The Keoladeo National Park (KNP), Bharatpur – one of the most renowned artificial wetlands in the world, was declared a World Heritage Site in 1985. In the recent past, both the wetland and its heritage tag have been threatened, due mainly to the scarcity of water.
Traditionally the main source of water for the Park was derived from the Ajan Bund (embankment) – constructed by Maharaja Suraj Mahl between 1726-1763 to protect the town of Bharatpur from recurring floods of the Banganga and Gambhir rivers. The flowing water was the ‘lifeline’ for the Park as it brought with it millions of fingerlings of varied species – crucial for the survival of breeding birds.
The Park waters need to be replenished each year by the second week of July. The villagers who control Ajan Bund however want the water retained in it till the third week of September to sufficiently recharge the water table – enabling a winter crop with groundwater irrigation. The roots of the present crises were however laid by the droughts of 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2004 and then further exacerbated by the construction of the Panchana dam across the Gambhir River in 2003-04 which allowed little water to flow downstream.
In 2006 the monsoon also failed and this continued shortage of water proved fatal to the ecosystem and the habitat degraded significantly, resulting in the park being put on the Montreux Record – a red list for wetlands in danger. For years the Park has been a wintering ground for migratory water birds like the coots, cranes, geese, mallards, pochards, raptors, storks, waders etc. including the Siberian crane, but lately, without the water many of the birds have been bypassing the Park. From a sighting of 41 Siberian cranes in 1984-85, the winter of 2011 saw only a pair after a break of several bleak years where not a single crane wintered in the Park.
Locally known as Ghana, the 29 sq km Reserve is a mosaic of dry grasslands, woodlands, woodland swamps and wetlands. These diverse habitats are home to 366 bird species, 379 floral species, 50 species of fish, 13 species of snakes, 5 species of lizards, 7 amphibian species, 7 turtle species, and a variety of other invertebrates.
The acute need for water has necessitated a number of solutions, in particular the Govardhan Drain Project which will divert the monsoon flood waters from the Yamuna for a period of 30 days each August. This elaborate project requires the water be pumped through underground pipes from the Govardhan drain over a length of 16 km. The works have met with obstacles and is not yet operative though it was meant to be completed by this year end.
Since 2010, however, the dying ecosystem seems to have received a new lease of life with the recommendation of the Standing Committee of the Rajasthan State Board for Wildlife falling into place – with a share of the water in the Panchana dam reserved for KNP. The recommendation from the Standing Committee is for an annual commitment of 200 mc ft water from Panchana and for providing an additional 62.5 mc ft from the drinking water project for Bharatpur for which the source would be the river Chambal. As such KNP needs 550 mc ft water a year while its availability had remained an average 300 mc ft for the past 11 years.
An assured supply of flowing water from a source like the Panchana just might help overcome the acute water scarcity at the Park, but whether it has the desired impact on the birds will be known only in the winter – when and if the birds come.
Project ‘Development of Water Supply’ to Keoladeo National Park (2008): A proposal for water supply to Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur was forwarded by the Government of Rajasthan seeking assistance from Planning Commission as advised and approved by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). The project was prepared keeping in view the need for 400 million cu ft of water during late July to August, for a period of 30 days to the Park which is to be had by diverting and lifting flood waters of the Yamuna. The project thus covered diversion of water during monsoon through underground pipes with lifting arrangements over a length of 16 km from the off-take point of Govardhan drain near Santruk village. Considering that the wetland and the Park are likely to be degraded and removed from the Ramsar site list, if the habitat is not immediately restored, the Expert Team that visited the Park strongly recommended that the project for laying of the pipeline to channelise water from the Govardhan drain should be approved.