Has Kashmir wronged its water bodies?

A boatman in Dal Lake on his way to the interiers of Lake. Photo by Athar Parvaiz.

  • The iconic Dal Lake, Wular Lake and Khushal Sar near Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir have fallen victim to unbridled development, with extensive encroachment, garbage dumping and the release of untreated sewage.
  • The massive urban expansion in Srinagar and some major towns of Kashmir is also consuming the region’s wetlands. More than 50 percent of water bodies in Srinagar and its suburbs have been lost during the past century. Over the same period, the area of Srinagar grew 23 times and population 12 times.
  • The Himalayan wetlands play an important role in storing and cleaning water that flows into major rivers like the Indus, and act as a buffer between glacial melt waters and outflows to smaller rivers and streams.
  • Experts recommend continuous monitoring of the wetland and its surroundings to develop strategies and action plans for the conservation and restoration of this important wetland.

In his 1895 book, The Valley of Kashmir, Sir Walter Lawrence, who served in the Indian Civil Service in British India and was posted as the Settlement Commissioner of Kashmir, quotes Kashmiri artisans as saying that “Shawls of Kashmir owe much of their excellence to being washed in the soft waters of the Dal Lake.”

Often termed as the “jewel in the crown of Kashmir”, Dal Lake is the second largest water body within the Kashmir region and a major attraction for tourists. Overlooked by the splendid Zabarwan mountain range, the Lake is beautifully situated in the heart of Srinagar city in mountainous Jammu & Kashmir.

Praising the beauty of the lake himself, Lawrence writes: “Perhaps in the whole world there is no corner as pleasant as the Dal Lake.”

From pleasant to “filthy”

Sadly enough, unbridled urban development in recent decades has not only deprived the lake of that pleasantness, but has turned it into a vast cesspool which receives untreated sewage from old Srinagar city, where most of the city’s 1.5 million population is concentrated.

Over a century after Lawrence’s terse description of Dal Lake’s beauty, the title of a cable released by Wiki leaks in September 2011 about Kashmir politics suggested how widespread and manifest the lake’s ecological degradation had become. The cable titled “Kashmir politics as filthy as Dal Lake,” was sent in April 2006 by US ambassador, David Mulford, from New Delhi to Washington.

A man walks on a long wooden walkway bridge in Srinagar’s Nageen Lake, which is part of the Dal Lake. As per official figures over 60,000 people live within Dal Lake. Photo by Athar Parvaiz.

It didn’t surprise people in Kashmir as the increasing pollution of the Dal Lake is known to everyone. Last year in September, a division bench of the high court of Jammu & Kashmir, while terming the disposal of solid waste into Dal Lake “disgraceful,” observed that heaps of garbage which include intestines of slaughtered animals are being dumped into Dal Lake.

The boatmen (shikara wallas) who ferry tourists in Dal Lake said that they make it a point not to take the visitors near sites which are the most polluted. “If we go near those areas, which look like garbage dumping sites, no one would ever want to visit the lake,” said Nazir Ahmad, a shikara walla (boatman) at Dal Lake.

As per the information received by this reporter from Lakes & Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) after filing an RTI, as many as 25 drains of old Srinagar city flow without any treatment into the Dal Lake whereas liquid waste of 702 houseboats and 13 hotels within the Dal Lake also goes directly into the water body without any treatment.

For the rest of sewage, there are five sewage treatment plants (STPs) in place, but they are not functioning properly. The vice chairman of LAWDA, Hafiz Masoodi, while speaking to this reporter, agreed that they need to be upgraded. “We are in the process of upgrading them and we are also working on connecting the houseboats with STPs by shifting them to a specific area (Dole Damb). Moreover, we have asked the hotel owners in and around Dal Lake to install STPs,” Masoodi said.

While tracing the origin of Dal Lake’s deterioration, Iftikhar Drabu, a senior engineer who specialises in water engineering, said that the habitations we see now within the Dal Lake area have come up since early 1950s on the ‘newly surfaced land masses’ which were formed when Nallah Amir Khan channel was created for lowering the water level of the lake following 1950 flooding. According to him, these landmasses were encroached and subsequently built upon.

“The then ‘popular’ government, instead of preventing encroachment and construction, went further and actually encouraged habitation within the Lake by providing the early settlers with necessary infrastructure such as roads, access tracks, electricity and water supply,” Drabu said.

Another decision of the government which adversely impacted Dal Lake according to Drabu, was allowing mooring of house boats in the Lake which, he said, was restricted to Jhelum during the rule of the Maharajas from the Dogra dynasty.

Though Mulford, in his communication with his bosses in Washington, chose Dal Lake as a striking simile for Kashmir’s “filthy politics”, all the water bodies in Kashmir are feeding on a tide of pollutants and are shrinking at a rapid pace. Anchar Lake in the vicinity of Dal Lake in Srinagar, has already been lost to solid and liquid waste pollution.

Boatmen rowing their Shikars (boats) in front of moored houseboats near Dal-gate in Srinagar. Photo by Athar Parvaiz.

Wular Lake

Overlooked by magnificent mountains, Wular Lake sits at a distance of 34 km northwest of Jammu & Kashmir’s summer capital, Srinagar. Once known for its depth and pristine waters, the lake has, however, witnessed largescale degradation in recent decades. Wular has been an international Ramsar site since 1990 under the Ramsar Convention. It is regarded as one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia and the largest flood basin of Kashmir.

In a detailed study of the lake, Wetlands International says that the original area of Wular Lake was 217.8 square km, which included 58 square km of associated marshes. The area, says the study, was reduced from 157.74 square km to 86.71 square km during 1911 to 2007.  Overall, there was reduction in the lake area by 45 percent mainly due to conversion of parts of the lake for agriculture and willow tree plantation, the study says.

