(L to R) Tariq A. Patloo, Jannat and Nadeem Qadri from Kashmir are trying to protect the state’s wetlands and inspire others to join the movement. Illustration by Ghazal Qadri for Mongabay.

Currently, the group has 25 functioning Eco Watch teams (across 23 districts of J&K and one each in Kargil and Leh). In the last few months, these teams have spurred into action, cleaning various water bodies – from freshwater springs at Verinag, Chatlam wetlands to a cleanliness drive at Kausar Nag at an altitude of 13,0000 feet above sea level.  Every awareness/cleanliness drive is recorded meticulously in their respective district Facebook pages. “The coronavirus (pandemic) has given us more time to look after our neighbourhood,” says Yousuf, who spearheaded a cleanliness drive at Chatlam wetland. The district teams have hundreds of volunteers ranging from retired professionals, scientists to school students getting their hands dirty to protect the neighbourhood water bodies.

Hydraulic engineering expert Ajaz Rasool who acts as the Chief Technical Advisor of Jammu & Kashmir Eco Watch told Mongabay-India that in the past, they have had individual groups to protect lakes like Dal and Wular. But now, with increased public awareness, more volunteers have joined the Eco Watch in each district.

“Despite lockdown, people are eager to clean their local water bodies (following safety protocols) and being the technical advisor, I have been sharing the methodology for eco restoration of the different aquatic systems (river, springs, lakes etc). We discuss strategies on which catchment area is more yielding, how to remove weeds in springs, how to handle solid waste management in our wetlands etc.,” he said. “People are now aware that we cannot lose our environmental assets anymore and they are proud of protecting it for their own sake.”

Apart from conducting regular cleanup drives for the last six months, Eco Watch volunteers have become “green intelligence” — “they are our eyes and ears when it comes to protecting the environment,” shares Qadri. Rasool agrees. “There is a sense of empowerment, the volunteers do not allow any mafia to cut trees illegally or throw garbage into our water bodies.”

With Qadri’s legal background, he facilitates legal recourse for the group. Eco Watch has over 15 lawyers who handle the legal petitions.

Volunteers clean the Verinag spring in Kashmir. Photo from Eco Watch.
Volunteers clean the Verinag spring in Kashmir. Photo from Verinag Eco Watch.

Communities for conservation

With both technical expertise and legal guidance, the Jammu & Kashmir Eco Watch is marching ahead. However, the crux of this initiative is the participation of local communities in conserving their regional water bodies and wetlands. Yousuf tells us that in the past, farmers traditionally would make a passage (known as Vyen Kadun in Kashmiri) in the peatland to enable the water to flow out to the Jhelum with ease. This kept the water from flooding the neighbouring farms. With urbanisation, this process died out. “I feel that this could have been a good flood mitigation strategy for the peat or wetlands,”  he said.

Patloo too rues about how the local Hanjis were squarely blamed for the deterioration of Dal lake. “People who were illegally encroaching need to be punished but it is unfair to blame the entire community of lake dwellers. In fact, people depending on the lake for livelihood would harvest the lily pads to feed their livestock and kept weeds in check.”

Programmes like Eco Watch aim to put the onus back on the local communities to protect their own neighbourhood. “We have plans to establish 250 Eco-development committees across different districts to protect the wetlands. We want the local people to be in charge of conservation and management of these unique biodiversity hotspots,” shares Qadri.

“And it works,” adds Yousuf. “More and more local students turn up to our open-air sessions of nature education programmes. Our cleanliness drives were a huge success despite lockdown restrictions. In fact, our Chatlam wetland reserve is easily one of the most well-maintained among the wetlands.”

Pampore, which saw the earliest of conservation interventions is already reaping results. The bar-headed geese was sighted here for the first time and several species like grey-headed swamphen, red-crested pochard, pheasant-tailed jacana, common coot and others have started breeding in good numbers. In between his awareness and cleanup programmes, you can catch Yousuf bird-watching with glee. “Sometimes, the place you live in shapes who you are,” smiles Yousuf.

The bar-headed geese in Pampore wetlands. These habitats provide shelter to migratory birds, livelihood opportunities to people, and act as buffer zones during floods. Photo from Wetland Research Centre.
The bar-headed geese in Pampore wetlands. These habitats provide shelter to migratory birds, livelihood opportunities to people, and act as buffer zones during floods. Photo from Wetland Research Centre.

 

Illustration by Ghazal Qadri, a Kashmiri born illustrator, currently living in Maryland, USA. Her work focuses on storytelling through comics and illustrations.

Article published by Aditi
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