To save a lake

Print edition : May 23, 1998

The Jammu and Kashmir Government has launched an ambitious effort to save the Dal lake in Srinagar.

THE Dal lake in Srinagar still looks, for the most part, like its picture postcard images: islands, houseboats, floating gardens, shikaras, water shimmering under the summer sun.

The Dal lake and the areas around it, as seen from the Shankaracharya hill. Efforts are on to save the lake which has been seriously polluted as a consequence of the urbanisation of Srinagar and the expansion of agriculture around the city.-NISSAR AHMAD

Perhaps it is just as well for the lake's image that photographs do not smell. Large areas of the lake now reek with the stench of raw sewage discharged by settlements inside the Dal and from areas around its southern and southwestern fringes. Each year, large parts of the lake are lost to intruding marsh, a consequence of massive inflow of silt from its deforested catchment area. Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah has said that he would persuade the Planning Commission to release the funds promised for a Rs.477-crore project designed by the Jammu and Kashmir Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LWDA) to save the lake. It might be the Dal's last chance. "The lake is poised at a critical stage," says Helmut Krois, from Vienna's Technische Universitat, "and if nothing is done, the Dal will die."

How did one of Asia's most fragile water bodies end up resembling a septic tank? The answer lies in the twin processes of Srinagar's urbanisation and the expansion of agriculture in the valley around the city. The lake had always been a recreational and economic centre. The islands in the Dal are known to have supplied Srinagar with much of its vegetables and fruits during the mid-17th century reign of Aurangzeb's Governor to Kashmir, Saif Khan. The Mughal gardens on the northeastern shore were laid during the same period, and a succession of monarchs spent the summer in the lake's vicinity.

It was only in the 18th century, however, that the city itself began to grow towards the lake. Well into this century, some checks on urbanisation around the lake were maintained by the feudal Dogra monarchy, with the Boulevard area remaining out of bounds for habitation. But roads were built, notably along the southwest fringe, cutting off areas of the lake around the Shankaracharya and Zarbawan hills. The marshes that were thus formed were reclaimed for the construction of shops and houses. In 1947, a pipeline was laid over a bund to channel drinking water from the Harwan reservoir, cutting the Dal into two and thus reducing the circulation of water.

In the mid-1970s, with tourism becoming a key industry for Jammu and Kashmir, the pressures on the lake multiplied. There were less than a hundred houseboats on the Dal and Nagin lakes at the turn of the century, but their number grew to a staggering 1,400 by 1981. The 1981 Census recorded that hamlets around the lake had a population of 24,500, an increase of over 100 per cent since 1973. Some 4,580 people were found to be permanently resident on the houseboats. Although the tourist presence dwindled after terrorist violence broke out in 1989, the human population on and around the lake registered a steady growth. On the basis of a conservative estimate of 3.5 per cent annual population growth, the LWDA believes that 44,833 people are now resident on the houseboats and in the hamlets, and assuming that just 5,000 tourists lived on them through the year, the lake bore the burden of waste from 49,833 people.

Further, hotels were allowed to be built in the Boulevard area, which was once part of a dense forest, and these were permitted to discharge their waste into the lake. "Tourists wanted toilets," says LWDA vice-chairman Sheikh Abdul Rashid wryly, "and that meant waste, which was traditionally collected for use as manure, is now dumped directly into the water."

SRINAGAR'S urban growth was to inflict even more serious damage to the lake. The Dal system's waters traditionally flushed out through two major drains - the lock at Dal Gate, leading into canals which cut through downtown Srinagar, and the Nallah Mar, built during the time of the legendary king Bud Shah. The canals in downtown Srinagar served as the city's communication arteries, with boats transporting goods and passengers. The introduction of bus services in 1953 saw waterway communication lose its relevance. With the growth of the downtown city's population, the canals became sewage drains since there was no incentive to keep them clean and desilted. No effort was made to build a sewerage system, and all human waste from the crowded downtown area was discharged directly into the canals. The flow of water out of the Dal was strangled. "When I was a child," recalls Inspector-General of Police Rajan Bakshi, "we used to travel right through the city on boats, all the way to the Shalimar and Nishat gardens. Today, the canals are just gutters."

