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Iconic lake under threat

SP Sharma | Jammu |

Kashmir’s Wular Lake, which is one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia, is in bad shape as are other water bodies of Jammu and Kashmir because of encroachments and weed infestation caused by the authorities’ neglect. Preserving the beautiful water bodies that attracted a large number of tourists from across the globe appears to be the lowest priority of successive governments in J&K.

Wular, that is one of the 26 Indian wetlands designated as a Ramsar site, is facing environmental threats, including illegal change of its use by converting large parts of the lake’s catchment areas into agricultural land and infestation of weeds that have hidden the lake waters and considerably shrunk it.

The government has accepted that 27 sq km area of the lake is critically silted and 43.6 hectares is under encroachment. Concern had been raised on the bad condition of the iconic Dal Lake in Srinagar, but the degeneration of other lakes, including the Wular, Nageen, Anchor, Khushalsar and Galisar, has also come to light with the government saying that the condition of some of these lakes has deteriorated. The valley has seen the worst type of floods in recent times due to damage to these lakes. Huge amounts of funds for the preservation of the lakes have been flowing from the Centre but their condition continues to worsen and there is no one to fix accountability on utilisation of the central grants.

Governor NN Vohra and the J&K High Court have been pulling up the concerned authorities from time to time on the issue of deterioration of these water bodies.

The Wular has suffered maximum damage due to the large-scale plantation of willow trees. The lake plays host to several species of birds, including endangered ones. These include black-eared kite, Himalayan Golden Eagle, Himalayan Monal, Rock Dove, Himalayan Woodpecker and Golden Oriole.

The lake is under the control of the forest department that has demarcated 130 sq km area of the lake by constructing pillars. However, encroachments within the lake area were an ongoing feature with the support of local political leaders and land mafia.

At places, the lake has been squeezed to the size of a drain and illegal residents pollute the waters by washing clothes and utensils. Raw sewage from households also flows into the lake waters.

According to the housing and urban development department, Wular being at the terminus of the drainage system acts as a receptacle for sediments flowing downstream.

The authorities are going slow on the comprehensive management action plan (CMAP) for the conservation of the lake that envisages cutting off 2 million willow trees. The environment ministry has approved Rs 400 crore for conservation of the lake on which work was started in 2011. The willow trees are considered the key source of wood for making high-quality cricket bats. However, due to encroachments and siltation, the lake has shrunk to less than 75 sq km from its original size of nearly 200 sq km.

The area of the lake was reduced by about 17 per cent when in 1916  people started growing willows in the lake waters. According to estimates, about 21.05 lakh trees are standing there and these are proposed to be axed to rejuvenate the lake and increase its water expanse. So far 25,771 trees have been cut.

The main component of the CMAP was dredging the silt out of the 27 sq km area but so far only 1 sq km area has been restored by dredging 8.87 lakh cubic meters of silt. Since 2015-16 onwards, 1.99 lakh cubic meters silt has been removed from the plantation areas and 1.07 lakh cubic meters from the critically silted areas.

According to an official report, afforestation over 1220 hectares of the badly degraded catchment area of denuded hills in Erin and Madhumati watersheds has been done by planting 12 lakh saplings of both indigenous conifers and broad-leaved species.

Another lake, Anchar, that was once a popular destination in the valley is now on the verge of extinction because of apathy of the government. The government has accepted that the lake has deteriorated.

The Anchar lake was once connected to the Dal Lake and tourists used to throng there in large numbers. The flora and fauna of the lake have been destroyed due to an infestation of weeds.

Governor Vohra has been taking a personal interest in the restoration of the pristine beauty of Kashmir’s water bodies but the political set-up and officialdom seem to have their own agenda. Vohra has expressed concern on the deterioration of the Dal Lake and has asked the authorities to accelerate work on de-weeding.