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Uchhali, Pakistan’s forgotten Ramsar wetland

Overuse of water, poaching, garbage force birds away from Punjab’s very special lakes, till revival of a plan brings hope
Uchhali wetlands [image by: WWF Pakistan]
Uchhali wetlands [image by: WWF Pakistan]

A mellow winter sun, migratory birds abounding in a series of brimming lakes – Ashiq Ahmad Khan was mesmerised at the sight of Uchhali in 2010. A decade later, all he feels is despair at the state of this Ramsar wetland.

“Uchhali has been drained, degraded, and polluted to the maximum,” Khan told The Third Pole after a recent visit. “The Government of Pakistan accepted responsibility for its management under the Ramsar Convention, but the situation at the site is entirely different.”

Khan, an expert associated with the environmental NGO Ev-K2-CNR, was shocked enough to write to the government, WWF Pakistan and other agencies. His letter mentioned the Pakistan Wetland Programme, jointly run by WWF and the government. He recalled the two reports produced in 2011 under the programme – Pakistan National Wetlands Policy and Management Plan of Uchhali Wetland Complex. “Both are just ‘Drafts’ with beautiful covers, pictures and high-quality paper,” Khan’s letter said.

The letter has sparked a revival of the management plan.

Ramsar site bird takes off in Uchhali wetland complex
A winged visitor takes off from Uchhali [image by: WWF Pakistan]

The lakes

The Uchhali Wetland Complex is in the U-shaped Soon Sakesar Valley of the Khushab, a district in Pakistan’s Punjab province. It is at the foothills of the Salt Range Mountains between the Indus and Jhelum rivers.

The catchment area of the three brackish-water lakes (Uchhali, Khabikki and Jahlar) that make up the complex is 381 square kilometres; their surface area totals 12.43 square kilometres. The complex is surrounded by 13 villages, with a population of 69,317, according to the latest census.

The Ramsar Convention designated the complex a wetland of international importance on March 22, 1996, because it is a major bird habitat. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recognises Uchhali as Pakistan’s only habitat for the endangered white-headed ducks (Oxyura leucocephala) that spend winters in South Asia.

Other important bird species found in Uchhali include the imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca), sociable plover (Vanellus gregarius), greater flamingo, pied harrier, greylag goose and ferruginous duck (Aythya nyroca).

Deer, foxes and many other animals live around the lakes.

Flamingos in Uchhali
Flamingos in Uchhali [Image by: WWF Pakistan]

Ramsar site destruction

The wetland complex is surrounded by farms known for their vegetables. The local climate enables early ripening of vegetables, so farmers earn premium prices for their products.

The farms are irrigated directly from the lakes through Persian wheels and groundwater is pumped up 24 hours a day. The number of drought years is going up all the time due to climate change, so the dependence on irrigation is rising. Khan said the water table has already fallen drastically.

Tahir Rasheed, regional director of WWF (Sindh and Baluchistan), agreed. Monoculture is another reason for overuse of water, he added. Most farmers now grow cabbages, a water guzzling vegetable. There is also the unregulated garbage dumping and the flow of pesticide-laden water from the farms.

Ramsar site common teal male Uchhali
A common teal in Uchhali [image by: WWF Pakistan]

Add poaching, and it is little surprise that a 2019 survey by the Punjab Wildlife Research Centre (PWRC) found only 20,746 birds, though there are records of over 100,000 birds in 1983-84.

Khan said he has seen hunters with guns and dogs. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, an activist who lives in a nearby village, Agali, said locals did help the hunters and made some extra money in the process.

It is little wonder that birds have been veering away from Uchhali in recent years. Rasheed said not a single white-headed duck has been seen in the lakes this winter, an observation backed by the PWRC.

Birds flying above Uchhali [image by: WWF Pakistan]
Birds flying above Uchhali [image by: WWF Pakistan]

Revival of a plan

Rasheed said the 2011 management plan is still awaiting government approval. Part of the reason is that the remit of the relevant federal ministry shifted from environment to climate change. Another reason is that environment is now a provincial rather than a federal matter, following an amendment to the country’s Constitution. The plan has kept moving from bureaucrat to bureaucrat.

One positive sign was a recent meeting between bureaucrats, WWF, IUCN and others. It was decided that WWF and IUCN would review the 2011 plan, add laws that empower provincial governments and suggest any other changes they thought necessary.

A bird returns to the family in Uchhali [image by: WWF Pakistan]

Rasheed said that in January the updated plan will be sent to the provinces for their inputs. It is now likely to suggest a change in cropping pattern around the lakes, with encouragement to grow crops like potatoes, that do not need much water. He also spoke of ecotourism activities such as boating and birdwatching that would give locals an economic reason to conserve the wetlands.

western reef heron
Western reef heron at Uchhali [image by: WWF Pakistan]

Rasheed is even hoping that a revived Uchhali management plan will give a fillip to conservation of 18 more Ramsar sites around Pakistan.

Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Climate Change Malik Amin Aslam said, “The management plan for the Uchhali wetlands complex is being updated and will be approved soon.”

“Under the Prime Minister’s protected area initiative, the government is committed to not only enhancing the coverage of protected areas but also investing in improving the management of these national parks and nature reserves. Uchhali Wetlands Complex is a unique and valued site and will definitely be part of this programme,” Aslam added.

Uchhali at dusk [image by: WWF Pakistan]
Uchhali at dusk [image by: WWF Pakistan]