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Paradox​ ​in​ ​paradise:​​Poisoning​ ​of​ ​Dal Lake

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.

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