Srinagar: Pollution is turning the famous mountain-ringed Dal Lake in Kashmir into a weed-clogged swamp, hampering the recovery of tourism in the region, environmentalists say. And cleaning up the lake is vital to tourism as visitors begin to return to the terrorism-hit state amid moves by India and Pakistan to end their dispute over the territory.
Dal Lake, famed for its ornately-carved cedar houseboats, is the centrepiece of Srinagar’s tourist trade. But in the past two decades it has shrunk by more than half to 11 square kilometres and lost 12 meters in depth. “This lake is dying fast. It’s turning into a swamp,” says Manzoor Ahmed, a leading businessman who is spearheading a campaign to rescue the lake.
Last September, a court slammed authorities for not doing enough to save the lake, saying it had become “a slum.” Gaudily-painted shikaras—Kashmiri-style gondolas—skim across its surface, and tourists come to stay on the brightly-hued houseboats moored on the lake. But sewage from the more than 1,000 houseboats and waste from hotels and homes on shore empty into the lake. Pollution is sometimes so bad it turns the lake a brackish green.
A man washes clothes in the waters of the Dal Lake. The Lake, famed for its ornately-carved cedar houseboats, is the centrepiece of Srinagar’s tourist trade.
Tests showed high levels of lead, arsenic, iron, manganese, copper and cadmium that accumulate in fish which are then consumed by humans, posing serious health risks, a government report said. “Effects of these elements can cause damage to brain, liver and kidneys of the consumers,” it warned.
In addition to the 7,500 people living on houseboats, another 50,000 people inhabit small islands in the area.
“The lake’s environmental deterioration can be attributed rightly to human settlements within and near the lake,” says Shafiq-ur-Rehman, a professor at the region’s agriculture university and an expert on the lake.
Aijaz Rasool, a government engineer, says three sewage plants that began operating last year have helped to ease the problem of domestic waste, but more are needed.
“Once the boats are linked up to the system, the government will take care of the sewage,” says Rasool. However, he says, houseboat owners have refused to hook up their waste systems to a waste disposal system as they would have to shift to the rear of their lake. The houseboat owners believe the new location would make their accommodation less attractive as it would be farther away from a road frequented by tourists.
Authorities have cut down more than 500,000 trees within the lake last year to stop the decomposing leaves polluting the water. Floating vegetable gardens on reed rafts, some of Kashmir’s biggest vegetable-producing areas, are also major polluters. “Pesticides used by farmers find their way into the lake, causing colossal damage to its fauna and flora,” notes Rehman.
“We need a sustainable and well-designed anti-pollution programme to save Dal Lake,” says state lawmaker Raman Bhalla. “Otherwise the lake faces disaster.”