The Jammu and Kashmir High Court has demanded a report from the fisheries department after shoals of dead fish washed ashore along the banks of the Jhelum near Lal Chowk on October 21. Pictures of the incident went viral, alarming locals and leading to rumours of poisoning in the river.
Seeking to allay the fears, Mohammed Amin Mir, Joint Director at fisheries department, attributed the incident to the opening of sluice gates at Chinar Bagh that released polluted water from the Gaw Kadal gauge. “Jhelum is suffering from a dry spell and when the gates were opened, polluted water entered the river, cutting down on the oxygen levels,” he said. According to an investigation by the fisheries department, this is the reason why only the Schizothorax fish was affected.
However, the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA), which has been blamed for opening the gates, dismissed the allegations. “It is the most illogical proposition. Why didn’t the fish inside the gate die then? The dead fish were found five to six kilometres away from the gate,” LAWDA vice-chairman Abdul Hafiz Shah said. He said the incident happened because fishermen added bleach in the water to increase their catch.
Whatever be the reason, the incident has caused panic among the fishing community. “Our fish have medicinal qualities, there is nothing wrong with them,” said Jigar Ahmed, a 75-year-old fisherman. Shakil Romshoo, who heads the Earth Sciences department at Kashmir University, seconded Shah’s opinion. “Adding of bleach is a common practice among fishermen,” he said.
Along with the depleting number of fish, Jhelum’s water level has also plummetted. The river’s water level of -0.70 feet at Sangam is unheard of for officials who have been looking at these markers for decades. Most attribute the low volume to the lack of rainfall, though Romshoo cited long-term changes. “This season rainfall is low, so about 80 per cent of Jhelum’s water comes from glaciers. Since 1960, about 22-23 per cent glacial cover has been lost,” he said.
While officials might bicker on the reason behind the dead fishes, they admitted lack of water had worsened pollution in the river. “Though most areas along the Jhelum add pollutants, the river takes a hit in Srinagar,” said Dr Syed Hussain, regional director (Kashmir) of the State Pollution Control Board. “The city produces 200 million litres of sewage a day, but only one-fourth of it is treated,” he claimed.
Romshoo pointed out the lack of Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) in the state. “There are no STPs along the river in Srinagar the ERA (Economic Reconstruction Agency) and later the UEED (Urban Environmental Engineering Department) laid out drainage systems that release untreated sewage directly into the river,” he said.
The UEED manages an STP at the Brari Nambal reservoir, which is in need of urgent restoration. Combined with another STP handled by LAWDA, treated water from Brari Nambal then enters the Jhelum. “Our STP (at Brari Nambal) often doesn’t operate at full capacity as the UEED is still to connect some drains,” LAWDA’s VC said.
The statistics relating to Jhelum hint at an impending water crisis and highlight the municipality and the government department’s lack of synchronisation. At receiving the end of Jhelum’s woes are people like Jigar Ahmed. She said fishes have grown scarce in the river. “Even though my sons spread wide fishing nets on the Jhelum every day, they manage to catch only one or two of kilos of fish,” she said. With a large family to look after and meagre earnings, her expectations from the authorities don’t run high. “Big leaders come and go but when poor people fall, there is no one to pick us up,” she rued.