Bihar’s wetlands are on a ventilator, but there is still hope from the ground

  • Wetlands in Bihar are facing multiple pressures: overfishing, encroachments, arsenic contamination and administrative apathy.
  • A Composite Water Management Index report released by NITI Aayog in June this year had placed Bihar among the worst performing states in terms of water management.
  • In 2016, the Bihar government took a significant step in the conservation of water bodies by banning the construction or re-construction of any building within a strip of land covering 200 metres of any water body.

Seventy-year-old Narayan Sahni reminiscences the days when he used to catch around 8-10 kilograms of fish from the Kanwar Lake in Bihar almost every day. The catch was enough to run his family of four, including his two children.

But for the past decade, he finds it a challenge to even catch 400-500 grams of fish from the lake over two days. Narayan fears that the Sahnis, a traditional fishing community from Bihar, would disappear from the state landscape if no serious steps are taken to save the wetlands.

“There is hardly any fish left in the lake as most of the area has been encroached on or transformed into agricultural land. There is no water even during the monsoons. Mass constructions have blocked the entry points of water into the lake, which has led to the destruction of biodiversity and loss of our livelihood,” he rued, taking a long breath and getting lost in memories of when the lake alone fed the hungry mouths of thousands of fishermen who depended on it.

A few metres away, Ravindra Sahni (40) has returned, disappointed after spending over five hours in the wetlands. The catch is not enough to feed his family, leave alone selling it. “I started early, around 4 am in the morning, in the hope of catching some fish but I got virtually nothing. The handful of fish is too little for my children. I cannot think of selling it. The wetlands have become death lands for us where our epitaphs would be written,” he said sounding visibly sad over the present state of affairs.

A disappointed Ravindra Sahni after his fishing trip on Kanwar Lake. Photo by Gurvinder Singh.

Situated in Begusarai district of north Bihar, around 125 kilometers from the state capital Patna, the Kanwar Lake Bird Sanctuary best summarises the fate of the wetlands in the state, which are in bad state thanks to excessive encroachments, coupled with the apathy of the administration that is yet to take the issue of dying wetlands seriously.

The rapidly shrinking Kanwar lake

The word “lake” now appears to be a misnomer for Kanwar, which has the distinction of being Asia’s largest oxbow lake. It has shrunk rapidly post 2000. An extensive study by Ashok Ghosh, a scientist and incumbent chairman of the Bihar State Pollution Control Board has found that the lake covered 6,786 hectares in 1984, which reduced to 6,043.825 hectares in 2004. By 2012, the lake was a mere 2,032 hectares in area.

His research had also found that the net area sown was 60 percent while the land put to non-agricultural use was 5.13 percent; the permanently water-logged area was a mere 2.80 percent.

The local fishermen want the sanctuary area to be reduced to 566 hectares and declared as a ‘Krishi-cum-Pakshi Vihar’ but so far the demand has remained unfulfilled. Even other lakes like Baraila and Gogabil suffer from similar issues of encroachment and siltation that is turning the water dirty.

The name Kanwar Lake is becoming a misnomer. Photo by Gurvinder Singh.

Bihar’s wetlands

The National Wetland Atlas of Bihar in 2010 had identified over 4416 wetlands with around 130 wetlands having an area of over 100 hectares. In addition, 17582 wetlands (smaller than 2.25 hectares) were also identified. The total wetland area was estimated to be around 4032.09 square km – about 4.4 per cent of the geographic area. The state government has declared nine wetlands covering an area of 125 square km as protected areas. Seven of these protected areas are bird sanctuaries.

Almost 90 percent of the wetlands are in North Bihar and are dependent upon six major tributaries of the Ganga flowing out from the central Himalaya on to the plains, between the Nepalese border and the Ganga itself.

From the river Gandak in the west to river Mahananda in the east, the northern part of the Gangetic plains is studded with numerous small freshwater lakes and chaurs (tectonic depressions), the vast majority of which are oxbow lakes marking the historical courses of the Bayanadi, Burhi Gandak, Sapt Kosi and Mahananda rivers.

The damage to the wetlands is not confined to these districts alone. The situation is worse in the state capital Patna, where several water bodies have been grabbed thanks to soaring land prices.

The disappearance of water bodies leads to massive water-logging during heavy showers in the city. “The erratic rainfall due to climate change has increased the importance of wetlands. They are equipped with natural water sinking capacity and absorb the water during the rains which is utilised for fishing and agricultural purposes. In Bihar and especially in Patna, the situation has reached to such a point that even the water bodies owned by the government have been encroached for illegal constructions,” pointed out Kumar Deepak, environment officer, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). “The choking of drains leads to water logging in the state capital and its periphery.”

