The Wular, sprawled across North Kashmir’s Bandipora and Baramulla districts, is believed to be Asia’s second largest freshwater lake.

There are conflicting accounts of how large it is. Some studies suggest it was 200 square kilometres in the past. Revenue records claim it is about 130 square kilometres. It is generally accepted, however, that the lake has shrunk.

A study by Wetlands International South Asia, commissioned by the government and published in 2007, says the lake has been reduced to about 87 square kilometres over the past century.

Much of this shrinking was because of the willow plantations that spread across about 27.3 square kilometres of the lake, the report said. To conserve the Wular, the willows had to go.

In September, the government of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir finally submitted a report on conserving the Wular to the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. The action taken report was in reply to a petition filed in the court by an environmental group.

The centrepiece of the report was the cutting down of 1.2 lakh willow trees, which had restored about 4.35 square kilometres of “critically” silted up area. Another 70,000 trees would be felled soon, said the Wular Conservation and Management Authority’s report.

“These trees are not part of the lake’s natural ecosystem. They were planted decades ago by the government as well as people to meet the firewood needs of the public,” explained Mudasir Mehmood Malik, project coordinator of the Wular Conservation and Management Authority. “For the lake, these trees act as sort of a weed and it impacts the lake’s ecosystem negatively.”

The Rs 200 crore Wular Action Plan to increase the lake’s water-holding capacity would be completed by 2023, the report said. Already, Rs 164 crore had been spent since 2019 – around 97% of these funds had gone into cutting trees, grubbing out roots and dredging out silt. Malik believed the project would be completed by the end of this year.

While most studies back the need to cut down trees to reduce silting, they also point to the environmental costs of such an exercise. Environmental activists point to the fact that the Wular is not just a lake but also a wetland with its own ecosystem, which is home to a variety of birds. Besides, it is not siltation alone that threatens the Wular.

Saving the Wular, draining the Valley

The Wular is key to the overall ecology of the Kashmir Valley. About 88% of the lake’s water comes from the Jhelum, the main waterway of the Valley. The Jhelum rises from the springs of South Kashmir and is fed by tributaries along the way as it meanders through Srinagar before finally draining into the Wular. It then leaves the lake through a channel in Uri in Baramulla before entering Pakistan.

“Wular is the reservoir of the river Jhelum and acts as a kind of sink. If the water doesn’t go there, there are high chances of flooding,” explained Akhlaq Amin Wani at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology. Felling the willows was necessary to maintain water flows in the Valley, which saw devastating floods in 2014, when cities drowned as there was nowhere for the water to go.

Malik pointed out that siltation had created small islands in the lake that blocked water movement. Restoring “water connectivity” was crucial. But such a project was not without its perils.

“Cutting any tree, anywhere, is not good for our ecosystem or climate,” Wani added. “But in the context of the Wular, you have to see the significance of the lake in a broader sense. The strategic point in a situation like this is always: What came first? Trees or the lake?”

Wani, who specialises in forest management, explained that all lakes have a life cycle and are bound to be filled up one day by the slow process of sedimentation. “Ultimately, they die their own death,” he said. “Now, you can delay it but you can’t avoid it. Therefore, dredging inside the lake is an ongoing process.”

About 1.2 lakh willows have been felled. Photo: Sheikh Yawar

How many trees?

The 2007 report by Wetland International South Asia also notes that the Wular’s ability to “regulate flows has drastically” gone down. Siltation, the conversion of wetlands into agricultural fields and willow plantations had also reduced the lake’s water-holding capacity by a fifth, the report said.

“Based on an average plantation density of 1000 trees per ha (hectares), it is estimated that 21.84 lakh trees need to be uprooted using manual and mechanical means,” said the report.

What followed over the next few years was a debate on the costs and benefits. How many willows should be cut? How much money should be spent? How much would be gained?

The 2007 report suggested a budget of Rs 386.39 crore, to be spent over five years, on dredging and conserving the Wular. “It was too costly for the government at that time,” said Malik. “Around 2012, the state government sanctioned Rs 120 crores for the project, out of which only 60 crores were released.”

