Protecting Kashmir’s forests, water bodies is vital

| Updated: 09 September, 2023 6:51 pm IST

Nine years ago today, a colossal flood submerged two-third of the Kashmir Valley. It inundated areas around the city centre and Lal Chowk in Srinagar, and reached the second storey of buildings in the upmarket Rajbagh locality on the banks of the Jhelum river. Even the Army cantonment in Badami Bagh, perched on the edge of a mountain ridge, had half of its expanse submerged.

The region remained submerged for weeks, 284 persons were killed (government data), cumulative losses amounted to thousands of crores, and millions were displaced (even if only to their own attics or rooftops).

The flood was triggered by incessant and very heavy rains over a period of several days. Perceptive residents were reminded of that awful time during April, May, and June this year, when frequent rain combined with vast quantities of spring snowmelt repeatedly raised the Jhelum’s water level to, or close to, dangerous levels.

Authorities had to use sandbags to block the river water from overflowing into streams that generally flow into the river from quite far above the normal level. Flood warnings had to be issued.

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Increasing danger

Policymakers must know that the danger increases every year. For, in keeping with global warming, summers have been getting hotter in Kashmir too. Since peak winters are often still cold, with heavy snow, the subsequent snowmelt can be dangerous if temperatures rise suddenly during spring season. Very hot days cause large amounts of snow to melt all at once.

Kashmir’s climate is such that, typically, a series of hot days generally bring rain. That can be dangerous too, if such rains continue for several days — as happened in 2014.

The sudden release of lakes formed under the surface of glaciers in the higher mountains can be even more dangerous. Last year’s devastating floods, which wrought havoc in a large area of Pakistan, resulted from that sort of glacier melt — in the high mountains of the same region, only on the other side of the Line of Control. I had written then that those floods were a warning to India and Nepal too.

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Forest protection laws

Another major reason for concerns over Kashmir’s ecology and environment emerged about a month ago when parliament passed certain bills, exempting land within a hundred kilometers of the border from forest protection laws. This could result in the removal of trees from vast tracts of Jammu and Kashmir.

The reason given was security, but the government made it clear that the land cleared of forests would be available for tourism and such activities as safaris.

Most of the heavily forested Kupwara district and potentially most of the western part of the Kashmir Valley, including the Baramulla-Gulmarg belt, Budgam district, and potentially Shopian district too, could lose legal protection of their forests, as would Poonch and Rajouri districts. If the rules count the LoC as the border, much larger swathes of forests would lose their legal protection.

This is a historic change. The Dogra Maharajas, the Mughals, and several other previous rulers of Kashmir gave top priority to protecting its forests.

Forests bring rain clouds, and in turn, abundant rain keeps the place verdant and fertile. Winter snow melts to feed the Lidder, Sindh Nala, and other rivers and streams of Kashmir. It is possible that the spring at Verinag, Jhelum’s place of origin, also depends on rain and forests.

No lessons learnt

Sadly, no lessons were learnt from the 2014 floods. Wetlands were not restored. In fact, more wetlands have been reclaimed for construction since then. The ‘sand mafia,’ as many Kashmiris call it, continues to extract sand and mud from the river and its banks.

It appears that, for some years after the 2014 floods, the high-cost dredgers which the Centre sent to de-silt the rivers were instead sometimes used to extract the best mud and sand for construction (the ironies of Kashmir are sometimes beyond belief!). Huge amounts of illicit money were made.

That sort of concentrated digging causes deep pits in the river bed and ridges of silt surrounding those pits in the river bed. That impedes the flow, which is a recipe recipe for flooding.

Steps must urgently be taken to restore the Wular, which was once Asia’s largest fresh-water lake. It has historically been the sea on the course of the river which regulated its flow. Over recent decades, it has been turned into a pit for garbage and plastic. Large tracts have been reclaimed on its periphery, and marshes now form a ring beyond that periphery.

The Dal has been dead for some years, since the springs at the bottom of the lake are stuffed and non-functional — stifled. Even the surface of the lake continues to be despoiled: apart from reclamation in overgrown portions, a tract has come up over the past few years, which could end up dividing the lake.

The adjacent Nagin lake, which remained largely pristine until a couple of decades ago, is now going the same way. Srinagar’s third lake, the Anchar, has been completely lost to reclamation and corruption.

Sooner than later, we must wake up to the fact that Kashmir’s lakes, streams, and forests are not only a large part of its world-renowned beauty, and therefore integral to its identity, they are also the key to its fertility and ability to sustain the largest concentration of population in the Himalayas.

Ladakh is four times bigger than Kashmir, but is barely able to sustain its population, which is 33 times smaller than that of the Valley. This is mainly because barren lands form most of Ladakh. Without its bounteous organic output — of rice, mustard, fish, vegetables, fruit, dry fruit, flowers, and other products, Kashmir too would not be able to sustain its dense population.

It is imperative that, at least now that a ‘naya,’ stable, and peaceful Kashmir has been promised, the protection of its forests, rivers, and lakes are given high priority.

(David Devadas is a seasoned journalist with a deep understanding of the Kashmir issue. He is the author of The Story of Kashmir and The Generation of Rage in Kashmir (OUP, 2018). He also analyses politics, geopolitics and security matters.)

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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