Summer of discontent
A wetland which is one of the Ramsar sites in India, struggles to maintain its character due to lack of water.
14 Dec 2016
An Indian cormorant dries its wings at Keoladeo national park, Bharatpur. (Source: Aastha Singh, Wikimedia Commons)

On a 29 sq km tract of land in Bharatpur, Rajasthan lies the wildlife reserve, Keoladeo national park, locally known as Ghana. Birds enjoy the open water while wildlife roams freely in this montage of wetland, grassland and forest. The wetland, which is man-made, has a diversity of open water, trees and grasses. Historically, it served as a hunting ground of Maharajahs for ducks which can be seen skimming its waters at all times. The wetland site protected the town of Bharatpur which flooded often. The area also served as a grazing ground for local cattle.

Now, Keoladeo is a wintering and breeding area for thousands of aquatic birds from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, China and Siberia, but most notably, the endangered Siberian crane can be seen lounging on the wetlands. Keoladeo was considered by many, like the famous British ornithologist Sir Peter Scott, as the richest bird area in the world.  

One of the best bird-watching sites in Asia

Keoladeo was notified as a sanctuary for birds in 1956. The reserve was declared a Ramsar site or ‘wetland of international importance’ in 1982. It is also a UNESCO-listed national park now. As beautiful as it is today, the wetland attracts over a lakh of visitors a year. As per a government report, the wetland has created a rich habitat; it’s home to 366 bird species, 379 floral species, 50 species of fish, 13 species of snakes, five species of lizards, seven amphibian and turtle species each, and a variety of other invertebrates.

Located near the confluence of Gambhir and Banganga rivers, Keoladeo was a natural depression. Wetlands were created around 250 years ago and were flooded from the Ajan Bund constructed by Maharaja Surajmal in the 1700s to increase the water holding capacity of the area. As a management practice, water levels have to be maintained in various wetland blocks through a water distribution system to provide suitable habitat to a wide range of migratory birds. Water is pumped into the fresh water swamps for winter while it remains flooded all through the monsoon. There are some 10 swamps divided by dykes with sluice gates to control the level of water in each. During the monsoon months, water stands to a height of one to two metres, while the entire stretch is dry during summers barring some depressions. This wetting and drying keep the condition of the wetland suitable for migratory birds. The wetland requires specific management and procedures.

While a variety of migratory birds have fitted into the agricultural landscape of the 27 villages near the park, of late the people have begun to complain that bulls, feral cattle, and deer are spotted sneaking out of the park to raid crop fields.

Great egret at Keoladeo national park in Bharatpur. (Source: Nikhil Chandra, Wikimedia Commons)

Water conflict in the reserve

The park, with a third of its area as freshwater swamps, was faced with severe drought during the mid-2000s. Bikram Grewal, a conservationist writes in Conservation India that “in 2004, in order to appease farmers belonging to a particular community, the then chief minister of Rajasthan (Vasundhara Raje Scindia) issued an order diverting water from the Ajan Bund away from the Bharatpur marshes and into the fields surrounding the park, unleashing catastrophic consequences for this 250-year-old artificial wetland”. Nesting birds abandoned the park. As a result, the park was faced with the threat of being removed from the list of Ramsar sites. Pumping water from deep tube wells to fill the swamps was no longer doable as the groundwater aquifers had gone dry. Otherwise too, pumping groundwater using diesel energy was a costly plan.

This prompted the government of Rajasthan to look for a way out of the water crisis in the habitat. The idea was to mimic what may have been there as a wetland years ago. Now, apart from the Ajan bund, water is also sourced from Khokhar weir (Bees Mora) through a small canal system. The supply from these two sources is irregular, particularly when the Ajan reservoir is not full. To maintain the integrity of the wetland, it is necessary to maintain water levels in the swamps. The water required for this is estimated at 500 million cubic feet. The local community near the Ajan bund wants to irrigate their lands and refuses to share the water with the park.

Apart from this crisis, the construction of the Panchana dam in the Gambhiri river upstream of the Ajan bund in Karauli district of Rajasthan reduced the inflow into the park. An attempt by the park to draw in its share of water from the dam proved futile and the dam became a centre-point of conflict between the upstream and downstream farmers in Karouli and Sawai Madhopur districts of the state. A study using Geographical Information Systems for Keoladeo discusses how the construction of too many water harvesting structures in the upstream of the park has reduced the water inflow into it.

Looking for water sources

Another option of sourcing water from faraway places was attempted. The construction of an underground pipeline from another source--the Govardhan drain with lifting arrangements-- was expected to remove the park’s water woes and bring in good times for the birds. The 17.1 km pipeline was constructed by 2012 with support to the tune of Rs 56 crore from the Planning Commission’s Additional Central Assistance to Rajasthan. The Govardhan drain originates in Haryana, winds its way through Rajasthan and finally drains into the Yamuna at Agra in Uttar Pradesh. Around 350 mcft of water was expected to be diverted from the Yamuna basin to this area by lifting during the monsoons. This has resulted in conflicts with farmers en route the canal who demanded their share of the water.

It is true that when wetlands like these are restored and protected, the benefits come quickly. But, water continues to be a problem for the park. It’s time that local sources of water are revived with support from local communities living in and around Keoladeo, who depend on it for their livelihood.

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