Eulogised for its beauty and a vital source of hydropower and irrigation, the Jhelum plays a major role in the socio-economic fabric of the Himalayan Kashmir valley in northern India. The Jammu and Kashmir Tourism website portrays the embankment areas of the Jhelum as perfect sites for camping and trekking and promises idyllic cruises down the river. But this centuries-old lifeline – which also flows into Pakistan and powers the turbines of the Mangla Dam downstream – is now under threat with pollution, siltation and rampant encroachment.

New ownership rights get in the way of anti-encroachment drive

The troubling issue of encroachment, which exacerbated the devastating floods of 2014, is under the spotlight with the Jammu and Kashmir High Court stepping in. Outrageous as it sounds, patches of land of the river are now owned by people with well documented ownership rights.

A major demolition drive along the banks of the Jhelum in December last year hit a roadblock with many encroachers showing documents of ownership rights over patches of land, including in the river-bed itself.

“Despite the removal of about 300,000 trees and 700 structures from encroached areas of the Jhelum in a recent demolition drive, hundreds of structures are still intact as the encroachers have managed to get stay orders from lower courts on the basis of property rights for the land which belongs to Jhelum,” an official of the flood control department in Srinagar told thethirdpole.net. He added that some encroachers had ended up legalising their illegal occupation, obviously with the connivance of concerned revenue officials.

This has prompted the state high court to ask all deputy commissioners to furnish details of the original width of Jhelum all along its course from revenue records. “The court has sought this information to compare the present position with the earlier records. But it will require quite an investigation to nail the real culprits,” said another official.

Most encroachments, said senior officials of the district flood control departments in southern districts of Anantnag and Pulwama, came up in the years between early 1990s to 2005 when the armed conflict in Kashmir was at its peak. The number of deaths during the conflict was in the tens of thousands, and the violence had a terrible effect on the working of the bureaucracy.

“When we would go and try to stop the illegal occupation of riverbanks, we would get warnings of serious consequences later in the evening,” a senior official, who preferred anonymity, said while recalling the difficulties of routine administration duties during the years of the armed uprising in Kashmir.

“Obviously, because of threat to life, people like me willy-nilly overlooked even illegal actions while some revenue officials might have given revenue documents to some people under duress,” the official admitted.

Pollution haunts the Valley

The problem of unauthorised encroachments is worsened by the twin problems of pollution and siltation. Clearly, the lessons from the floods of 2014 and 2015, triggered by siltation and encroachment of the Jhelum, are still to be learnt.

Experts and government officials say that no conservation effort would work until effective measures were taken for controlling pollution and siltation of the riverbed.  The Jhelum has witnessed heavy pollution over the last two decades with liquid and solid waste from home toilets and hotels in Anantnag, Pulwama, Srinagar and Baramullah districts draining into the river without any treatment, said Shabir Ahmad, a scientist working in the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB).

“If it was not for the constant freshwater inputs from Lidder and other major tributaries to Jhelum, we would see nothing but sludge flowing in Jhelum,” Ahmad told thethirdpole.net.

About 100 cusecs of untreated waste is channelled into the Jhelum each day through 80 small and large de-watering stations in different parts of Srinagar, the summer capital of the state. Srinagar has a population of 1.4 million and a floating population of thousands of tourists in summers.

“We are now preparing a plan for sewage treatment plants which can treat the sewage before it goes into Jhelum,” said Ram Lal Pankhotra, executive engineer city drainage (civil division.

Unfortunately the illegal encroachments during the days of militancy are getting in the way of cleaning up the pollution as well. The Roshni Act, which allowed people who had illegally occupied state land to acquire ownership for nominal charges, has come to haunt the state. Originally envisaged to for generate financial resources for the state and end a period of legal confusion, the end result of the legislation is that no land is available for much needed anti-pollution measures.

“There is hardly any space to build these sewage treatment plants (STPs) at or near the banks of the Jhelum in Srinagar city. Even land under some of our dewatering stations is now owned by people after the implementation of Roshni Act. So we are in a fix over where to make the STPs,” said an official of the Srinagar Municipal Corporation, on condition of anonymity.

Study reveals extent of pollution, environmental degradation

That these treatment plants are urgently needed is not in doubt. The concentration of nitrate-nitrogen in the river has increased from 185 to 672μgL−1, indicating an increase of 260% over the years, reveals a study, ‘Massive land system changes impact water quality of the Jhelum River in Kashmir Himalaya’ published by Shakil Roomshoo, Irfan Rashid and others, assessing changes in water quality from 1983 to now.

This, according to the study, has happened due to the combined impact of urbanization, reckless application of pesticides and fertilizers, forest degradation and deforestation. The study adds that aquatic vegetation in lakes and wetlands has gone up by 110% during the past four decades, thereby affecting the health of socio-economically and ecologically important ecosystems.

While settlements have shown a 397% increase in the observation period, 18% of the forested area in Jhelum’s catchment has degraded into sparse forest or scrublands from 1972 to 2010. Areas under croplands have decreased by 24% as people shifted from irrigation-intensive agriculture to orchard farming.

Silting the river

The degradation of green areas has resulted, in turn, in massive soil erosion in Jhelum’s catchment. This erosion has resulted in heavy siltation of the river and wetlands like Wullar Lake which are fed by the river.

According to Nazir Shadab, joint director at Kashmir’s soil conservation department, 33% area of major and micro watersheds of Jhelum is prone to erosion. There are a number of severely prone areas like Ranipora, Hapatnar and Ishnar in south Kashmir (where deforestation has occurred in recent years) and Gogji Pathri, Sukhnag and Shalnar in central Kashmir. “All the silt coming from these areas settles in Jhelum,” Shadab told thethirdpole.net.

Thus uncontrolled urbanisation during the days of the militancy, legalised after the fact, is having a deleterious impact on the lives of the people living in Kashmir. Having destroyed many lives, the legacy of the conflict, through environmental degradation, continues to destroy livelihoods today.

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