It was not that engineers were unaware of the problems that interfering with the Dal's drainage would cause. When Chief Minister Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah built the Marpalan highway around the Dal's western flank to ease traffic congestion downtown, a decision was taken to cover the key Nallah Mar rather than spend money to acquire private property further inland. To ensure that the Dal continued to drain into the Anchar lake system at Ganderbal, six-foot pipes were laid under the new road. This optimistic bit of engineering work rapidly fell apart in the face of rising siltation and solid waste deposits. The pipes were soon filled with debris and, predictably enough, no serious effort was made to solve the problem. As more and more homes were built along the Marpalan road, the area around Bhagwanpora turned into a fetid marsh. An abysmal municipal waste disposal system and the absence of a sewerage system led the residents to discharge their waste directly into the lake. "I used to bathe here when I was a child," says 62-year-old Ghulam Mohammad, pointing to the carcass of a dog rotting in the Dal's waters in front of his Bhagwanpora home.

Manually deweeding the lake.-NISSAR AHMAD

Certain developments in the catchment area also had the effect of adding to the waste flowing into the Dal. The two most important streams feeding the Dal are the Dachigam Nallah and the Telbal Nallah, which carry water from the high-altitude Marsar lake. Since the 1950s, massive deforestation has been taking place, as the demand for farmland has grown. The consequence of deforestation is only too evident. Today, the Dal bears an annual silt load of 80,000 tonnes. In the absence of drainage, much of it is deposited in the lake near its northern shore as it is blocked by a bund in the middle of the lake. The land thus formed has been claimed for farming and pastoral activity, and this has added to the load of organic waste in the lake. The impact of deforestation, LWDA studies show, is illustrated by the fact that soil run-off from the north-facing slopes of the Dachigam forest reserve is minimal but on the south-facing slopes where forests have been hacked away, it is very heavy. As serious as soil run-off is the fact that farmers in the catchment area use increasingly heavy loads of nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers and these run off into the lake.

The run-off from the fields and untreated sewage have the same impact. "Human waste is excellent manure," says Kroiss. Once in the water, the raw sewage and fertilizer run-off cause plant life to grow prolifically. Weeds and algae, along with bacteria, proliferate. As the plant life soaks up oxygen from the water, other forms of aquatic life like fish, are slowly strangled. Several pockets of the lake are already in the grey zone of near-death. In the Brari-Numbal area, hit hard by the construction of the Marpalan road, the dissolved-oxygen level has been found to be less than 5 milligrams per litre, meaning that there is almost no oxygen for aquatic life to breathe.

Dredging operations under way as part of the effort to save the lake.-AIJAZ RAHI / AP

Other key indicators of water quality have shown steady deterioration. Phosphorous content in the Gagribal basin of the lake, along the fringes of which run the Boulevard hotels and houseboats, rose from 70-506 mg/l in 1977 to 136-5,060 mg/l in 1996. An even more dramatic deterioration was evident in the Bud Dal basin, where phosphorous levels rose from 65-620 mg/l to 136-8,106 mg/l. The levels of ammonia and nitrogen showed even more significant increases. LDWA figures show that 5.5 tonnes of phosphorous and 88.9 tonnes of nitrogen drain into the Dal each year from human settlements, hotels and farms - figures which are alarming by any standards.

Warning signs that the Dal might be on its last legs came dramatically in August 1991, when there was a red algal bloom in the Bud Dal basin next to Centaur Hotel. The bloom was found to be of a type known as Euglenineae, a species almost entirely dependent on inorganic nitrogen and indicating dangerous pollution levels in the lake. Since then, the growth of exotic aquatic weeds such as Salvinis natans (water fern), has been prolific. The invasion of water fern into traditional lotus zones of the lakes has been reported recently, and weeds like Lemna have been found by the LWDA to be overwhelming native species in many areas. One common Dal lake species, the Eurayle ferox salisb, has disappeared altogether. Some 50,000 tonnes of weeds are believed to die in the lake each year, and their decomposition adds to the pollution load.

