Kashmir Pays for Environmental Neglect

Athar Parvaiz

HAVANA TIMES, July 25 (IPS) — Years of poor policies and neglect are taking a toll on Kashmir’s unmatched ecological assets that also happen to be international tourist attractions.

Typical of damaging policy inconsistencies is the case of the Wullar Lake – once regarded as Asia’s largest freshwater body – that has shrunk in size from its original 204 sq km to the present 74.

India’s environment ministry recently approved a new and controversial project to revive Wullar that calls for the cutting down of some two million willow trees that surround the lake.

On Jun. 2, then environment minister Jairam Ramesh said at a press conference in New Delhi: “Wullar Lake has paid its price. Wullar used to be the largest freshwater lake in Asia. Today it is a patch of green. You can’t see any water… only willow trees.”

Ramesh, who was shifted to the rural development ministry on Jul. 12 in a cabinet reshuffle, said 90 million US dollars have been set aside for the Wullar revival project under a wetland conservation program.

But environmental experts at the Kashmir University (KU) in Srinagar have started questioning the viability of the project, arguing that the venture is fraught with ecological risks and that it would end up being far costlier than currently envisaged.

“This is going to yield nothing as we have already seen the failure of a similar project for the Dal Lake (in Srinagar) which called for the chopping down of some 500,000 trees,” said Shahid Ahmed, an environmentalist who teaches at KU. “The trees have grown back and even multiplied in number.”

Ironically, the willow overgrowth around Wullar was the result of a tree plantation program undertaken by Kashmir’s flood control department during the 1980s, to check increased incidence of flooding in the area around the lake.

“Though the willow trees helped contain water overflow from the lake, the heavy accumulation of tree fossil resulted in the shrinking of the lake,” said Ahmed. “The government woke up to this environmental catastrophe after three decades, but never bothered to seek expert opinion on how to manage the flooding or the overgrowth.”

Such blunders, added to by rapid urbanization, have taken a toll on Kashmir’s major water bodies like Dal Lake, Wullar, Anchar, Nageen and Manasbal, while scores of wetlands have shrunk considerably or vanished altogether.

Even Srinagar city, which once boasted a naturally-balanced eco-setting, consisting of forests, water bodies, wetlands, rich agricultural land, mountains and hillocks, has seen the decimation of many kinds of flora and fauna in living memory.

Experts opine that if urbanization is allowed to continue at the current pace, Kashmir’s precious wetlands might vanish in a few years, resulting in an environmental catastrophe.

Kashmir’s wetlands attract millions of migratory birds every year from many parts of the world, but already the number of winged visitors is on the decline.

“Encroachment of the wetlands and their siltation is the major cause of decline in the number of migratory birds,” says Samiullah Bhat, an environmentalist and researcher at KU who has worked on wetlands of Kashmir.

“Hokersar wetland, situated 16 km north of Srinagar, has shrunk to 4.5 sq km compared to its original area of 13.75 sq km, while the Haigam wetland further north has got reduced almost to half its original size of 7.25 sq km,” Bhat said while quoting a study.

The director of Kashmir’s environment and remote sensing department, Mian Javed, says that precious little has been done to save the state’s wetlands and other natural resources.

“Unplanned and unregulated growth, industrialization and urbanization, throughout the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir in general and the Kashmir valley in particular, have taken a heavy toll on natural resources like forests, lakes, rivers, streams and the ecosystems,” said Javed.

In a recent study, using data from remote-sensing satellites, Javed’s department confirmed that most of the water bodies in Kashmir have become dumping areas for untreated sewage and garbage – a direct result of lack of investment in modern waste disposal systems.

“Wetlands used to play the important function of regulation of water regimes, especially during floods, and have been habitats of characteristic plants and animal communities for ages,” says environmental expert Ahmed.

“Many wildlife species also depend on these water bodies for their survival. Wetlands are threatened by explosive spread of obnoxious weed growth, increasing pollution load due to indiscriminate discharge of domestic effluents and run-off from agricultural fields.”

Besides, says Ahmed, rapid urbanization has put pressure on the wetlands with many of them getting filled up for construction activity or being reduced to dumps for garbage disposal.

Most experts in Kashmir blame successive state governments for the environmental mess this Himalayan state finds itself in today.

“We have been urging the state government for years to declare a land use policy but to no avail. This is the one reason why we are now in this mess,” says Shakeel Ahmed Rumshoo, who teaches at KU and has done extensive research work on Kashmir’s environment.