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Once pristine -pure Jhelum waters are turning noxious

June 9, 2011 - Srinagar

One of the rivers collectively referred to as 'Sapta-Sandhu', the river Jhelum is part of our natural and historical heritage flowing through Kashmir. Reference to it goes back to the period of the Rig-Veda, where it finds mention as 'Vitasta'. Down the ages, this has been a river, giving life-giving waters to the region.

There is a story about the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, who was drawn to its clear blue waters and called it 'Bebat'. Today sadly there are no 'clear blue waters' that enraptured Jahangir, but filthy, sluggish opaque waters that flow.

Jhelum originates in Pakistan and the name itself is derived from the city with the same name in our neighbouring country. The pollution begins even before it enters Kashmir.

"Most of the drains from Islamabad to Baramullah flow directly into the river Jhelum severely affecting its flora and fauna" laments a source in Flood and Irrigation Department. The tragedy begins at these crucial entry points, marked by an absence of effective sewerage system.

Today, the sight that greets you on the riverbank is huge piles of garbage from Khawaja Bhag to Khanpore and from Azad Gunj to Khadneyar, areas in North Kashmir. A large population resides on the banks of the river, which leads to piles of garbage. The tendency of even sweepers of Municipal Corporation has been to dump the collected trash along the riverbanks.

There is massive construction happening all across Kashmir, gobbling up its pristine countryside at a frenetic pace. This is threatening the banks and even the water quality of rivers like the Jhelum. The river passes Srinagar and major towns like Baramullah and the signs of this frenzied construction is apparent all the way on its meandering route.

This is apparent in Khanabal Bridge, Bijbehara, Sangam, Halmula, Kakpora, Samboora, Guru, and Padhgampura, in district Anantnag in South Kashmir. The construction industry is chomping its way through Cement Bridge, Chattabal, Habba Kadal, Drab-Yaar, all areas in Srinagar city.

Chief Engineer, M.R. Showla of the Flood and Irrigation department is quick to comment "from Sonawar Ghat -Dubgi Ghat some 495 illegal structures have come up, of which 458 have been removed and rehabilitated".

Despite the existence of the Water Resources (Management and Regulation) Act 2010 that provides executive powers to the concerned authorities to act against the wrongdoers, pollution and massive illegal construction on the banks of Jhelum across North and South Kashmir is continuing unabated.

A few years ago, the authorities had started a beautification drive of Jhelum banks at several places, but no effort was made to improve the water quality of this famed river. The colour and the purity of the waters changes as it moves from the countryside to the urban areas. It becomes sluggish, shallow and devoid of the gush and sparkle of its original waters.

Apart from the garbage, there is also silt, which makes its way into the river. Silting is a common enough phenomenon particularly in the low hills where it gets accumulated due to erosion in catchments.

In a sense, the river is under threat, not from one area or activity but from a mindless approach smacking of an uncaring attitude, negligence. For sustaining and nurturing our environment, our natural resources are inexorably tied to the human condition.

By turning a Nelson's eye to the degradation, the authorities and indeed civil society is responsible for the waters turning noxious. And this is happening. All these wanton activities are in effect killing the once pristine, pure waters of the famed Jhelum, reducing it to little more than a polluted drain.

According to experts, the waters of the river have turned 'Eutrophic'. This means that the oxygen content dissolved in the water stands dangerously reduced, a direct consequence of the effluents and other matter.

This then leads to a proliferation of life forms like algae and eventually to the extinction of other organisms in the waters. In technical terms it is referred to as high Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD), which robs the waters of its life-sustaining capacity.

There is an underlying threat to the balance and harmony in the environment in Kashmir. The pollution in River Jhelum is thus not an isolated phenomenon but reflects a lacunae in policy, its implementation, community participation in preserving what is referred to the 'commons'.

Everything is inter-related. For instance the overgrazing of the pastures, the massive deforestation caused by construction activity leads to soil erosion. Today 80 percent of the catchments area of this river is affected by this.

It is reaching crises proportions today. According to a recent survey conducted by State Pollution Control Board (SPCB), the waters show a high concentration of phosphorus and nitrogen, a result of the huge amounts of waste including faeces and urine; biomedical wastes being released on a daily basis into the Jhelum.

Environmentalist Dr Mubashir Jeelani is concerned about the presence of heavy metal in the water content, being spewed out by commercial establishments and hospitals along the course of the river.

There are other threats as well; sand mining, a highly lucrative business which runs in an unregulated way. There is a system in place, which grants permission to individuals, and organizations to extract sand but the number of illegal establishments probably equal those with the required permissions.

According to Showla of the Irrigation and Flood Control Department, in South Kashmir, some 453 illegal sand mining outfits were in operation. The department has taken action and between December 2010 and the present, several offenders have been bought to book with a recovery of Rs 2 lakh as compounded challan in court.

Houseboat owners too are involved in manual sand extraction, again with only few being registered to carry on this activity. They too continue extracting this natural resource to the detriment of the rivers and take shelter in the fact that the system for keeping vigil and bringing offenders to book is slack.

The picture is dismal. The Charkha Development Communication network feels that unless the authorities take concerted action to preserve the environment, not only the Jhelum but the natural heritage of the beautiful valley of Kashmir will continue to be under threat. By Zeenat Zeeshan Fazil ANI)


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