A dilapidated houseboat in the marsh along Rainawari.-NISSAR AHMAD

The deterioration of the lake is not just abstract in its consequences. The raw sewage that is destroying the Dal ecosystem poses serious health hazards for humans. The high coliform and faecal matter counts, indicative of bacterial contamination, illustrate the health risk to Srinagar's inhabitants who are dependent on the Dal for drinking water.

WHAT solutions are there to the Dal's crisis? The 'picnic boat' colony at Babadam illustrates the problems in the way of the LWDA's ambitious plans to remove all Dal lake inhabitants who are not engaged in the tourism industry. Nine years ago, the 150 families at Babadam earned a living by ferrying weekend picnickers to Shalimar and Nishat from downtown Srinagar in their boats. With the rise of terrorist violence, that occupation collapsed. Since then the community earns its living from the scrap market it has set up along the waterfront. Over the last year and a half, the improvised shops have been demolished thrice in an effort to make the community stop polluting the already fragile Brari-Numbal lagoon.

A marsh in Rainawari.-NISSAR AHMAD

"Where do they want us to go?" asks a furious Ghulam Qadir. "Our boats, which cost Rs.1.5 lakhs to build, are in ruins, and while we used to earn Rs.500 a day, we are now lucky to make Rs.50. We have to spend half of that on medicines for our sick children. We did not cause the pollution, but the Government did that when it closed the Mar Nallah. We are ready to move but they must give us some place to go."

And that is the LWDA's key problem: its well-thought-out plans are not backed by funds. Operating with an interim grant of Rs.50 crores, the Authority has set in place a series of stop-gap measures. A Rs.3.5-crore amphibious dredger, manufactured by the Chennai-based ship-builders Tebma, has been put to work along the northern shore to remove sediment. Plans to build a pipeline to carry the dredged earth up to 1.5 km away, and purchase further dredgers, are also being considered. Manual de-weeding, more sensitive to the environment than mechanical cutting, is also being conducted. More important, measures are being taken to restore the Dal's drainage system. The Amir Khan Nallah's flow is being increased from 200 cubic feet per second (cusecs) to 1,500 cusecs, and the Dal Gate lock that empties into the downtown canals has been improved. Construction has started on a replacement for the Nallah Mar in the form of an underground conduit from the Brari-Numbal lagoon to the Jhelum river. Critically, work has begun on a sewage pipe running along the Boulevard to Habak, which will carry raw waste, now being discharged into the lake, to a treatment plant, Srinagar's first.

Houseboats moored near the Boulevard, which was once a dense forest area.-NISSAR AHMAD

However, despite Farooq Abdullah's personal backing, the Rs.294 crores needed to clean up the lake, and Rs.185 crores for the rehabilitation of its residents, has not materialised. In 1997, with the backing of Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, Abdullah persuaded the Planning Commission to meet the clean-up costs. That money, however, is yet to materialise.

On board a houseboat, at Brari-Numbal.-NISSAR AHMAD

Money has been the problem with all plans to save the Dal. In 1978, plans to invest Rs.2,000 crores over a 10-year period were first approved, but actual expenditure never exceeded Rs.8.4 crores. Subsequent plans went the same way. Assistance from the United Kingdom became available in 1987 to bridge the resource gap, but terrorism put an end to this project.

Houses along the Dal lake in downtown Srinagar.-NISSAR AHMAD

Rashid, a former Chief Engineer who has put together an energetic team of experts in the LWDA, is blunt on the issue. "We have spent Rs.64 crores since 1978 and achieved nothing. If we are serious about saving the Dal, we must pump in the cash we need over five years and finish the job. If not, well, we should just forget about the whole thing and allow one of the world's most beautiful lakes to die."

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