Jammu and Kashmir Rivers Profile (Jhelum and Chenab Basins)

This report discusses a few of the significant issues in the Jhelum and Chenab basin two of the main tributaries of the Indus and provides the readers a snapshot of the issues confronting the water resources development in the basins. On the basis of these factors, the health and status of the Jhelum and Chenab basins is determined using an assessment matrix providing qualitative weights to each of the indicators and influencing factors to arrive at the overall score of the river categorizing a riverscape as healthy, sick and dying.

About Jammu and Kashmir

Jammu and Kashmir is a state in northern India, often denoted by the acronym J&K. It is located mostly in the Himalayan Mountains, and shares borders with the states of Himachal Pradesh and Punjab to the south. Jammu and Kashmir has an international border with China in the north and east, and the Line of Control separates it from the Pakistani-administered territories of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan in the west and northwest respectively. Jammu and Kashmir consists of three regions: Jammu, the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh and is further divided into 22 districts.

Geography and climate

Jammu and Kashmir is home to several valleys such as the Kashmir Valley, Tawi Valley, Chenab Valley, Poonch Valley, Sind Valley and Lidder Valley. The climate of Jammu and Kashmir varies greatly owing to its rugged topography. All the rivers freeze over and locals make river crossings during winter period because their high levels from glacier melt in summer inhibits crossing.


About Jhelum Rivers

Jhelum River riginates from Verinag spring in Anantnag and after passing through Srinagar it flows into Wular lake and then passing through Baramula and Uri, it enters into Pakistan. The total catchment area up to the Line of Control when it enters into Pakistan is about 15,856 km2.

Jhelum basin has a fairly well established drainage system headed by the Jhelum, the main channel of drainage. The Jhelum basin has 24 tributaries and some of them drain from the slope of the Pir Panjal range and join the river on the left bank and some others flowing from Himalayan range and join the river on the right bank.

Kashmir valley encompassing the Jhelum basin is well known for their medicinal properties. This area is storehouse of medicinal and aromatic plants which are used in pharmaceutical and perfume industries.

Jhelum basin is home to a number of culturally and geologically important sites which has tremendous scientific and historical importance. In addition, there are several pilgrimage sites including sufi shrines in the basin that are being frequented by the people and tourists throughout the year.

The Jhelum River is the only major Himalayan river which flows through the Kashmir valley. The Indus, Tawi, Ravi and Chenab are the other major rivers flowing through the state.  There are about 147 glaciers in the Jhelum basin covering an area of about 75 sq. km.

Jhelum Basin: Threats and Environmental Issues

  1. Point source of Pollution

In general, there are no heavy industries in the Jhelum basin that is the primary reason for overall good water quality of the Jhelum. However, there are a number of Industrial Estates established all across the basin hosting smaller industries of every kind. Most of these Industrial Estates have poor pollution control measures in place. The majority of the industrial units in these estates can be categorized into food processing, cold storages, diaries and milk processing plants, steel industries, packaging industries and a few tanneries as well.

  1. Lake Pollution

In the Jhelum basin, there are 788 wetlands and water bodies out of which 69 are the high altitude lakes and wetlands. There are a few famous and picturesque lakes in the Jhelum basin like Dal and Wular but most of these lakes and wetlands are facing brunt of anthropogenic pressure. The influx of the untreated domestic wastewater and the application of fertilizers are mainly responsible for the eutrophic conditions of the most of the lakes in the Jhelum basin.

  1. Hydroelectric Power Plants

Though the hydropower development in the basin is just 30% of the identified potential but the way the hydropower development is promoted in the state, it has tremendous environment costs for this mountainous Jhelum basin. It has been very well accepted that the growing human interference in the global environment has increased so much so that if left unattended, it may endanger survival of the organisms on this blue planet in the coming near future. Therefore, it is important that the hydropower development is promoted in a way that envisages minimum environmental costs in the basin. The hydropower development has become a contentious issue between India and Pakistan sharing the Indus waters. The two countries failed to resolve their differences over the Kishanganga HE project and the matter was taken to the Court of Arbitration.

