Urbanization: A major threat to remaining water bodies in Kashmir’s capital

Study shows that 50% of small and big waterbodies have vanished over past century

By: Hilal Mir

Mughli Sidiq Mir, 88, from the Zaldagar area of old Srinagar, nostalgically recalls the days when her family would board a boat at Brari Nambal, a wetland about a mile from her home, for a ride to the city’s iconic Dal Lake.

The boat would row through a network of interconnected waterways before reaching its destination.

Remnants of the aquatic route Mughli reminisces about still exist, but the boat rides stopped decades ago. They had to, because from a sprawling, clear water body fit for boat rides, Brari Nambal shrunk into a few acres of highly polluted stagnant water encircled by roads and unregulated and largely illegal residential and commercial constructions.

Both the government and people contributed towards Brari Nambal’s current state, like that of dozens of big and small lakes, marshlands and other water bodies spread across the 135-kilometer-long and 32-kilometer-wide Kashmir Valley which, according to legend, was one big lake until a sage drained it off.

In Srinagar and its suburbs particularly, more than 50% of the water bodies have been lost during the past century, according to a study by scientists Humayun Rashid and Gowhar Naseem of the government’s Department of Environment, Ecology and Remote Sensing.

The research was based on the analysis of two maps from 1911 and 2000. The study says wetlands like Batamaloo Nambal, Rakh-i-Gandakshah, Rakhi-i-Arat and Rakh-i-KhanKhan, besides the streams of Doodhganga and Nala Mar, “have been completely lost, while other lakes and wetlands have experienced considerable shrinkage during the last century.”

The Batamaloo Nambal the researchers talk about is today one of the biggest residential areas in the city, which also houses government offices. The Doodhganga stream has been reduced to a small drain left even more inconspicuous by government-built shopping complexes and other structures raised by people.

The famed Nala Mar, which once drew comparisons with the canals of Venice, was filled up to build a road, which was one of the contributing factors towards the slow death of the Brari Nambal wetland.

Threatening urbanization
MG Hassan Mukhtar, a US-trained urban planning and development expert, said the vice-like encirclings of water bodies by unregulated or illegal constructions, unchecked siltation and blockage of natural channels of circulation have been found to be the most common causes of the disappearance of wetlands and other waterbodies.

The urban expansion started working on these bodies in the seventies but surged since the late eighties, coinciding with the eruption of the anti-India insurgency. Srinagar city has grown 12 times in terms of population and 23 times in terms of area between 1901 and 2011. According to a report by the City Mayors Foundation in 2011, Srinagar was one of the 100 fastest-growing urban areas in the world.

Athar Parvez, a distinguished Kashmiri journalist and researcher who has written extensively on environmental subjects, told Anadolu that recent studies have revealed that wetlands are disappearing or losing area in various parts of the world, especially in developing countries.

But what has largely contributed to wetland degradation, reduction in size and even extinction of smaller wetlands in Kashmir is massive urbanization in the region in recent decades, he said.

“All this was fueled by misgovernance (typical of conflict zones) as the majority of smaller towns and rural areas could receive little or no attention in terms of accessibility to proper health and education infrastructure. Consequently, Srinagar received almost all the migrants from rural areas, which created a lot of pressure on its ecological assets such as wetlands,” he said.

‘Unsung heroes of climate crisis’
Wetlands occupy about 7% of the planet’s land surface. In Kashmir, there are 3,813 wetlands and water bodies, contributing to fisheries, food products, freshwater supplies, water purification and detoxification, flood regulation, groundwater recharge, providing habitats for migratory birds and wildlife and global climate change regulation.

For example, according to a study by Wetlands International, 32,000 families, including 2,300 fisher households, depend on Wular Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Kashmir and one of the biggest in Asia.

The loss of flood basins in the form of wetlands worsened the impact of the devastating 2014 floods in Kashmir, described as the worst in the past 100 years. Many residential areas such as the one built on Batamaloo Nambal remained submerged in floodwaters for nearly a month.

According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), wetlands, which include marshes and peatlands, “are the unsung heroes of the climate crisis.”

“They store more carbon than any other ecosystem, with peatlands alone storing twice as much as all the world’s forests. Inland wetland ecosystems also absorb excess water and help prevent floods and drought, widely seen as critical to helping communities adapt to a changing climate,” the UN body said last year.

Under Sustainable Development Goal 6, Target 6, all countries are committed to protecting and restoring wetlands by 2030, and UNEP has a special role in helping to monitor and achieve that target.

In Kashmir, experts say the restoration of the majority of wetlands has been rendered very difficult by constructions surrounding them. What the authorities can focus on is protection.

For example, Hokersar Wetland in the city outskirts, home to tens of thousands of residents and migratory birds, has shrunk from 18.75 square kilometers (7.24 square miles) in 1969 to 13 square kilometers (5 square miles) in 2008, according to a study by Shakil Romshoo, former head of the department of the Earth Sciences at Kashmir University.

The government removed illegal encroachments and built an embankment around it to create a barrier between nearby housing settlements and the wetland.

Large tracts of marshy land in and around bigger wetlands were farmed by people. But in violation of land laws, the land was filled and constructions raised. Removing those constructions involves legal issues and could take forever in courts.

“Urbanization worldwide is putting a strain on these habitats. The effects of the pressures on wetlands can be definitely slowed down, if not eliminated altogether. Proper desiltation, flood control and anti-encroachment measures come a long way in the preservation of wetlands,” said Intisar Suhail, an official of the Wildlife Department, which oversees eight major notified wetlands in Kashmir.

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