Neeraj Doshi | From Paradise to Paradise Lost: Dal Lake | EXPOSURE-VII workshop in Kashmir

Program News | Posted Nov 12, 2007
Program: Exposure

EXPOSURE-VII workshop in Kashmir | Photo Gallery

Neeraj Doshi

“Save Dal Lake, the pride of Kashmir,” a schoolboy speaker shouted into the microphone, kicking off a concert to urge action against global warming. Two stories below, at the posh Hotel Centaur, thick sewage flowed into the treasured lake.

Famed for its Mughal gardens and enchanting natural beauty, Srinagar is witnessing an environmental disaster for which its people alone are responsible. Dal Lake evokes images of pristine waters world over, but it has become a septic tank and garbage dump for the entire city.

A growing population encroaches on the lake, filling in the edges for homes and building islands to grow vegetables. Dal Lake covered 25 square kilometers a century ago, and until late 1980s it was close to unspoiled. Now it is barely 12 square kilometers of polluted sludge and poisoned water. The average depth has been reduced to just nine feet from 17 feet a decade ago.

“We used to drink this water, and now we’re even afraid of touching it,” lamented Nisar Husain, 65, a local resident, looking at the heap of garbage floating on the murky water. Each year, drains from around the city carry about 12,300 metric tons of untreated sewage in the lake.

Phosphorous, nitrates, and raw fecal matter has changed the lake’s chemistry. Biological oxygen demand (BOD) has spiked while the dissolved oxygen (DO) level has fallen far below permissible limits. Water quality parameters – phosphates and nitrates- exceed guidelines fixed by the World Health Organization (WHO).
By 1991, ominous signs foretold environmental catastrophe. Red algae Euglena rubra - bloomed in most of the lake followed by luxuriant but noxious growth of alien weeds. Three of the five endemic fish species are near extinction; the rest are not fit for eating. An important water plant, Eurayle ferox, has disappeared because of deteriorated water quality.

A lake from which people drank until the 1980s is now so toxic that a gulp of it can send someone to the hospital. With rising temperatures and raw sewage, it is rife with waterborne diseases like typhoid, hepatitis A and E, and gastroenteritis.

“The Dal seems to be thriving on garbage and garbage alone with critical water entry and exit outlets closed down,” said M.R.D Kundangar of National Institute of Aquatic Ecology. He has done extensive research on the impact of biotic interventions on lake’s ecosystem.

The Dal is a glacial lake fed by melting ice through tributary waterways and about 300 springs in its bed. Exit channels pass excess water from the lake, maintaining its level and circulation. The principal stream – the Tailbal – is reduced to a trickle as its supply has been diverted for irrigation and drinking water. Engineers built a road by filling the main exit channel, and the other two have been fitted with gates that reduce their cleaning capacity.

Meantime, half the springs are choked by silt from mountain catchments that have been stripped almost bare naked by grazing, mining, and tree cutting.

“All they have been doing so far is engineering, but Dal needs to be conserved, not just preserved,” Kundangar said, frustrated by the state government approach. He urges an integrated action to protect the unique ecosystem rather than simply de-silting, dredging, and de-weeding.

Kashmir is all but synonymous with its beloved lake. Eighty percent of its vegetables are grown on floating islands made of turf compacted onto woven reed nets and held together by roots. Tourists stay on 1,400 houseboats. Pole-powered shikaras constantly ply the Dal. All told, more than 50,000 livelihoods are linked to the lake.

In 1997, the state government formed the LWDA (Lakes and Waterways Development Authority) to manage conservation. It was to rehabilitate Dal dwellers, manage waste and sewage treatment, and monitor water quality. Over the past nine years, India’s federal government has earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars to implement this work. But, so far, only a couple of dredging and de-weeding machines and treatment plants can be seen. As a result, the lake’s quality is dropping fast.

“After spending million of dollars, the city is yet to get a drainage system, and Dal is dying because of it,” said Arif S. Wani who reports on the lake for the daily Greater Kashmir. “Dal has become a gold mine, and everybody is busy grabbing share per his or her capacity. No wonder the LWDA (Lakes and Waterways Development Authority) has been under scrutiny...for rampant corruption.”

Bureaucratic foul-ups make things worse. Three sewage plants built at a cost of millions had difficulty getting approval from the environmental standards agency because of shoddy materials and poor design.

Residents resist LWDA plans to relocate 16,000 families outside the city, far from the lake, with no means of livelihood. Abdul Ahmed Dar, a Dal vegetable grower, summed up the mood: “I get the impression that they want to keep water only for tourism and keep us outside.”

Today, Kashmir is only beginning to revive from 17 years of insurgency. Tourism has dwindled to a halt. Before, the Lake contributed about 16 per cent of the state’s income. About 42 per cent of workers from Srinagar were engaged in the activities in the lake.

“In the last seven years, I have earned just 1,000 rupees from my shikara,” Noor Mohammed said. Instead, he ekes out a living as a farmer. With loss of tourist revenue, Dal dwellers have created yet more of the floating gardens that choke the lake. Conservative estimates say 100 new gardens are added each year.
Tourism is an important economic activity in Kashmir and loss of Dal will adversely impact the state’s economy. Articles in the national press have raised awareness, but the federal government is still considering what steps to take.
In essence, authorities and people alike are trading sustainability for short-term gains.

Crises facing the Dal are common the world over as human apathy and ignorance threaten vast ecosystems. But specialists say its specific nature makes improvement possible, especially in a climate of growing global ecological awareness.
Non-governmental organizations such as HOPE and Green Peace Kashmir are organizing regular awareness workshops and clean up drives. Their message is clear: with exploding population and altered living patterns, it may soon be too late to save the lake. Still, these efforts are tiny considering the acute crises that face Srinagar and the Dal.

The lake might thrive again if the responsibility is devolved down to the people who depend on it with government agencies and civil society organizations playing a supporting role. Meantime, the sewage continues flowing, and the Dal moves steadily closer to death. 

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