Jhelum HEP

  1. Other Developmental Threats

In addition to the runoff the river hydropower projects, there are a few barrages and weirs in the Jhelum basin. Also a few mega development projects specifically, the four lane national highway and the railway line in the midst of the Jhelum basin has potential to interfere with the hydrology of the Jhelum basin. These two mega transport lines hindered with the movement of flood waters during the 2014 extreme floods. The exact role of these two development projects in influencing the river hydrology especially during flooding is unclear and needs to be investigated for taking any corrective measures.

  1. Riverfront Development, Floodplain Conversion

The Jhelum river front in the Srinagar city has been recently developed to attract tourists and the tourist infrastructure in terms of the parks, viewsheds and footpaths have been laid on the banks of the river, particularly on the right bank. However, the experiment has not worked well at places as one could see the adverse impact of this development on gigantic chinars along the Jhelum river bank that have dried down due to the earthworks along the river fronts. In addition, there has been unregulated conversion of the Jhelum floodplains to the built-up and other land uses in the entire basin. The conversion of the floodplains has an adverse impact on the floodwater storage as was evident during the 2014 floods.

  1. Sand/Boulder Mining

Sand and boulder mining is a common practice in the Jhelum main and tributaries all across the basin. The mining of the sand and gravel from the riverbed is being done haphazardly with adverse impacts on flood control and mitigation. The haphazard mining of the gravel have made the channel to change course in some of the high gradient tributaries of the Jhelum. The uncontrolled mining of the river Jhelum has had adverse impact on the fish spawning in the river. Certain indigenous species of fish have become rare and endangered in the basin like schizothorax species.

  1. Exiting Water Conflicts

Though not based on any international water law but governed by political compromise with a focus on engineering solutions, the waters of the Jhelum and other Indus river are shared between the two countries; India and Pakistan under the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) signed in 1960 and is often widely cited as a success story for transboundary sharing of river waters.

However, majority of the experts in both the countries acknowledge that there are good reasons to supplement and expand the treaty using scientific knowledge to address issues that have emerged post-IWT like climate change, environmental flows, watershed management, groundwater etc. so that the implementation of the treaty and dispute resolution mechanism is modernized for promoting peaceful relations between the two countries (Romshoo, 2016).

Jhelum wetlands

  1. Massive Land Use Changes

Over these decades, landscape in the Jhelum basin has been largely transformed and land is being converted to other uses without any regard to its congenital land use suitability. Increased population has also put pressure on the arable agricultural land for settlements. The land system changes in the Jhelum basin between 1972-2008 have serious implications for the catchment scale hydrological processes, not in the basin alone but also in the downstream part of the Indus.

Jhelum Land use

Large scale deforestation, dwindling grasslands, depleting water bodies and denuded landscapes have transformed the land surface processes linked to hydrology, erosion and weather patterns in the Jhelum basin that are manifest by decreasing stream flows, increasing sediment and nutrient load (Romshoo, 2015; Badar et al., 2013, Romshoo and Muslim, 2011, Romshoo and Rashid, 2012), shrinking fish habitat and degrading water quality (Rashid and Romshoo, 2012).

  1. Reckless use of Pesticides and Insecticides

Over the course of time, people in the Jhelum basin have restored to extensive use of fertilizers to increase the crop productivity, and the application of fertilizers increased from 44.21 kg/ha in 2002–2003 to an all-time high rate of fertilizer application of 97.03 kg/ha was used for 2007–2008 (Anonymous, 2008). The increased use of fertilizers over the years in the Jhelum basin has led to the deterioration in the water quality of Jhelum river especially in the lower plains of the catchment (Rashid and Romshoo, 2013).

  1. Urbanization and Encroachment of the Food plains

There have been significant changes in the land system particularly built-up in the floodplains of the Jhelum river. The large-scale urbanization of the Jhelum floodplains since the last 4-5 decades has adversely affected the hydrological functionality of the floodplains and increased the vulnerability of the people and infrastructure to floods.

