Where: Himachal Pradesh, India
March 8, 2001: The picturesque Pong Dam lake region in the mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh, is losing its lustre. A great deal of its charm has lain in the fact that it is north India’s largest refuge for migrating birds escaping harsh winters abroad. But not for long, if recent trends are any indication.
A low water level in the lake this year has forced the migratory birds to fly away one month in advance, says a report in The Indian Express.
The region, which attracts over 60,000 birds every year due to a diverse habitat, is witnessing a flight of the feathered creatures.
The Lake is drying up
Pong Dam lake is the largest manmade wetland (a lowland area, such as a marsh or swamp) in north India. It was created when a dam was constructed on the river Beas. The lake is fed by five major streams with origins in the high Dhauladhar ranges of the Kangra valley.
It is a lake that takes up a huge area measuring 314 square km. Imagine five Delhis lying side by side, and you get an idea of how big the lake really is.
The lake was declared a bird sanctuary in the 1980s and as a national wetland in the 1994. But, lately, it has lost an enormous amount of water. The receding water level is being attributed to soaring temperature and drought conditions in the region.
What about the Birds?
There have been no rains for over a year. The rivers that fed the lake so generously and kept it well stocked have dried up as a result. And that’s bad news for the birds.
Several bird species swoop on the wetland, every year. A total of 54 bird species has been recorded, of which 39 are common. The local species from nearby habitats also come to the sanctuary in search of feeding grounds after some of their traditional sources dry up.
The foreign species include those coming from the higher mountains of Tibet and Baluchistan and from as far away as Siberia, North China and Mongolia. Being residents of very cold habitats, the last category makes a quick exit the minute there is a rise in temperature.
And that’s what these birds have done. Though there was a record number of arrivals last November (over 81,000, according to census figures of the Himachal Wildlife Department), at least half of them migrated by mid-February, long before the onset of summer.
Even the local people are surprised. Purshotam, whose boat has been plying the lake for 22 years, says it’s the first time that the birds have flown away before time. And it’s not surprising to see why. A large track of marshy land, once a feeding ground full of chattering birds, is now parched.
Is Pong Lake Heading the Hussain Sagar Way?
If the drought conditions persist and the water level continues to fall, Pong lake might be headed for the same fate as Hassain Sagar lake in Hyderabad. The lake was famous for attracting thousands of birds from other parts of India and abroad, in the winter months.
But the birds stopped coming due to increasing pollution in the lake. They now use it only as a stopover on their way to more hospitable habitats. In a News Indepth write-up on how rising pollution levels in India are affecting all aspects of life in the country, we had mentioned the Hussain Sagar lake.
The Himachal Pradesh government is devising strategies of preserving the lake. Involving local people at every step in attempts to protect the migratory birds, is one way to do so, it feels. One hopes the efforts succeed.