Vanishing wetlands

April 7, 2024

Wetlands under threat, lotus cultivation on the decline

Vanishing wetlands


he wetlands ecosystem and its biodiversity are under threat from the rising population in Charsadda, once known as Pushkalawati [the city of Lotus.]

Turangzai, a small historic town situated in central Charsadda, was once known for its expansive wetlands and famous Barsandy [lotus root], which was a nutrient-rich culinary staple.

Currently, the rising population is a threat to the wetlands, lotus roots and the ecosystem.

Jahangir Khan, 61, a farmer from Turangzai sits on a charpoy in his hujra. He keeps the tête-à-tête going with his companions but greets us in keeping with the Pashtoon tradition.

After we break the ice with a brief introduction and state that we’re there to find out more about the wetlands of Charsadda, the conversation takes a turn towards lotuses.

An old man jumps in and says that his town was once known for producing the best lotuses in the entire district. “In the old days, lotus leaves were used instead of plastic shopping bags. The butcher would hand you meat wrapped in lotus,” he reminisces.

Lotus, sometimes called the water lily, an aquatic plant, is almost completely edible. Its flowers, seeds and roots are all rich sources of nutrition. Because the lotus used to grow copiously in the wetlands of Charsadda and is rich in vitamins, minerals, carbs and fibre, it soon became a staple in traditional recipes.

Vanishing wetlands

The lotus root is a rhizome with fibrous brown skin and hard ends, a white interior and lace-like holes in the middle. It is starchy and juicy, like a potato, and quite crunchy when raw. It is often added to stir-fry and soup because of its palatable texture.

In the ancient Gandhara, Charsadda was known as Pushkalavati. At that time, most people in the region followed Buddhism. For Buddhists the lotus represents the purity of the body, speech and mind, as the lotus flower floats above the murky waters.

Jahangir Khan is kind enough to show us the wetlands situated next to the village. We pass through narrow streets until we arrive at a row of newly constructed houses plastered with advertisements.

“One kanal plot for sale,” these posters scream at us. “Building houses and selling them has become the new lucrative business,” observes Khan with a hint of disappointment in his voice. “Beyond this haphazard row of houses lie the vanishing wetlands,” he says.

For centuries, lotus farming has been part of local tradition but that may change because the wetlands are vanishing.

“In the past, the wetlands [where farmers grew lotus root] covered at least 50 acres. Now it is half of that,” Khan estimates, “There are two reasons for the decline in lotus harvest; people have been clearing the swamp to construct houses and, because searching for lotus roots in the wetlands is tough work requiring special skills. Most low-wage workers are not interested in the job,” he says.

“There was a time when migratory birds used to populate these wetlands. There were several hunting spots here. Now that the wetlands have been shrinking, the bird population is also on a decline. Migratory birds may have changed their course because we haven’t spotted them in a long time. Now they only exist in the stories of our elders. Turtles and other species that inhabited the swamp are also on the brink of extinction,” says Jahangir Khan. “These wetlands also served as water reservoirs for the surrounding villages keeping the underground water level intact.

We finally cross the jagged column of houses to arrive at the wetlands – or what remains of them. In a corner, some men are at work. A small generator noisily pumps water out of the filed. A group of labourers look for lotuses in the wet black mud.

Shayan Khan, aged 22, is one of them. He explains the process to us. “Lotus roots are three to four feet underground so we need to dig through the wet mud to find them. Each labourer collects 10 to 15 lotus roots daily,” he says. “Hauling mud is hard work. We often suffer from backaches,” he complains, “those who can leave, have already left.”

Vanishing wetlands

The lotus roots season starts in September and ends in April but people also eat its seed in summer. The price of a kilogram of lotus root ranges from 250 to 300 rupees, depending on the quality of the vegetable.

Other than Turangzai, lotus roots are also grown in Majoky and other villages of Charsadda. For centuries, lotus farming has been part of the local tradition but that may change because the wetlands are vanishing.

According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics in the 2017 census, Charsadda’s population was 1.6 million. As per the previous year’s digital census it has risen to 1.8 million.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature open data says 87 per cent of the world’s wetlands have been lost over the past 300 years. Most of this loss has occurred after 1900.

Zahidullah Khan, a resident of Charsadda city, says lotus root is the favourite vegetable of the elderly in the region. “Unfortunately, the new generation is not familiar with it,” he says.

The writer is a freelance multimedia journalist. He tweets @daudpasaney

Vanishing wetlands