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As Kashmir’s Wular Lake Diminishes, So Do Livelihoods

Shrinkage, siltation and ecological degradation are taking a toll on Kashmir's largest flood basin.

17/09/2017 11:41 AM IST | Updated 17/09/2017 11:41 AM IST
Athar Parvaiz
Fishing and other rural communities that have traditionally depended on Wular Lake are now struggling to earn a living from it, as shrinkage, siltation and ecological degradation take a toll on Kashmir’s largest flood basin.

By Athar Parvaiz*, Bandipora, Jammu & Kashmir

When 67-year-old Mohammad Subhan Dar fished in Wular Lake in his youth, fish were abundant in the expansive lake tucked in the lap of lush green mountains in north Kashmir's Bandipora district. The fish, Dar and other villagers said, are on their way to vanishing. "Earlier a fisherman could catch up to 15kg of fish in a single day."These days if a person catches even 5kg in a day, we call him the king of Wular," Dar told VillageSquare.in.

For thousands of Kashmiris living near water bodies, fishing and collecting water chestnuts have been major sources of livelihood for a long time. But with the water bodies shrinking in size due to encroachment and in depth due to siltation, their livelihoods are at stake.

According to revenue records, Wular is spread over an area of 130sq km but has undergone massive siltation, encroachment and pollution in recent years.

According to a study by Wetland International, 32,000 families including 2,300 fisher households living on Wular's shores depend on it for livelihood. In Dar's village, 600 fisher families live off Wular's resources.

"Kashmir's water bodies—including lakes such as Wular, Mansbal, Dal and rivers like the Jhelum—have been key sources of livelihood for ages," Masood Hussain Balkhi of Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology told VillageSquare.in.

His colleague Farooz Ahmad Bhat said that the total annual fish production of the region is 20,000 tonnes. Quoting statistics from Kashmir's fisheries department, he said that more than 30,000 people are directly involved in fishing, 14,000 of them with registered licenses.

Dwindling resources

Bhat says that fish diversity and production in the Kashmir region has shown a sharp decline over the past few decades. "Some of the local fish species have even become endangered and threatened," he said. The major causes of this decline are encroachment of water bodies, siltation and pollution.

According to revenue records, Wular is spread over an area of 130sq km but has undergone massive siltation, encroachment and pollution in recent years.

Women washing water chestnuts at the shore of Wular lake in Saderkote after a day-long collection. (Photo by Athar Parvaiz)
Women washing water chestnuts at the shore of Wular lake in Saderkote after a day-long collection. (Photo by Athar Parvaiz)

Like fish, the chestnut yield from the lake has diminished abysmally, as Dar and his fellow villagers observed. "Earlier, a person could collect a boatful of chestnuts, about 60kg in a few hours. But, these days, one can only dream of such a good harvest," Dar said. According to him, 20kg is the maximum a person can get now, despite toiling the whole day.

Shameema Bano, 45, leaves home just after daybreak and returns in the evening. Yet she manages only 18-20kg of chestnuts, which fetches her around ₹280 a day. "It takes me a lot of time and hard work," Bano, who lives in Banyari village on Wular's banks, told VillageSquare.in.

Earlier, a person could collect a boatful of chestnuts, about 60kg in a few hours. But, these days, one can only dream of such a good harvest. Mohammad Subhan Dar, villager

Ghulam Nabi, 63, said that he has never seen such a decline in water chestnuts in his life. "It's mainly because water doesn't stay that long in the lake these days. Now we hardly get enough rains in summers, unlike in the past when it used to rain frequently," he said.

Elderly people like Nabi and Subhan Dar of Saderkote recall their childhood days when Wular's water was pure and pristine. "We used to drink taking the water directly from the lake. Now we hesitate even to bathe in it because of the heavy pollution," Dar reminisced.

According to Dar, vast stretches of the lake remain dry most of the year. He said that Wular looks like a lake only in spring when the rainwater and glacial meltwater flow into it. "For the rest of the year, most of it turns into pasture lands and swamps," Dar observed. "We literally haul our boats up because of lack of water in the lake."

Fear of losing livelihoods

Zona Begam of Asham village at Jhelum's bank is educating her three daughters. "Until last year, my husband had a steady income as he was serving as a forest guard. Now he has retired and draws a meagre pension. He goes for fishing, but returns with just 1kg at times," she said. "Though we manage with what we get, we fear that the fish might vanish altogether."

Abdul Rashid Dar of Saderkote said, "I draw all the fodder (khor) for my two cows from Wular. The cows give me 20 litres of milk every day. I sell 18 litres and earn ₹500 daily. I am happy with what I get as I earn money by collecting chestnuts also."

But he is worried about the way the important water body is being treated by people and the government. "The government is spending a lot of money for protecting this lake. But, I somehow feel the money is not spent properly," he alleged.

Shiraz Ahmad Goroo, a fisherman from Sumbal in north Kashmir's Bandipora district also complained about dwindling fish in the Jhelum. He said that he is not able to catch as much as his father did. Showing his meagre catch, Goroo said, "This won't fetch me enough money to feed my family. The prices of fish have gone up. I sell a kilo for ₹200. But it's hard because the fish have vanished."

Shiraz Ahmad Goroo shows his meager catch while complaining about dwindling fish in River Jhelum. (Photo by Athar Parvaiz)
Shiraz Ahmad Goroo shows his meager catch while complaining about dwindling fish in River Jhelum. (Photo by Athar Parvaiz)

His fellow fisherman, Shabir Goroo, said that a fisherman earns around ₹300 a day. "If it continues like this we may have to work as labourers," he said and added that sand mining in the river has also caused a decline in fish numbers.

Wular, which was designated as a wetland of international Importance under Ramsar Convention in 1990, is one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia and the largest flood basin of Kashmir.

"I am worried about the future of the lake because the survival of my family is entirely dependent on it. The lake provides me the means to earn money, with which I educate my two sons," Goroo said.

Restoration of Wular

The main reason for Wular losing its erstwhile glory is the heavy siltation in the lake, said Manzoor Dar, a fisherman of Saderkote. "If the government takes steps to prevent further siltation of the lake and takes away the silt that has already settled in, I'm sure Wular will not only get a new life, but will also give livelihood support to far more people than it currently does," Dar, selling cooked fish to those visiting the lake, told VillageSquare.in.

There are plans to remove over two million willow trees from the lake, to achieve hydrological and ecological balance.

The Jammu & Kashmir government has charted out a program for the conservation of the lake. Irfan Rasool, who looks after the lake restoration work being carried out by the state government's Wular Conservation and Management Authority (WUCMA), said that the lake will soon be de-silted.

There are plans to remove over two million willow trees from the lake, to achieve hydrological and ecological balance. According to elderly fishermen such as Subhan Dar and a study by Wetland International, willow plantation in the lake through government-sponsored schemes in the 1970s has led to fragmentation of the wetland, rapid siltation and deterioration in water quality.

But, Shakil Romshoo of Kashmir University's Earth Sciences department strongly advises taking measures like stopping the silt at source if Kashmir's wetlands have to be conserved. "For that the government needs to start an extensive afforestation program in the catchment areas of River Jhelum's tributaries (Jhelum feeds the Wular Lake) immediately," said Romshoo.

"We are starting the work as part of the ₹4000 million Wular Conservation Project in September this year," Rasool said, adding confidently that WUCMA was on its way to conserving the lake "for all times to come."

Athar Parvaiz is a Srinagar-based journalist.

This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.

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