By M L Dhar
The place (Kashmir) is more beautiful than the heaven and is the benefactor of supreme bliss and happiness. It seems to me that I am taking a bath in the lake of nectar here,” wrote Sanskrit poet Kalidasa. Sir Walter Lawrence on visiting Kashmir was compelled to write; “The valley is an emerald set in pearls; a land of lakes, clear streams, green turf, magnificent trees and mighty mountains where the air is cool, and the water sweet …”
Kashmir is endowed with some large pristine lakes and wetlands besides the river Jehlum and its tributaries that make the valley a lively hydraulic society. They include Asia’s largest freshwater lake – the Wullar and India’s most beautiful lake - the Dal. The livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people in tourism trade, fisheries, agriculture etc. depends on these water bodies. They are also major source of water for drinking and other purposes. They also support a rich bio-diversity. But, unfortunately these water bodies are shrinking fast due to ecological degradation caused by human interference.
The ecological degradation of the water bodies has in recent years reached to crisis magnitude and caused loss of sustainability. Human settlements in and around the lakes and associated commercial activities along their shores have reached to alarming proportions. The farming activities in the catchment areas have considerably increased causing heavy nutrient pollution load and silting into the lake waters.
Located 60 kilometers from Srinagar at the basin of the Jhelum River, Wullar lake plays a very important role in maintaining the Valley’s hydrographic system. Being a huge absorption basin for floodwaters, it regulates the water regime of the region. The lake meets about 60 percent of the valley’s fish demand. It is also a major source of water borne products like water chestnut and lotus-stem locally known as ‘Nadru’, one of the major local vegetables. Wullar sustains a number of endangered and endemic species of flora and fauna and along with its satellite wetlands it is a favourite winter abode of a number of migratory birds including the common pochard, pintail, common teal, shoveller, mallard and many other species. Wullar has also been a favorite haunt for visitors especially foreign tourists.
But all these activities have been adversely affected as the lake has been reduced to less than 70 sq. kms. A century ago, Wullar extended up to almost 190 sq kms and would spread to over 270 sq kms during floods. Human encroachments into the lake, particularly into the associated wet lands, are the chief reason for the lake’s shrinking. According to official estimates over sixty-nine thousand kanals of the lake area have been converted into land and occupied illegally by locals. Environmentalists hold partly government sponsored programmes for agricultural development responsible for shrinking of the lake’s area and changing its ecological character. They allege that parts of wetlands were drained and embankments built to protect settlements as well as crops. A survey conducted in 2006 under court orders revealed that 60,000 kanals area in the lake have been encroached mainly by raising plantations under social forestry programmes of the Forest Department. Experts say that due to it Wullar has lost its capacity to regulate water flows leading to increased floods and droughts in the Valley.
In addition, the sewage from Srinagar and other towns upstream passing into the River Jehlum that flows through Wullar has degraded the lake’s water quality. It has led to increased euthrophication resulting in growth of aquatic weeds that damage local flora and fauna and clogging of its fresh water arteries. This has caused sharp decline in the yield of fish and water borne products in the lake. Records for last 50 years reveal that the fish catch has declined from 10,544 metric tons to 1,476 metric tons per annum. This has endangered the livelihood of more than 8,000 fishermen who depend on Wullar Lake.
For its unique hydrological and socio-economic values, Union Ministry of Environment and Forests included Wullar Lake in its Wetlands Programme as a Wetland of National Importance in 1986. Subsequently, the lake was designated as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention in 1990.
The jewel in Kashmir’s splendid beauty, Dal Lake too has suffered from devastating impact of human greed and negligence. Located in Srinagar, Dal lake has considerably shrank and its crystal clear serene waters are polluted. The lake is now ranked among 100 most polluted water bodies globally. From 75 sq kms nine centuries ago the lake had reportedly shrunk to 25 sq kms two decades ago and is today confined to mere 11 sq kms. It has also become shallower at least by four meters due to silting and accumulation of remains from sewage flowing into it. Like Wullar, it too has suffered due to euthrophication process with weeds chocking the lake and adversely affecting its flora and fauna. Here too annual fish yields have significantly reduced.
The lake’s unparalleled spectacular beauty is the main tourist attraction in the valley. Living in the Victorian-era houseboats and enjoying ‘Shikara’ ( small boat) rides in the lake is a life-time experience. Moghul emperors were so overwhelmed by the lake’s beauty that they set up huge gardens on its banks that continue to be favourite of tourists and locals even today. Around 1,200 houseboats, which were first introduced in 1888, are moored year-round in and around the lake. Enjoying huge popularity since their inception, the houseboats in recent years have been in focus for wrong reasons. Local officials say that the houseboats contribute thousands of liters of untreated human waste into lake waters. This has been contested by the houseboat owners association which claims that waste from houseboats account for just 3% of Dal’s pollution. They hold the untreated city sewage flowing into Dal and blocking of the lake’s water circulation canals responsible for degradation of its water quality.
