two million trees in and around the Wullar Lake to stem this overflow into residential areas. Although the floods receded but as the time passed it added to another problem. The increasing tree cover and foliage started eating into Lake area decreasing it considerably. The plantations alone cover 8625 acres in the lake, which makes it look as “a patch of green”.

All this has shrunk the lake, originally spread over an area of more than fifty thousand acres, to about a quarter of its original size.

Now the government is contemplating to remove the two million trees, which in itself is a huge task and according to experts will take anywhere between five to ten years to complete.

The package Government had drafted a project of Rs 386 crores for the conservation of Wular lake. The project was prepared in consultation with Wetland International Asia, New Delhi for an amount of Rs 386.39 crore for a period of five years and submitted to the New Delhi where it was duly approved in 2010. But the state government has been unable to make any substantive progress on the project. Central government has already approved the release of first installment of Rs 120 crores.

Wullar is the second lake in Kashmir valley after Dal Lake to be covered under the central government’s flagship wetland conservation programme.

“We are working on the modalities for the implementation of the mega project of Rs 386 crores for the development and preservation of Wular lake, which stands approved by the central government,” said Minister for Forests, Environment and Ecology Mian Altaf Ahmed. “All the adjacent area of the lake would be developed as tourist destinations and the project is expected to improve the socio economic condition of the people living across the lake in Bandipora and Sonawari areas.”

There is also a concern at New Delhi regarding the condition of the lake and the inability of state government to do anything. Union Secretary for Environment and Ecology T. Chaterji recently flew to Kashmir to review the Centrally funded Rs. 386 crore Action Plan for Wular Construction and Management Projection at a meeting of high level officers at Bandipora.

Chaterji said that the centre is fully committed to support the development and conservation of the lake. “A circular road is proposed to be constructed around the lake; besides the 500 years old Zainalank constructed by the Sultan Zainul- Abdin Budshah would also be renovated and developed on modern lines,” said Chaterji who also visited the lake to take first hand stock of present situation of the lake. Displaying his displeasure he gave necessary instructions for the speedy implementation of the action plan for development and construction of Wullar lake.

Chaterji emphasized upon executing agencies to start the survey and demarcation of the lake on priority so that development and conservation work is started immediately. He said while implementing the action plan, necessary measures for development of catchment area, eco- tourism development, livelihood improvement of the inhabitants living across thelake Wular be taken care off. Chaterji stressed for constitution of a Committee of various connected departments for close monitoring and utilization of funds being provided by the Central government for the purpose.

Government says that this year work will start and it will include soil conservation, natural regeneration and setting up of check dams etc.

State Government had long decided to constitute Wular Development Authority for according focused attention to the problem but the body still works as Wular-Manasbal Development Authority (WMDA), which was constituted in 1996 to look after two lakes. WMDA did some appreciable work in restoring Manasbal lake but could not do much in case of Wullar lake which is a too colossal a problem for it to handle.

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

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