Harike Wetland is the largest wetland in Punjab state, northern India. Situated on the confluence of the river Beas and Sutlej, the wetland encompasses an area of approximately 86km2. Declared a Ramsar site in 1990 and a Wild Life Sanctuary in 1999, Harike Wetland offers a sanctuary a vast array of species.
A bird watchers paradise, Harike Wetland attracts thousands of migratory birds, offering a refuge, during the winter months – some even as far off as Siberia and the Arctic. During peak migratory season, almost 45,000 ducks are regularly been recorded, and the water body is particularly famous for diving ducks, such as the crested pochard and tufted ducks, which congregate at the water’s edge. Moreover, the wetland is inhibited by a number of rare and vulnerable fauna, such as the testudines turtle and smooth-coated otter. The smooth-coated otter, characterised by a very smooth coat, is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.
Additionally, the Indus dolphin (Platanista gangetica minor), which was supposed to have become extinct in India after 1930, was spotted in the Beas River in Harike wetland area. Indus river dolphins are believed to have originated in the ancient Tethys Sea. When the sea dried up approximately 50 million years ago, the dolphins were forced to adapt to its only remaining habitat—rivers. These endangered fresh-water dolphins are one of the World’s rarest aquatic mammal living in fresh waters. In 2016, there were estimated to be between 18 and 35 Indus dolphins in the Beas River above Harike Barrage. During periods of low flow, they have been observed to move downstream into the head pond above the barrage which includes the Harike Wildlife Sanctuary.
However, on 27th March 2017, the flow of the Beas River was virtually stopped in order to allow maintenance works to the barrage and canal gates; this caused the river flow to drastically drop. As a result, many aquatic animals perished. An extensive search was made for the resident river dolphins, but only 4 were located. This sad situation demonstrates the vulnerability of river dolphins that today live only in heavily managed rivers and that the needs of wildlife must be considered in the management of rivers and barrages.
Additionally, a 2015 study highlighted that Harike wetland receives large quantities of untreated industrial effluents from surrounding cities. Along the banks of the river Sutlej stand any number of industrial factories including cement factories, paint manufacturers, pesticide factories, and tanneries, all with their own pollutants, and discharging polluted water in the river and ultimately into the Harike wetland. The studies analysis of the wetland’s water quality revealed high concentrations of lead, chromium, copper, zinc, cadmium, and other heavy metals; levels which, by international standards, make the water unfit for drinking and irrigation, but also harmful for the residing aquatic animals.
For example, a gharial was found dead in the Harike wetland, with the suspected cause of death being polluted water. Gharials are a critically endangered species which have seen an over 80% drop in their population in the last decade.
Harike Wetlands offers a sanctuary for many rare and incredible species. All of whom remains in peril if we remain unable to alter our relationship with the natural world.