Kashmir Steps Up Efforts To Save Watery Jewel
28 March 2006
Srinagar: Indian Kashmir is stepping up efforts to save its watery jewel ringed by Himalayan peaks, Dal Lake, from pollution that threatens to turn it into a weed-clogged swamp just as tourists return to the revolt-hit region. Cleaning up the lake, state officials say, is vital to tourism as visitors slowly venture back to Kashmir amid peace moves by India and Pakistan to end their half-century dispute over the territory that both claim. The region's High Court this month asked the Lakes and Waterways Authority, which tends water bodies in Kashmir, to demolish hotels, houses and restaurants around the lake which have been declared as 'illegal and hazardous'. 'We will take every step needed to protect the lake,' says Tariq Hamid, the state's forest minister. The lake - famed for its brightly hued, ornately carved cedar houseboats bearing names like 'New Australia' and 'Telaviv' - has already shrunk by more than half to 11 square kilometres in the past two decades and is becoming choked by weeds. Its depth has decreased by 12 metres in the same period. 'These hotels on the shores must go. They are the biggest polluters of the lake,' says Manzoor Ahmed, a Srinagar resident. The pollution is sometimes so bad it turns the normally blue coloured lake into a brackish green as effluent from hotels and houses on the shores is flushed into the lake water. Ironically it is also the lake's 1 400 houseboats - which during colonial times housed the British who were forbidden by Kashmir's princely ruler to own land - that are among the chief offenders in discharging waste into the water. The government is setting up six sewage treatment areas along the lake that are expected to control pollution to a large extent. At one time, the region was known as 'paradise on earth' for its many lakes and mountains that drew tens of thousands of visitors a year. But in 1989 a revolt against Indian rule erupted and the tourist flow slowed to a trickle as the insurgency has claimed more than 44 000 lives. But since India and Pakistan began a peace process two years ago, tourists have started returning with more than 600 000 in 2005, almost double the previous year and the highest since the insurgency began. The state government and tourist operators expect those numbers to grow if the peace process remains on track. However, Islamic militants routinely detonate car bombs and attack Indian security posts throughout Kashmir and in Srinagar resulting in an average of three to four people killed daily. But violence has declined compared to two years ago when eight to ten people were killed daily and the area around Dal Lake has remained relatively peaceful. Besides the violence, there are other obstacles to overcome to save the lake fed by springs and two higher altitude water bodies. For instance, during the rainy months in summer, silt from the mountains stripped of trees by heavy logging seeps into the lake. But the government is taking action. 'We're also acquiring sophisticated multi-purpose dredgers to clear the lake of mud and silt,' says forest minister Hamid. On court orders, forest department officials have felled some 80 000 trees growing in the lake and must cut 500 000 more, says senior government forest officer Zahoor Jan. The trees shed leaves into the water which decompose and pollute the lake. Cutting down the trees in the water 'will definitely help in cleaning the lake', says scientist Shafiq- ur-Rehman, a professor at Sheri Kashmir agriculture and research university. In addition to the houseboats where some 7 500 people live, another 50 000 people live on little islands within the lake area. 'The lake's environmental deterioration can be attributed rightly to human settlements within and near the lake,' Rehman says. Brightly coloured floating vegetable gardens have also become big sources of contamination. Dal Lake's floating gardens on rafts made of reeds make it one of the Indian Kashmir's biggest vegetable producing areas. 'Pesticides used by farmers find their way into the lake, causing colossal damage to its fauna and flora,' observes Rehman. Shafat Hussain of the local chapter of environmental group Greenpeace says the court's intervention is making things happen fast. 'For the first time it seems authorities are really serious in cleaning the lake,' Hussain adds.