Brisbane Times: Time is running out for Kashmir’s premier tourist attraction, writes Ben Doherty, in Srinagar.
Through the dawn mist, Dal Lake is beautiful.
As the first shafts of sunlight break over the Himalayan foothills that hug the lake’s perimeter, the still waters are slowly brought alive by the silent ferrying of the shikaras back and forth across the lake.
But as the golden glow of early morning gives way to the harsher light of day, the true state of Kashmir’s famous lake becomes apparent.
”Dal Lake is dying,” the Herald’s shikara driver says, as he pilots the narrow, low-slung boat through the back channels of the lake.
”People put everything into the lake, all their rubbish, they build toilets on the side of the lake, and the sewage goes in. The pollution is much worse now and we worry about the water.”
A series of continuing environmental calamities – including the dumping of raw sewage and industrial waste, fertiliser run-off from farms, a burgeoning population living on it and the ”building” of more new land on the water’s edge – is slowly strangling the lake and threatening the livelihoods of all who depend on it.
Once promoted as the most beautiful lake in India, it has halved in size in a generation to about 12 square kilometres, and, clogged by weeds, its average depth is now 1.2 metres, in some places a 10th of what it was.
Dal Lake’s water, which still provides the city of Srinagar with the bulk of its drinking water, has been found to contain dangerous levels of arsenic and lead. Fish stocks are dwindling and the lake vulnerable to massive algal bloom outbreaks.
But Dal Lake is suffering from too much love as much as from chronic neglect.
For generations, tourists have flocked to stay on the lake, living in houseboats introduced by the British in the late 19th century.
Currently, 1200 houseboats – many of them grand, hand-carved cedar floating palaces with unlikely names such as Kashmir Hilton – have permits, but they are unconnected for sewage or garbage disposal.
The government wants to move them to a centralised land bank where they can be connected to services, but owners are resisting.
The lake is permanent home to 11,000 families that were granted the right to live on the water, or at its edge, during the days of Kashmir’s maharajah.
About 70,000 people call the lake home, and depend on it for their livelihoods. As families grow larger, more land is reclaimed by dredging mud from the shallow lake bottom and creating new banks of soil for farming.
These people cannot survive without the lake, but the lake cannot survive with them.
Every morning the vegetable growers meet, produce piled carefully in their boats, to trade and barter.
”The vegetables are not as good now, not as large, and they taste different,” our driver says. ”The growers won’t tell you, but everybody knows, they notice.”
Deeper into the lake’s waterways are the decaying ”suburbs”, where most of its residents live. Here the narrow canals are filthy, smelly and choked with mud and rubbish. There is a moratorium on new building here.
The permanent brick homes have pipes from their bathrooms directly into the lake, allowing untreated sewage to run into the water. Some of the pipes gush putrid brown water unceasingly.
The government plans to move lake-dwellers into new residential estates elsewhere in Srinagar, and has even set aside land for the the purpose, but it does not have the money to buy them out of their properties.
From his lakeside office, landscape architect Fida Iqbal says constant encroachment on the lake and the rampant corruption that allows people to pollute with impunity, frustrate government and private sector efforts to clean it up and improve the way it is managed.
”The lake is running out of time,” Iqbal says. ”Experts say [it] will die; they say there is no doubt. The possibility is there for it to be rehabilitated, but people need to move quickly.”
Community authorities and governments have been aware of Dal Lake’s deterioration for 20 years, Iqbal says but they have used the ”cover” of Kashmir’s violent insurgency to excuse their neglect.
”We have wasted that time,” he says. ”Now, everybody has to get involved, and get seriously involved, because we all depend on the lake.”
The head of the research and monitoring division with the state government’s Lakes and Waterways Development Authority, Sabeh Ul Solim, says education and enforcement can bring change to the lake.
”We need to bring in enforcement,” Dr Solim says.
”People in this part of the world don’t have a lot of concern about their own actions. They keep on … saying ‘lake is gone, lake is gone’, but at the same time, they don’t take care of their natural resources.
”And we need to make the people aware of how crucial the lake is for the survival of the city. It is not only beautiful, but the people of Kashmir depend on it.”
By the standards of Jammu and Kashmir’s poor state government, significant amounts of money have already been committed towards Dal Lake – 2.98 billion rupees ($58 million) has already allocated to rehabilitate it, while 3.5 billion rupees has been promised to relocate people from it (when that money can be found in budgets). With federal money, more than 11.4 billion rupees has been spent.
But Dr Solim says that regardless of money spent, turning around decades of neglect and deliberate pollution will take time.
”We are positive about the future about the lake,” he says. ”We are doing a lot of work. Still, a lot more needs to be done … and if you want to see the impacts, it will take at least a decade’s time.”
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