3 decades on, Kashmir’s Wular gets fresh lease

Published on Apr 15, 2021 06:57 PM IST

First phase of desilting of Asia’s second largest freshwater lake nears completion ahead of deadline

Wular is Asia’s second largest freshwater lake.
Wular is Asia’s second largest freshwater lake.
ByMir Ehsan, Banyari (bandipora)

A major portion of Wular, Asia’s second largest freshwater lake on the foothills of the Khuehami and Ajaz forest ranges of Kashmir, looks placid and serene. The action is in the distance as five hi-tech cutter suction dredgers besides long and short boom excavators dig out silt deposited over decades.

Dozens of workers from across the country are on the job 24x7, cleaning the lake metre by metre as the project to restore its lost glory nears completion before the June deadline. Equipped with helmets, gloves and special shoes, the workers operate the machines unmindful of the slush as they lay pipes inside the lake. Officials say 48.94 lakh cubic metres of silt has been removed.

“We’ve been at it even during subzero conditions. Snow, rain or shine, work doesn’t stop here. This is why we are ahead of schedule,” says Neeraj Mishra, the operational head of Reach Dredging Limited, a Kolkata-based company working to increase the holding capacity of the lake. “At present, more than 300 people, including non-locals, are engaged at the eight project sites,” he says, showing the desiltation process being undertaken by the dredgers deep inside the lake.

A kilometre away, another group of workers cuts down willow trees that have grown inside the lake and threaten to choke it.

Wular has been Kashmir’s saviour during floods with its vast water-carrying capacity that got reduced due to silt and willow plantation over a period of time. The willow plantation altered the hydrological process of the wetland and acted as barrier to silt laden waters of the Jhelum river. As many as 99,162 trees have been axed and auctioned and 16.76 lakh saplings have been planted in the catchment area.

Shallow lake in deep waters

The shallow lake with a maximum depth of 5.8 metres covers 130 sqkm and is spread over two districts of North Kashmir. It provides 60% of the Valley’s fish produce and is home to lakhs of local and migratory bird species. Known for water chestnuts and lotus stems, the lake is the lifeline of the 30 villages surrounding it. It was designated as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention in 1990.

Officials of the Wular Conservation and Management Authority (Wucma) are upbeat as the first phase of desiltation will be complete by June. “The first part of the restored portion is ahead of schedule,” says Irfan Rasool Wani, the Wucma coordinator. “This lake serves as a hydrostat, absorbing moisture during the peak months and releasing it in the lean winter months. It’s a flood sink since the water that drains from the catchment areas of the Jhelum river falls into Wular,” he says.

Over the past three decades, Wular had been losing its carrying capacity due to plantation and encroachment. The water quality deteriorated after untreated sewage and solid waste was disposed in it, while the inlet and outlet channels were blocked and forest degradation in the catchment areas added to the problem.

Work in progress on fast pace since 2020

Wucma was set up for the lake’s conservation in September 2012 but it’s only since May last year that work picked up pace. A sum of 200 crore is being spent under the UT’s fund for developing ecotourism in the first phase, while the total tentative cost of project is 1,600 crore.

Besides land and water resource management, the authority will work for biodiversity conservation, eco tourism, construction of a shoreline around the lake, recreational parks, bird watching points and developing the Wular Boulevard.

At present, the first phase of the lake’s demarcation is nearing completion. “We have installed 1,159 geotagged boundary pillars around the lake using GIS technology,” he says.

Wucma assistant engineer Mohammad Ashraf says though this project was launched a decade ago, desilting was done by small JCBs and manually. “For the first time last year, we started desiltation with hi-tech dredgers. In this phase, we had to clear 3.1sqkm we and have completed 2.27 sqkm. We have to take out 63 lakh cubic metres of silt from this portion and are done with 48.94 lakh cubic metres.”

Villagers demand compensation for demolition

Abdul Majeed Dar, a resident of Banyari, says 300 houses are being demolished in his village alone and the government compensation is unlikely as villagers are being blamed for encroachment. “The government should compensate all those whose houses are being demolished as they have lived here for decades,” says Dar.

Environmentalist Jalal Jeelani welcomes the restoration of Wular but says the size of the lake’s catchment area is unprecedented. “A holistic approach is needed. Merely clearing a few stretches is insufficient. Reclaim encroachments and involve people in conservation efforts,” he says.

Wani says, “In records, 34 hectares of lake land has been encroached upon and most of it is in the shape of plantations.”

IN A NUTSHELL

Spread over 130sqkm covering two districts of north Kashmir, Wular is the only drainage for the Jhelum, Arin and Madhumati water bodies. It serves as the lifeline for hydro projects during the lean period for power generation on the Jhelum river.

27.73 sqkm is a critically silted area in different parts of Wular. All critical areas will be desilted over three phases. Eight areas are being covered in the first phase.

The lake is one of the 42 Indian wetlands designated as a Ramsar site.

200 crore is being spent under the UT’s fund for developing ecotourism in the first phase, while the total tentative cost of project is 1,600 crore.

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