For Dal Lake, an ebb in Kashmir’s insurgency and the tentative peace moves between India and Pakistan has come none too soon. With militant violence at its lowest-ever level since 1989, authorities say they can finally focus on saving Dal Lake with a multi-million dollar clean-up exercise that could see the mass removal of some 60,000 people living off its waters. “It has given us breathing space,” said Mir Naseem, vice-chairman of Kashmir’s Lakes and Waterways Authority, which is running the conservation plan. “There are lots of problems that threaten the basic survival of the lake. But, we can now take on environmental issues. Before, we couldn’t even carry out operations.”
Thousands of tonnes of sewage spews into the lake, feeding weeds and choking the lake and its aquatic life of oxygen. The lake’s size has been halved in a few decades to some 13sq. km, due to encroachment of farming land. A study this year by the state’s Comptroller and Auditor General reported that the lake has excessively high levels of toxic metals due to sewage. Pollutants were accumulating in the fish and water, which was consumed by humans. Tests of water samples showed arsenic levels were almost 1,000 times above permissible levels.
The lake authority says it will spend around $74 million (Rs303 crore) cleaning up the lake with new sewage treatment plants. More controversially, it plans to spend nearly $80 million to relocate 58 settlements around the lake to a 1,000-acre site a few miles inland. The first 300 families could be moved by the end of the year. Authorities and many environmentalists blame these families for dumping rubbish, sewage and waste and creating landfills of mud and weed in the waters for farming land and floating gardens. Many lake dwellers, some of whom have been there for decades, distrust the relocation proposal—despite the offer of up to $10,000 compensation for their homes. Hundreds of volunteers have already helped pull weeds out of the adjacent Nigeen lake, which is looking its cleanest in years. Environmentalists and officials are pressing the hundreds of houseboats on the lake, many catering to tourists, to stop dumping waste into the lake.
Many houseboat owners, desperate for tourists, say they are willing to stop but need the infrastructure to do it. “I remember when guests would take boats out to the middle of the lake and dive in. You could see through to the bottom, it was crystal clear,” said Gulam Butt, owner of Clermont Houseboats. “Now look at it,” Butt said, shaking his head sadly.