Jhelum urbanization

  1. Climate Change Scenario in Jhelum Basin

In the Jhelum basin, minimum, maximum and average temperatures are showing a significant increasing trend in all the four seasons (Rashid et al., 2015). Precipitation is showing insignificant decrease over time in the basin. However, the proportion of snow is decreasing and correspondingly, the proportion of rains is increasing (Romshoo et al., 2015).

During the last 51 years, the glacier area in the Jhelum basin has decreased from 46.09 km2 in 1962 to 33.43 km2 in 2013, a depletion of 27.47%. Further, the concentration of black carbon in the valley is highest compared to the other high altitude station in the Himalaya (5.9 mgm-2) was found in the plains of the Kashmir. All of these factors act in the same direction to decrease the volume and extent of the glaciers in the Himalayas.

Status of Jhelum River

Jhelum River provides services and goods to a number of people in the basin. People in the basin are therefore connected with river through activities which they perform for their livelihood mainly fishing, vegetable gardens in and around the lakes, boating, tourism etc. Jhelum is lifeline of the city of Srinagar and some other major town along its course from Verinag to Uri. Over the years, some water bodies and even the main river have emerged as an important tourist destination for amusement, accommodation and sightseeing purposes.

Jhelum Pollution

Many areas in the Jhelum basin are beginning to experience moderate to severe water shortages, compounded by the adverse effects of reckless urbanization and high population growth. In light of the clear and loud indications of climate change in the basin, an understanding of the changing hydrological set up in response to these changes is necessary for developing a robust strategy for sustainable development of the limited fresh water resources on short and long term basis (Romshoo et al., 2015)

There are various factors related to land, water, climate, culture and demography that shape the riverscapes. Accordingly, we used all the relevant factors and indicators numbering 19 for determining the condition of the Jhelum riverscape. 

Assessment Matrix for determining the health of Jhelum River

SN Indicators/ Contributing factors Assessment
1 Catchment Vegetal Cover Blue
2 Protected Areas Blue
3 Status of Lakes, wetlands and Springs Pink
4 Status of Surface Water Pink
5 Condition of Groundwater Blue
6 Status of Pollution Pink
7 Polluting influences Blue
8 Dams Pink
9 Barrages Pink
10 Conflict over the River Pink
11 People Connect with The River Pink
12 Floodplain Condition Red
13 Urbanization Pink
14 Climate Change Scenario Red
15 Depletion of Cryosphere Red
16 Keystone Biodiversity Pink
17 Historical Stream Flow Trends Pink
18 River Side Embankments Pink
19 People’s Actions and Awareness Pink
Total 12 Pinks,  

4 Blues,

3 Reds

According to the assessment, the Jhelum river can be categorized as a Sick and Threatened Riverscape with 12 PINKS 4 BLUES and 3 REDS.

Assessment Matrix for determining the health of Chenab River

SN Indicators/ Contributing factors Assessment
1 Catchment Vegetal Cover Blue
2 Protected Areas Blue
3 Status of Lakes, wetlands and Springs Pink
4 Status of Surface Water Pink
5 Condition of Groundwater Blue
6 Status of Pollution Pink
7 Polluting influences Blue
8 Dams Red
9 Barrages Pink
10 Riverside Embankments Blue
11 Conflict over the River Pink
12 People Connect with The River Pink
13 People’s Actions and Awareness Pink
14 Keystone Biodiversity Pink
15 Climate Change Scenario Red
16 Depletion of Snow & Glaciers Red
Total 8 Pinks,  

5 Blues,

3 Reds

According to the river health assessment outlined in the above table, the Chenab River can be categorized as a Sick and Threatened Riverscape with 8 PINKS, 5 BLUES and 3 REDS categories for various indicators and contributory factors. The riverscape is a dynamic system and there is ample scope to reverse some of these transformations witnessed in the basin since the last 4-5 decades to restore the heathy nature of the river.

Author Dr. Shakil Romshoo


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