The Battle For Kashmir's Jewel

The Battle For Kashmir's Jewel

4 November 2011
Sydney Morning Herald
Ben Doherty

Srinagar: THROUGH the dawn mist, Dal Lake is beautiful. As the first shafts of sunlight break over the Himalayan foothills that hug the shore, the still waters are slowly brought alive by the silent wake of the shikara, a narrow low-slung boat, as it ferries back and forth. But as the golden glow gives way to the harsher light of day, the true state of Kashmir's famous lake becomes apparent. 'Dal Lake is dying,' says the boat's skipper, as he pilots through the back channels. '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 into the lake, fertiliser run-off from nearby farms, a burgeoning population living on the lake and the 'building' of more and more new land on the water's edge - are slowly strangling Lake Dal, and threatening the livelihoods of those 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. Clogged by weeds, its average depth is now barely more than 1.5 metres, in some places a 10th of what it was. Dal, which still provides the city of Srinagar with the bulk of its drinking water, has dangerous levels of arsenic and lead. The lake is vulnerable now to massive algal bloom outbreaks. Fish stocks are dwindling. For generations, tourists have flocked to houseboats that the British introduced in the late 19th century. About 1200 houseboats - grand, hand-carved floating palaces - have permits. But they are not connected to sewage or garbage disposal. The government wants to move them to an area where they can be connected to services, but owners are resisting. The lake is also home to 11,000 families, granted the right to live on the water, or at its edge, during the days of Kashmir's maharajah. Some 70,000 people call the lake home, and depend on it for their livelihoods. As families grow larger, more and more land is 'reclaimed', by dredging mud from the shallows and creating new banks of land to farm. The people here can't survive without the lake, but the lake can't survive with them. Deeper into the lake are the decaying suburbs where most of its residents live. The narrow canals are filthy, smelling and choked with mud and rubbish. There is a moratorium on new building but the brick homes here all have pipes jutting out where untreated sewage runs straight into the water. The government has set aside land to move lake dwellers into new residential estates in Srinagar. But it doesn't have the money to buy them out. From his office by Dal Lake's banks, 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 up. He says there is still a chance to rehabilitate the lake, 'but people need to move quickly'. He says the community has used the Kashmiri insurgency to excuse the neglect. 'We have wasted that time Now everybody has to get involved, and get seriously involved, because we all depend on the lake.' Sabah Ul Solim, head of research and monitoring with the state government's Lakes and Waterways Development Authority, says education and enforcement can bring change. 'We need to bring in enforcement. People in this part of the world don't have a lot of concern about their own actions 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.' Some $56 million has already been allocated for rehabilitation, while $69 million has been promised to relocate people. With federal money, more than $215 million has been spent. But Dr Solim argues that 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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