Why Srinagar dreads this day; and why it could recur again, and again

19th September 2020

19th September 2020

Wullar Lake which holds key to Valley's fate

Some Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) terrorists fired in air, vandalised machinery at the site and beat up some labourers at Adipora on August 27, 2012. They announced that the works being carried out at Wullar lake there were in violation of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) signed between India and Pakistan on September 19, 1960.

What was the objective of these terrorists who act as Pakistan proxies in Kashmir valley and beyond? As they themselves made it clear, they were defending supposed rights of Pakistan as stated in the IWT. Of course, for doing so, firing in the air, beating up labourers and damaging machinery helped them create a fear psychosis.

This in turn helped them achieve their objective (dictated by Pakistan) of disruption of the ongoing project of dredging the lake. The work had been initiated due to personal intervention of then PHE, Irrigation and Flood Control Minister Taj Mohiuddin. It may be recalled that then Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had also visited the project site.

In 2012, Taj had declared openly that Kashmir could be devastated by large scale floods if no mitigation measures were initiated. He accorded top priority to restoration of vast Wullar lake located west of Srinagar city. His logic while forecasting floods was simple: Periodicity of floods in Kashmir.

According to Taj, Wullar acted as a large natural sponge for the entire Kashmir valley and absorbed excess water from the rains in its swamps. These waters get released as if oozing out from a sponge during lean winter season and downstream power generation and other needs are met.

Chief Engineer of I&FC Lanker, Xen B L Saproo and others associated with the project were aware of the grave situation unfolding. As such, they had mobilised dozens of JCBs, tipper trucks for removal of dredged materials and semi-skilled labourers required for the job. Simultaneously, the department had also acquired two dredgers for removal of silt from the Jhelum, along some identified stretches.

Taj said: It is important to conserve Wullar, which is a bountiful gift of nature. It plays a significant role in hydrographic system in the Valley by acting as a huge absorption basin for annual flood waters.

He had declared Wullar conservation project to be his "dream project". He stressed that the works had been initiated only after studying IWT minutely. Under the IWT, in Annexure E, it says at point number 9: India may construct on the Jhelum Main such works as it may consider necessary for flood control of the Jhelum Main and may complete any such works, provided that:

(I) any storage which may be effected by such works shall be confined to off-channel storage in side valleys, depressions or lakes and will not involve any storage in the Jhelum Main itself; and

(II) except for that part held in lakes, burrow pits or natural depressions, the stored waters shall be released as quickly as possible after the water recedes and returned to Jhelum Main lower down.

Taj and his dreaded prophecy

Taj was categorical in his assertions that any delay in undertaking the conservation works could lead to huge destruction in the next round of floods. He proved to be truly prophetic as massive floods hit Kashmir on September 7, 2014, two years after he had predicted them. The disruption of conservation and flood protection works harmed Kashmir immensely.

The planned auto-spillway and the lake's water holding capacity, which could have been augmented substantially due to dredging, and allied works, were all incomplete when the floods hit. The works envisaged de-weeding and clearing of swamps in the absence of which the large water body is practically a degraded land mass.

Incidentally, the water holding capacity of the lake changes with the variation in its area. At level 1574 metres, with an area covering 18 sq km, its holding capacity is only 0.138 Million Acre Feet (MAF). However, with dredging and allied flood protection measures, its level can be enhanced to 1579 metres to 90 sq km, and its capacity enhanced to 0.357 MAF.

Incidentally, floods are cyclical in nature in Kashmir and habitations get affected every now and then. The Kashmir Valley had seen massive floods in 1893, then 1902, again in 1905, in 1957 and late 1959. Due to the recurrent floods, Maharaja Pratap Singh had initiated flood mitigation works around 1900.

With the help of British engineers who were hired for a long time, the first Flood Spill Channel was constructed in 1903-04. This channel alone had a carrying capacity of 20,000 cusecs of water. Records are available in I&FC department regarding the present alignment of the channel which are over 115 years old.

Incidentally, the I&FC department of Kashmir had imported two dredgers which were of Ellicott Dredge dragon Series model 370. One of them was named Budshah II, which was assembled and launched at Jetty Baramulla. The second one was named Suyya II and was launched at Doabgah.

It was proposed that 44 lakh cums of sediment would be dredged. The dredging operations were to on a stretch from Ningli up to Baramulla, and from Ningli to Sheri Baramulla. However, all plans to carry out large scale flood protection works were derailed and thrown out of gear after the HM attack. Kashmir paid for that seemingly innocuous attack, in which no life was lost, dearly two years later.

Ironically, the significance and possible ramifications of the attack were not analysed in 2012 by any local papers operating out of Srinagar. Unfortunately, even after the 2014 floods that virtually drowned large areas of Kashmir are little understood.

Sant Kumar Sharma, a seasoned journalist, is an authority on Jammu and Kashmir. Two of his books on Article 370 and Delimitation are already out. The third one on Indus Waters Treaty is now out and could be bought here.

Sant began as a teacher but after six years, joined the Indian Express, Chandigarh in 1990, the year when terrorism was taking its first step in J & K and soon there would be exodus of lakhs of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley. He subsequently worked for The Statesman, The Times of India and Star News among others. He is based in Jammu since May 2000.

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