Wildlife & Biodiversity

Kanwar lake, Bihar’s only Ramsar site, faces challenge of survival but not a poll issue

Encroachment and drying of the lake has badly affected birds who have lost their habitat

 
By Mohd Imran Khan
Published: Wednesday 15 May 2024
Photo: Author provided

The apalling condition of Bihar’s Kanwar Lake, locally known as ‘Kabartal’, was not an issue in ongoing Lok Sabha elections. The lake, located in Begusarai district that went to polls on May 13, 2024, is the first and only wetland in the state of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.

But the dying Kabartal found no mention in the election agenda — no political party expressed its intention to save Asia’s largest freshwater oxbow lake from further damage.

A senior official of the state forest, environment and climate change department admitted that the condition of the Kanwar Lake has been deteriorating and the drying area has been increasing. More and more the lake has been encroached upon for agricultural purposes and the waterbody’s bird population has been on the decline. Considering this, there is a need to take urgent measures to save it.

Environment and bird experts have sounded an alarm over the state of the lake. “Kanwar Lake, a Ramsar site, is slowly drying and dying. This is a big threat for birds, both migratory and local. Water is missing in the large part of this big wetland — a bad sign,” said Arvind Mishra, a Bihar-based bird expert who has been regularly visiting the lake for bird survey and research. 

“The birds have been facing habitat destruction, habitat encroachment and massive hunting,” he noted, adding that any visitor will be surprised to find hundreds of bird-trapping nests all around the lake.

Till three or four decades ago, Kanwar Lake was spread over 6,000-7,000 hectares and became the largest hub of migratory birds. But over the years, the lake size reduced, the amount of water also declined and some areas dried up. 

In 1986, the state government notified it as a protected area. Later, the central government declared it as a sanctuary to stop the poaching of birds.

Encroachment and drying of the lake has been terrible for the migratory and local bird population. Photo: Author provided 

Mishra said a wetland like Kanwar without water in its major parts is a matter of serious concern. Kanwar needs a lot of water urgently because most of the issues will be solved if water availability is made possible, the expert added. During the dry summer, hardly 1,000 birds, including migratory species, have been spotted in Kanwar due to water shortage, he said, adding that any other wetland has more birds than Kanwar now because of water shortage. 

Kanwar is a rainfed lake, said Mahesh Bharti, an expert on the waterbody. “In summer, water level over large areas shrink but the lake is full in monsoon.” It is, thus, wrong to suggest that Kanwar will die, he pointed out. “There is no question of its death as long as rainfall continues during monsoon. Even in the hot days of May, water is available in over 1,000 acres of the lake.”

The expert, however, shared that in the nearly four years since Kanwar was declared a Ramsar site, no effort was made to save it. “Kanwar’s condition is not good. In the last two decades, it deteriorated fast. Different agencies of the state and the central government should work to improve the ecological condition of the lake. Hunting of birds is rampant despite the fact that the number of migratory birds has drastically fallen," stressed Bharti, who runs the Kanwar Nature Club.

According to a district forest official, the drying of the Kanwar Lake has adversely affected the livelihood of thousands of fisherfolk who live near it and forced many to migrate outside in search of other jobs. “This lake was used to be the source of income for the fisher community. But after the lake started drying and forcibly encroached upon by some powerful farmers, the tension between fisherfolk and farmers became palpable,” the official mentioned. “Fishers claim right over fishing in the lake and farmers claim right of farming."

The former chairperson of the state pollution control board, Ashok Ghosh, said Kanwar Lake is a unique wetland and deserves government attention to save it as the lake is facing some challenge for years. He added that increasing silt accumulation, deforestation and dispute over farmland in the lake must be resolved.

As natural sources of water around the lake vanished over the years and the water channel from Burhi Gandak River to the lake has been totally disrupted, the lake is left with overdependence on the monsoon rainfall, said Mishra. “The government should link the lake with a canal from the river to ensure flow of water.”

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