Sixty-five-year-old Mohammad Subhan Dar, a fisherman who lives in Saderkote Payeen village on the eastern shore of Wular, said that thousands of people residing around the lake depend upon the lake for livelihoods such as fishing, water chestnut collection and fodder collection.

But, Dar said, Wular’s reducing size has been a concern for the local community. As per a Wetland International study, 32,000 families including 2300 fisher households depend on Wular Lake for livelihood.

According to Dar, Wular looks like a lake only in spring when the rainwater and snow melt inundate it. “For the rest of the year, most of its areas stay dry. We literally have to haul our boats up because of lack of water,” he said, and hoped that removal of willows and silt from the lake helps reviving it.

Dar and other locals like Jabbar Dar have heard that lots of tourists will come to the area after its embankments are created and beautified around the lake. “Tourism can change our lives for better,” Jabbar Dar said while referring to the Jammu and Kashmir government’s proposed 4.24 billion rupees project aimed at removing over two million willows and 20 million cubic meters of silt from the lake as part of a conservation programme which also envisages raising its banks for facilitating eco-tourism.

Except “some short term losses,” experts have found no faults with these conservation measures, but have recommended proper scientific methods for the removal process.

Women wash chest-nuts near a heavily silted-up portion of the Wular Lake in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district. Photo by Athar Parvaiz.

“The overall implication would be positive as there would be recovery of wetland resources, such as fish and aquatic vegetation in the medium to long term and generation of labour (for removal of willows) in the shorter run,” said Shakil Romshoo who heads Kashmir University’s Department of Earth Sciences.

Khushal Sar

Khushal Sar, a lake in the old Srinagar city, which once connected Dal Lake and Anchar Lake and lent a serene look to the city besides hosting biodiversity and giving livelihood to hundreds of families, is now at the brink of total deterioration because of massive land encroachments and pollution.

“We have learnt swimming in Khushal Sar only as it used to have clean water where swimming was fun,” said Abid Hussain, a resident in the lake’s vicinity. Not anymore!

According to the people living around the lake, massive encroachment and pollution has destroyed Khushal Sar. Like Dal Lake, all the drains surrounding this lake find their way directly into Khushal Sar. Solid waste is also thrown into the lake at various places.

Experts say that if measures for its revival are taken even at this stage, Khushal Sar can still be saved.

“There has to be a comprehensive plan in place for the revival of Khushal Sar. I think if the government decides to hire experienced hydrologists, limnologists, biodiversity specialists and experts in socio-economics for devising a comprehensive plan, the lake can still be saved,” Rashid Nakash, Regional Wildlife Warden Kashmir and an expert on Wetland Management observed.

“All the aspects of the wetland have to be studied. For example, how much water it used to receive when it was in a good condition and how much it is receiving now. The data of about 100 years regarding all the aspects have to be studied by experts for preparing its revival plan,” he added.

Vanishing wetlands

The massive urban expansion in Srinagar and some major towns of Kashmir is also consuming the region’s wetlands. A study carried out by Humayun Rashid and Gowhar Naseem of Department of Environment, Ecology and Remote Sensing (government of Jammu & Kashmir), says that more than 50 percent of water bodies in Srinagar and its suburbs have been lost during the past century.

“The comparative change analysis of the two maps based on the year 1911 and 2000 reveal that wetlands like Batamaloo Nambal, Rakh-i-Gandakshah and Rakhi-i-Arat and Rakh-i-KhanKhan besides streams of Doodhganga and Nala Mar have been completely lost while other lakes and wetlands have experienced considerable shrinkage during the last century,” the study says.

A map showing the loss of wetlands in and around Srinagar city. Sourced from Humayun Rashid and Gowhar Naseem (Department of Environment, Ecology and Remote Sensing, government of Jammu & Kashmir).

The loss of water bodies of Srinagar and its suburbs is attributed to heavy population pressures. “Besides siltation brought about as a result of wanton deforestation in the catchments of Kashmir [rivers] has also been an important factor that enhanced the land-use/land-cover change.”

Srinagar city has grown 12 times in terms of population and 23 times in terms of area between 1901 and 2011. A report in 2011 said that Srinagar city is one of the 100 fastest growing urban areas in the world.

Siltation due to deforestation is another major reason of declining water bodies in Kashmir. “Due to the increased siltation the marshy lands have fragmented…  Excess load of siltation has also adversely affected the depth of the wetland which was 1.12 metres and has reduced to only 0.63 metres,” said Romshoo, quoting from his research paper on the impacts of changing land cover and climate on Hokersar wetland.

Marshy lands, Romshoo said, have tremendous ecological importance for migratory birds as they serve as their nesting and breeding grounds. Marshes have been steadily declining — from 16.3 square kilometres in 1969 to 5.62 square kilometres in 2008. In 1969, marshy land covered 85% of the wetland area.

The wetland, too, has shrunk from 18.75 square km in 1969 to to13 square km in 2008, Romshoo said.

The Himalayan wetlands play an important role in storing and cleaning water that flows into major rivers like the Indus, and act as a buffer between glacial melt waters and outflows to smaller rivers and streams. Any change to these wetlands will affect flooding and the availability of water for communities living in downstream river basins.

Romshoo suggested that an appropriate mechanism should be established for continuous monitoring of the wetland, its immediate surrounding and the catchment for land system changes so that a robust strategy and action plan is developed for the conservation and restoration of this important wetland.


Banner image: A boatman in Dal Lake on his way to the interiors of Lake. Photo by Athar Parvaiz.

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