If Kashmir is the crown of the vast Indian subcontinent, then Dal Lake is the shimmering jewel encrusted in its centre. The lake lies at the heart of the state capital, Srinagar, and is part of a rich and ecologically complex wetland ecosystem. It is also home to a unique way of life that has been around since the times of the British Raj, with its myriad houseboats, shikaras and the boundless hospitality and charm of the Kashmiri culture. No matter how many times one visits, there is a timeless romance here that never fails to enchants the soul.
This time, we were to meet a close friend and house boat owner, Ameen, to better understand the changes that were taking place on the lake. We drifted gracefully on our Shikara into the stillness of the lake. Behind us, the line of shikaras that had been anchored mosaically on the shore, gleamed in the glow of the mid-morning sun. In the distance, mountains rose seamlessly on all sides, their peaks silhouetted in the mist and their verdant slopes ensconcing the horizon like an impressionist canvas. Around us, the occasional stork flitted past serenely.
A brood of moorhen ambled morishly in the backwaters, amidst the strips of floating flora. Burbulls frisked in the canopy of reeds. Vast swathes of open water were carpeted in a flotilla of water lilies. If this wasn’t paradise, what was?
But beneath this beauty, we found, was a deeply alarming tragedy. Dal Lake (like other water bodies in India and around the world) is besieged by unprecedented levels of pollution, that if left unaddressed will spell death to this fragile ecosystem, within our lifetime. Untreated sewage, industrial effluent and spills from the city’s overstretched treatment works, we were told, was being dumped into the lake and the wider network of waterways. Human waste from the houseboats was also routinely discharged in the lake.
The huge amount of nitrates and other leachates in these discharges was fuelling eutrophication at a rapid rate, causing the unchecked proliferation of lilies and invasive species such as azolla. As Ameen notes, these changes have become observable in less than half a decade. The main body of the lake was once crystal clear. The recent increase in plant cover at surface level, was significantly reducing the penetration of oxygen and sunlight into the lake and altering the delicate balance of the ecosystem. Fish, waterfowl and bird species had all declined drastically. Even the small though beautiful spectacle of flora and fauna, that had greeted us on this trip, Ameen pointed out, was a fragment of the lost glory of Dal Lake. Ameen and other local residents we had spoken to earlier recalled that, less than a generation ago, water in the lake was drinkable. In the decades that followed, as water quality deteriorated, it could no longer be consumed, but was still bathe-able. Now, that too, was not possible. Residents lamented. What to speak of future generations?
There have been numerous attempts by authorities to clean up the lake, though many feel that these have been woefully inadequate. There are an estimated thousand houseboats on the lake (having declined in recent years due to government pressure to reduce their numbers). There is at present no system to manage black and grey water from the boats. Human waste from all of these boats (black water) is discharged directly into the lake without any treatment, as well as grey water containing harsh synthetic chemicals and non-degradable wastes from cleaning products.
In decades past, before the introduction of western style flushing loos, we were told, all boats had in place dry compost loos. This waste was collected from each houseboat for use as compost by local individuals. Since the advent of modern toilets however, houseboats have been unable to find a solution to dealing sustainably with wastewater. Numerous efforts, over the years, have all failed, due in part to engineering challenges, mismanagement of funding, a deficit of technical knowledge (on the part of domestic contractors) and not least a lack of political will.
Sewage from other parts of the city is also reported to enter the lake, and is a major cause of pollution in the lake. The authorities have in recent years addressed some of the problems associated with waste from local businesses and households on the lakeshore through improved drainage and connections to treatment works, although a considerable amount of waste still finds its way into the waterways. Dry waste collections from houseboats have also been in place since the early 90s. Weekly door-to-door collections have ensured that rubbish from houseboats, is for the most part, no longer dumped into the lake, as was the case in preceding decades.
Public awareness raising campaigns and signs have also helped to reduce litter on the lake, although some local tourists, we were informed, have yet to stop the habit. In preceding days, in the aftermath of the Eid sacrifices, we had spotted the intestinal detritus and bloated remains of animals jettisoned in Dal Lake.
In spite of some successes, recent efforts by the authorities appear to be focussed on the symptoms not the causes of pollution. In a bid to manage the effects of eutrophication, authorities have employed contractors to curtail algal blooms and curtail the spread of lilies on the lake. Locals feel that these measures, in particular the use of machines in some cases, have not uprooted these plants fully, and have merely induced more vigorous regrowth. There is also little direct use for these weeds except as cattle fodder.
Cleared weeds are taken to the shore and transported to a dumping site in the city. As the organic matter decomposes, some of it is collected by local growers to be used as compost. Ameen, suggested that if this organic matter can be composted faster, it could be sold as a cheap and natural fertiliser to reduce farmers’ reliance on harsh agrochemicals.
Some research along these lines, is thought to be underway in academic circles. These closed-loop solutions offer a better way to utilise an abundant temporary resource, but do not provide a long-term solution to the root causes of pollution.
The future of Dal Lake will depend on sustainable solutions at both grassroots and authority level. Social and environmental injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. In many ways, the future of Dal Lake is the future of all environments, that hang in the cusp of survival. If we unlock the key to living harmoniously in a mesmerizingly beautiful and intricate ecosystem here, we have unlocked the key everywhere.