While the blame game goes on, Dal suffers. The state government stopped making of new houseboats in 1991 and subsequently ordered a ban on them. But houseboats continue to moore in its waters without any structural changes ordered by the High Court.
Valley’s deepest lake, Manasbal, located about 30 kms from Srinagar city, is spring-fed like the Dal and other lakes of Kashmir Valley. It harbours rich quantity of water chestnuts, lotus stem and fish specie including Schizothorax, Common Carp and Mirror Carp. It too has suffered from pollution, siltation and encroachments with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) warning in 1997 that the lake would be lost to posterity in absence of immediate conservation measures. The government response came in 2006 with the setting up of the Wullar-Manasbal Development Authority (WMDA). But by that time the lake had shrunk to less than 7 sq kms as more than 4 sq kms had turned into marsh.
With community participation, WMDA turned the corner and partly restored the Lake’s health. The quarrying and lime extraction in the vicinity of Mansbal had completely chocked around 1200 springs, which are its main water source, making the lake to stink. The quarries were closed and lime extraction stopped, which proved an important conservation measure in restoration of lake’s springs. Encroachments in the lake’s peripheral areas were, despite stiff resistance, removed and a pedestrian walkway constructed to demarcate the lake’s periphery. With sustained dredging and de-weeding by the WMDA, the lake’s area increased by one-and-a-half sq kms. WMDA’s success in restoring Manasbal led the environmentalists to say that it should serve as a role model for conservation of Valley’s other water bodies.
The Government has been making efforts to save the water bodies which Chief Minister Omar Abdullah termed as ‘icons of our heritage, for which the entire people of the state feel concerned.’ A number of reports and action plans have appeared in recent years to come to terms with the problem of these lakes. These include IIT Roorkee report and comprehensive report of House Committee of Jammu and Kashmir Assembly for conservation of the Dal (2002), the Study of Wullar Lake, Soil Conservation Scheme for Catchment Area of Wullar Lake, Wullar Wetland Conservation Project (1993), WWF - India funded the Wullar Lake study (1994) and the Ecological Restoration Plan for Erin Watershed of Wullar Catchment (1988) besides studies by Kashmir University and S.P. College, Srinagar on different aspects of various lakes and their satellite wetlands.
Environment Committee of the state Assembly recently stressed the need for a well knit policy for conservation and protection of water bodies. The Chief Minister conceded during Union Minister of State for Environment and Forest Shri Jairam Ramesh’s visit to the valley in June that although various steps have been taken to protect the water-bodies, particularly Dal Lake, an intensified programme is required to be launched to protect the water bodies.
Several authorities namely the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA), the Wullar Manasbal Development Authority etc. have been set up to clean and conserve the lakes. About Rs.79 crore have so far been spent by LAWDA on different schemes to conserve Dal Lake. These include setting up of sewage treatment plants, solid waste management, hydraulic works, catchment management works, awareness programme and acquisition of land and structures. The Authority has also relocated about 1,400 families out of 10,000 families living in the lake area. Three Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) have been constructed to stop unchecked flow of sewage in the Dal waters, but experts say that atleast a dozen big and small STPs are needed to completely check the sewage flow.
Central Government’s Support
The centrally sponsored National Lake Conservation Action Plan initiated in 2001 covers only one water body from Kashmir, the Dal lake. After personally surveying along with the Chief Minister some of the lakes and water bodies of the valley this summer, Shri Jairam Ramesh assured that the entire Rs.1,100 crore comprehensive state plan for Dal cleaning would be funded by the Centre out of which Rs.300 crore have already been allocated. He said, “We need to find the remaining Rs 800 crore for resettlement and rehabilitation of the Dal dwellers.” He also promised liberal funding for other projects. Extending support for restoration of Wullar Lake, Shri Jairam Ramesh said that Rs.386 crore Wullar project would be expedited and Rs.250 crore cleaning project of the Jhelum river, the lifeline of Kashmir, would be taken up on the pattern of Ganga-Yamuna conservation plan. Under it sewage treatment plants in Srinagar city and at Annantnag, Sopore and Baramullah towns located on the Jehlum would be set up.
The Government says that 40 percent of work on the Dal project, scheduled to be completed by 2010, has been completed and the rest would be finished in the next two years. Relocation and rehabilitation of people is always slow who need to be assured of proper and suitable rehabilitation packages and that is bound to speed up reclaiming of encroached areas of the water bodies.
There has to be a holistic approach in protecting and rehabilitating the water bodies to almost their pristine glory in which peoples’ active participation is a crucial factor. For this mass awareness has got to be generated so that the common man becomes the custodian of the eco safety of the water bodies. That would be the best insurance against the ‘slow death’ of Kashmir lakes.