Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Would Asia’s Largest Sweet lake Wular be Redeemed ?

Would Asia’s Largest Sweet lake Wular be Redeemed ?;-M.L.Dhar*

Wetlands, which perform significant ecological and economic functions, across India are under threat. The Wular lake in Kashmir is no exception. In fact the condition of this huge, awe-inspiring water body of majestic beauty has deteriorated to the extent that former union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said at a seminar, “Wular used to be the largest fresh water lake in Asia. Today it is a piece of green. You can’t see any water. We only see willow trees”.

Bound by hills in the north-east and north-west and the floodplains of the Jhelum river in south-east and south-west, the Wular constitutes of a large freshwater lake along with associated marshes. The deepest water body in the region, the Wular is drained by the Jhelum river which flows through the Kashmir Valley to join the Indus river downstream. The Ninghal, the Pohru, the Madhumati, the Arin and other small rivulets and streams drain into the lake.

The Wular lake was known as Mahapadamsar in ancient times and in Nilamata Purana it has been referred to as ‘Mahapadmasaras’. The Mughal historian Al-Biruni (960-1031 AD) has called the Wular as ‘Bolor’. Some experts are of the view that word ‘Bolor’ might be corrupted form of Sanskrit word ‘Ullola’, the name by which the lake was also known. ‘Ullola’ literally mean big rapid waves which, sometimes stormy, are generated in the huge water body in the afternoons, thus giving it the name. It is said that further down the memory lane ‘Bolor’ might have got corrupted to ‘Wulor’ and finally to ‘Wular’. Some others attribute its origin to Kashmiri word ‘Wul’, meaning a gap or a fissure, which they say could be a pointer to its origin to a fissure or gap created by some natural phenomena.

Several local folktales and folklores are associated with the lake that has played an important role in the social and economic life of Kashmir from times immemorial. It appears that silting might have been a perpetual problem and history speaks of incidents where engineers in ancient Kashmir devised innovative ways to clear the lake. One of them was an ingenious Brahmin Suya who in a novel way got locals involved in clearing silt from the lake. Sopore town in northern Kashmir was set up after his name. Similarly, in an innovative way an artificial island Zainalank was created in the lake by Kashmir’s illustrious king Zainul Abidin, locally known as Badshah – the great king. The island was devised as a refuge for the boatmen during raging storms. The island floating on huge deodhar wood logs has never been inundated by floods. The island is also a great tourist attraction now.

As a large wetland, Wular constitutes an important ecosystem in the valley and supports a lot of bio diversity. Besides being a rich repository of Macrophytic vegetation, the lake plays an important role in the local economy. It is an important fish habitat. The livelihood of thousands of fishermen and others depends upon the lake as it contributes sixty per cent to the total fish catch in the valley. Local villagers also harvest a type of grass from the lake as a raw material for use in the mat-making cottage industry besides procuring waterlily-like plants for animal fodder. They also harvest major part of the valley’s water-nut produce, locally known as ‘Gaare’ (Singaras) from the lake.

While helping in regulating the environment, Wular is also winter home and a breeding ground to innumerable migratory birds. The lake is also one of the Kashmir Valley’s important tourist attractions. It is for all these and other various reasons that in 1990 Wular was designated as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has also designated Wular as a national wetland and is among the five protected wetlands in Jammu and Kashmir.

The lake, however, in modern times has severely suffered due to human greed and negligence. Most of its catchments have been denuded of forest cover; consequently, the run-off has been causing rapid and heavy silting in the lake. The area all around the lake has been encroached upon with human settlements that contaminate the lake waters with domestic wastes. Besides evidence speaks of pollution due to industrial and other wastes flowing into it from cities and towns located upstream on the Jehlum river. Another worst factor affecting the lake has been the reclamation of land in it for agriculture and other purposes. There is also significant fertilizer inflow from these fields and also from catchments causing deterioration to the lake’s ecology. Moreover, since 1980s, the state authorities as a flood control measure have planted an estimated twenty lakh willow trees in and around the lake. As a result there are plantations on about 69,000 kanals 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 twenty thousand hectares, to about a quarter of its original size. The area of Wular lake, which four decades ago is reported to have extended over 130 sq. kms is today reduced to only 70 to 75 sq. kms.

The impending threat of possible extinction is already threatening the livelihood of thousands of people dependent upon the lake. The local fishermen say the shrinkage and pollution has adversely affected the quality and quantity of fish in the lake. They add that despite putting in long hours at the lake, their fish catch has been continuously dwindling forcing many to try alternate vocations. They also contend that some delicious varieties of fish have gone almost extinct. The harvesting of water-nuts and lotus stem (locally called ‘Nadru’), a Kashmiri kitchen delicacy, has also reportedly dwindled. Moreover, Wular being a huge water body is one of the largest eco systems in the valley having a tremendous ecological significance and its deterioration is adversely affecting the environment.

Waking up to these largely looming threats the Central and State Governments have jointly launched a major initiative to conserve the Asia’s largest sweet water body. The State Government has in consultation with the Wetland South Asia International prepared a comprehensive 386 crore rupee project for conserving Wular Lake. The New Delhi based conservation consultant has already helped in conservation of a lake in Orrisa. According to the Jammu & Kashmir Minister for Forests and Environment Mian Altaf Ahmad the Central Government has agreed to provide Rs.120 crore for conservation and management of Wular Lake for which the work is to begin this year. This will include soil conservation, natural regeneration and setting up of check dams etc.

Given the urgency of the situation, the State Government has decided to constitute Wular Development Authority for according focused attention to the problem. At present the conservation and regeneration work is being looked after by the Wular-Manasbal Development Authority (WMDA), which was constituted in 1996. WMDA did some appreciable work in restoring Manasbal lake but could not do much in case of Wular lake which is a too colossal problem to handle.

The removal of almost 20 lakh willow trees is in itself a huge task that the government says will take five to ten years. But the more difficult and politically sensitive is the relocation of the human habitations which have come up in Wular. These include villages like Kulhama, Zoorimanz, and Zalwan. The experience so far with regard to relocation of habitations in the Dal lake in Srinagar has not been encouraging. The issue will need a careful planning, viable relocation plans and political will. It will also need harnessing the support of NGO’s and peoples voluntary organizations. Simultaneously, sewage treatment/disposal plants would have to set up at the nearby Bandipora and Sopore towns and other adjacent urban areas in order to stop the inflow of sewage into the lake. The authorities will also have to strictly implement Welands (Conservation and Management) Rules notified by the Centre which prohibit constructions and industrial units in the vicinity of the water body and dumping of wastes into it.

More importantly it would be the local peoples involvement and participation in the conservation programme. Authorities will have to evolve innovative ways and methods to seek their participation as had been the case in Kashmir’s past.

Wular is a natural gift loaded with immense benefits for the ‘paradise on earth’. Water is a very precious commodity. As such, Wular will have to be preserved at all costs. Posterity will judge us for the sincerity and innovative efforts in restoring and preserving Asia’s largest sweet water and Kashmir Valley’s deepest water body. (PIB Features)

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