The condition of water bodies in Patna. Photo by Kumar Deepak.

Wetlands are extremely important for Bihar that suffers from high level of arsenic in water.

Ghosh claims that a whopping one million people in 18 districts of state are reeling under arsenic poisoning against the official claim of 13 districts by the state government. The worst affected districts include Bhojpur, Buxar, Vaishali, Bhagalpur Saharsa and Khagaria.

In 2004-05, he had found 1900 micrograms of arsenic in one litre of water in the outskirts of Patna against the World Health Organization (WHO) prescribed limit of 10 micrograms. “The wetlands are the natural purifiers of toxic water as they dilute the arsenic level and recharge the underground water. The state needs more wetlands for survival but the rapid urbanisation has been leading to the spread of severe ailments like cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases among others as due to high level of arsenic in water,” said Ghosh.

Poor management

To add to the misery, a Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) report released by NITI Aayog in June this year had placed Bihar among the worst performing states in terms of water management. The report expressed concern as the states performing poorly on this index are home to around 50 percent of the country’s population and make up its agricultural basket.

The CWMI comprised 9 broad sectors with 28 different indicators covering various aspects of ground water, restoration of water bodies, irrigation, farm practices, drinking water, policy and governance.

When quizzed about it, senior state government officials in private raised questions on the authenticity of the report.

Wetlands are also home to a large range of birds, mammals, amphibians, fish, insects, crustaceans and reptiles.

Ali Hussain, a well-known naturalist, concedes that the vanishing wetlands have also deprived migratory birds of their safe havens. “Their numbers have obviously come down and fast disappearing wetlands is one of the reasons for it. The birds do not get adequate water and food as sugarcane cultivation has replaced the grains in most of the Gangetic wetlands flocked by the birds,” he said, while also blaming poaching for their dwindling numbers (despite the ban).

In 2016, the Bihar government took a significant step in the conservation of water bodies by banning the construction or re-construction of any building within a strip of land covering 200 metres of any water body.

“The state government is serious about the conservation of wetlands and it has already denied permission to construct a medical college over a wetland in Samastipur. We are trying to clear the inflow-outflow mechanism of the lakes so that they get uninterrupted supply of water. The state irrigation department has also prepared a budget proposal of Rs 5 crore for the protection of water bodies in the state,” said Santosh Tiwari, nodal officer (wetlands) in Bihar, while adding that the State Wetland Authority is yet to become functional.

He said that the government is focusing on the revival of Kanwar Lake, Baraila Bird Sanctuary in Baraila and Kusheshwar Asthan Bird Sanctuary in Darbhanga, all of which need immediate attention.

The Baraila bird sanctuary. Photo by Kumar Deepak.

A ray of hope from the ground

Amidst the grim, there is a story of hope too. A section of people have realised the importance of wetlands and are trying hard to save them.

The case at point is Mutlupur in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar, where a group of farmers have turned the wetlands into a productive area and source of livelihood.

The area is flood-prone as the rivers Gandak and Bagmati skirt the village on the northern and southern sides. The village had 87 acres of low-lying wetland, which were considered a blight since they were seemingly non-productive.

A group of 22 farmers consulted veterinary, agricultural, fishery and horticultural experts to apply on the ground the latest technologies and developments in integrated farming. The farmers have planted over 16,000 timber saplings in a bid to create green cover. The revival of the wetland has also led to an increase in fish catch that has generated livelihoods for several local youth and has managed to arrest migration.

Experts say that conservation of wetlands is necessary as they play host of roles in the ecosystem, “The damage to the wetlands stop carbon sequestration as they begin to release significant amounts of the stored carbon back into the atmosphere in the form of methane reducing their ability to sequester additional carbon. Their basic function was to act as sponges and they were nature’s own initiative at flood control but large scale urbanisation has led to the massive damage during the floods. Their sinking capacity is declining and they have been reduced to cesspools of foul-smelling filth. They were also home to variety of medicinal plant species used by the rural masses to treat many kinds of disorders but their destruction have also spelled doom for natural treatment of ailments,” rued Nilanjan Ghosh, Senior fellow and head of economics and water governance at Observer Research Foundation (ORF).

He concluded that creating awareness is the best and perhaps the only option to prevent wetlands from becoming wastelands.


Banner image: Narayan Sahni with his traditional fishing gear. Photo by Gurvinder Singh.

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