It was the same year in which the government set up the Wular Conservation Management Authority. But work was still slow – over the next few years, only Rs 45 crore of the released funds had been spent, said Malik.

In 2016, a joint study by the Union environment ministry and the German government weighed the economic feasibility of axing the willow plantations. Removing the willows and dredging the lake would improve holding capacity and save Rs 1.05 billion in flood damage, it estimated. There were other gains – profits to be made from selling the willows, increased hydropower generation and fish production. However, it also warned of the environmental costs of the exercise, from soil erosion to the spread of invasive species and the loss of a natural carbon sink.

An environmental impact assessment study by Kashmir University in 2014 also had similar warnings. While it recommended the removal of willow plantations, it advised special monitoring against “invasive species” of weeds becoming the “first colonizers” of new open water spaces.

The current plan has considerably scaled down the ambitions of the 2007 report. “We are now targeting only 5.6 lakh trees,” said Malik. “In the first phase, we only plan to cut 1.9 lakh trees, out of which we have already cut 1.2 lakh. If water movement within the lake improves even with that number, we’ll not go for further cutting of trees.”

Second thoughts

Wani conceded that the conservation authority’s compensatory afforestation plan could help mitigate the damage done by felling the willow plantations inside the lake.

In its recent report to the court, the Wular Conservation and Management Authority said it had planted nearly 17 lakh saplings in the lake’s catchment area to arrest soil erosion and help with groundwater recharge.

But it appears the authorities themselves want reassurance that their conservation plan is working. Once the three-year Wular Action Plan is completed, the conservation authorities plan to seek more funding for the next phase of the lake’s restoration. But not before taking stock of the entire conservation and management exercise.

“We are in talks with the National Institute of Hydrology to conduct a midway study about the whole conservation process and the impact of measures we have taken so far,” said Malik. “We want to know if whatever we are doing is helping us in achieving the objectives or if we need course correction.”

Willow trees are carted away on boats in the Wular. Photo: Sheikh Yawar

The waste problem

So far, the conservation plan has overwhelmingly focused on dredging out the silt and creating open water spaces. But it is not siltation alone that threatens the Wular.

Thousands of tonnes of untreated solid waste flow into the lake through the Jhelum and other catchment areas every year.

The Wular Conservation and Management Authority said it had shut down two waste dumping sites in Baramulla and Sopore, both close to the lake. However, the waste generated by 30 villages surrounding the lake directly flows into it. “We are taking some villages on a pilot basis to develop a sustainable solution for the waste management in these villages,” explained Malik.

Still, the Jhelum continues to pour enormous amounts of solid and liquid waste into the lake. “We can’t do anything about that as it’s the responsibility of other departments. Our focus is on immediate waste management,” Malik said.

Restoring a lake, losing a wetland?

Activists and environmentalists criticise the conservation plan as “uni-directional”.

“Their focus is siltation and dredging which is a never-ending process. Silt will keep flowing and depositing into the lake,” said Shaikh Ghulam Rasool, a Right to Information campaigner known for his environmental activism.

To a large extent, the remedy may lie outside the lake, Rasool noted. “Due to massive deforestation and unplanned development in ecologically fragile areas, soil erosion has increased,” he said. “This has resulted in an increase in the amount of silt which is carried by the water. If we focus on arresting the amount at the origin, we may not need to cut so many trees.”

Irfan Jeelani, a birder from central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district, said the authorities needed to adopt a comprehensive conservation plan that took into account the conservation of species that live around the lake.

“Wular is not only a lake – it’s also a wetland which was given the status of a Ramsar site in 1990,” Jeelani said. The Ramsar convention on wetlands is an intergovernmental treaty that deals with the conservation of wetlands, specifically those listed as sites of international importance.

“The conservation efforts of the authorities are only lake-oriented. They should be wetland-oriented, too,” said Jeelani, who sees the lake as a dynamic habitat. “Every lake has phases. It will have a main water body, then a transition habitat of trees, another patch may be only a grassland. All of them are linked to each other with a natural balance.”

The felling of trees and desilting would disturb this balance. “They have to take care of every habitat,” he said. “They believe that by clearing the lake, they have restored it. That’s not right. The transition zones and other habitats in the lake are important and their conservation is also important.”