‘There’s no water, and no birds’ – mourning the Queen Wetland of Kashmir

Facing devastation from badly conceived flood-protection plans, local birders and volunteers seek to keep one of Kashmir’s most crucial wetlands alive

In the last few years, Reyan Sofi, a birder from Kashmir, has seen fewer and fewer migratory birds arriving to spend the winter in Hokersar Wetland, which he visits every day. Known as the ‘Queen Wetland of Kashmir’, Hokersar (also known as Hokera) is designated by Ramsar as an internationally important wetland, historically offering a seasonal home for half a million wintering birds. But it has been seriously degraded in recent years after a flood management programme, intended to protect nearby Srinagar city, resulted in dredged earth being dumped in the wetland and half-constructed channels diverting water away. Large areas of the 1,375-hectare wetland are now dry.

Wanting to save Hokersar, some local residents, like social worker Javeed Ahmad, have been trying to intervene on a personal level. Ahmad spends his spare time picking up the rubbish strewn across the wetland. This is part of the fallout from the dredging project launched by the government following devastating floods in 2014, but which has been poorly implemented, with important conditions set out before the dredging not fulfilled. With scant resources, Ahmad has not been able to change much.

The wintering season has begun in Kashmir, when thousands of birds should be arriving from northerly breeding grounds. But looking at the grim water situation in Hokersar, Sofi fears that many migratory birds are heading elsewhere, unable to find suitable habitat in the Hokersar Wetland: “If the Hokersar wetlands keep drying up, I don’t think they will come here any more”.

In March 2021, The Third Pole contacted Kashmir’s Irrigation and Flood Control Department regarding this issue. At the time, Iftikhar Kakroo, the IFC’s chief engineer, said that “over 60% of the excavated material has been removed from Hokersar Wetland and the entry and exit gates will also be constructed soon”.