The ‘Degeneration of Dal Lake’ is a disaster waiting to happen
By: Arka Chakraborty and Suhail Ahmad
The Dal Lake is, in more ways than one, at the heart of life in Jammu and Kashmir. Famous for its clear, sparkling water and scenic beauty, the lake is truly the ‘jewel in the crown of Kashmir’. Historically, the lake is one of the things that draws many tourists to Kashmir. The British civil servant and traveller Walter Lawrence called the lake one of the most pleasant places in the world in his 1895 travelogue The Valley of Kashmir. The Dal Lake is an integral part of Kashmir’s history and heritage, and even more importantly, it is one of the region’s wetlands which are central in shaping and maintaining the valley’s geomorphological and ecological identity, thereby playing a cardinal role in giving the region’s plant and animal species (including human beings) sustenance. However, the uncontrolled exploitation of the Dal lake and other water bodies by the region’s growing populace has lately put the same in great danger. The Dal lake’s potential disappearance can lead to a number of natural, environmental, economic and historical disasters for the Valley’s unsuspecting and sometimes ignorant population and a range of interrelated interventions from different stakeholders are needed to halt, and hopefully reverse, the degradation that the lake is currently experiencing.
A brief description of the Dal Lake and its significance
Located in Srinagar, the summer capital of J&K, the Dal Lake is currently the second largest lake of the UT – after the Wular Lake. The phrase ‘Dal Lake’ is a misnomer as the Kashmiri word ‘Dal’ translates to ‘lake’ in English. The shoreline of the lake is 15.5 kilometers long, which is surrounded by a boulevard, lined with Mughal era gardens like Shalimar Bagh. Parts of the lake are adorned with beautiful floating gardens or ‘Raad.’ Causeways have divided the lake into four parts- Gagribal, lokut-dal, bod-dal and nagin (although nagin is often considered a lake on its own). There are two islands in the centre of lokut-dal and bod-dal, namely, Rup Lank and Sona Lank respectively. All in all, the natural beauty that the lake and the vegetation around (and within) it creates a landscape that has enamoured visitors for centuries. It is unsurprising, therefore, that a vibrant tourism industry would emerge around it, providing a livelihood for thousands of Kashmiri people, if not more.
Providing financial sustenance to the local population, however, is but one of the blessings the Dal provides. The lake’s true significance can be understood only if it is viewed as one of the UT’s 565 (approximately) wetlands. The wetlands, including the Dal Lake, have played an integral role in the development of the Valley’s ecological and geomorphological environment and, as mentioned earlier, are key to the survival of the region’s plant and animal population. This gives the Dal Lake a whole new level of importance that many of the locals and tourists don’t stop to consider. The water bodies also help to keep the region’s rainwater and stream water in check and in circulation, and hence prevent flooding. The lake, therefore, is extremely important in as much environmental sense as economical, if not more.
Unbridled Pollution and Grim Consequences
In the past century (1901-2011), Srinagar’s population and size has experienced a huge boom: the population has increased 12 times while the size of the city itself has increased 23 times. This sudden increase in population has put great pressure on Dal Lake because many people depend on the lake on various capacities. The increased population has brought in problems like encroachment and dumping untreated waste (both liquid and solid) in the lake.
Encroachment was not a serious problem until recently, when new settlers near the lake started to cut down trees and use the land and the lake’s water for agricultural production. Rapid deforestation decreased the soil’s ability to hold rainwater on one hand, and on the other hand, the pesticides and insecticides used in the fields used near the lake went straight into the same as agricultural runoff, endangering the lake’s flora and fauna. Another major problem is the vast numbers of encroachers living within the lake, Iftikhar Drabu, a senior engineer who specializes in water engineering, opines that the problem began when people started to settle in the ‘newly surfaced landmasses’ which had emerged due to the artificial lowering of the lake’s water surface following the flood of 1950s. The then popular government, instead of trying to stop encroachment in these landmasses which could be potentially damaging to the lake, encouraged it by providing the early settlers with basic infrastructure like roads and electricity. As of November 2018, there were 40000 to 70000 inhabitants living in the Dal interiors, generating waste (ex. night soil, sullage and solid waste) which is released into the lake untreated daily.
Another problem, Drabu says, is allowing the mooring of houseboats in the Dal Lake which was restricted to the Jhelum River during the Dogra rule (1846-1947). According to a report by the Land and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA), there are 702 houseboats in the Dal Lake which are releasing untreated waste into it daily. The same reports also points to 13 hotels within the lake (the Dal interiors) which are also doing the same.
Much of Srinagar city’s waste ends up in the Dal Lake. The LAWDA report mentioned earlier states that there are as many as 25 drains from old Srinagar city which flow into the Dal Lake without any treatment. The lake has only 5 or 6 (reports differ) Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) and even those don’t function to their full capacity.
The rampant abuse of the Dal lake is already showing severe consequences. The unusual level of sedimentation has led to an imbalance of nutrients in the lake, leading to uncontrolled weed growth in some parts of the lake. This weed prevents water circulation and lowers the oxygen levels in the water, leading to the eventual death of the lake’s fauna and flora population. The dumping of toxic waste has also severely impacted the flora and fauna and many species have already become extinct, a catastrophic change for the lake’s internal ecosystem.
Secondly, the Dal Lake’s size is shrinking at an alarming rate. According to a report submitted to the erstwhile Governor N. N. Vohra by Rajesh Tripathi, CMD of the Dredging Corporation of India in 2018, the lake’s size had already decreased from the popularly known 22 sq. Km. To 10 sq. Km. This is even more shocking when we know that the lake’s original size was 75 sq. Km. Back in and around AD 1200. Dal Lake’s depth has also decreased exponentially and, according to the Tripathi’s report, it had 40% of its former capacity. This has made the lake more susceptible to flooding, which will pose a great danger to people in Srinagar city and especially the encroachers and those whose livelihoods depend entirely on the lake. If this goes on, the historic lake might disappear entirely in the next century.
Dal Lake is certainly not the only wetland in J&K which is facing this crisis. In the past century, the erstwhile state has lost more than 50% of its water bodies.
Some Government Interventions
Many of the past governments have tried to restore the Dal Lake in many ways and the present government continues to try its best. The vice-chairman of LAWDA, Hafiz Masoodi, has said that the government is in the process of improving the STPs and are also trying to connect the STPs with the houseboats by moving the houseboats to a specific area of the lake (Dole Damb). Moreover, the hotel owners in and around the Dal Lake have been asked to install STPs. However, Abdul Rashid Kolu, General Secretary of the Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association, pointed out in a stakeholders’ meeting called by the KCC&I (Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry) how certain policies are making the fragile sector even more difficult to survive.
Cleaning of the Dal Lake by using both machinery and manpower is a policy that not only ensures the cleanliness of the lake at least at the surface level but also brings livelihood for the vulnerable sections of the population including some of the encroachers. The LAWDA took up one such project in late 2020 in anticipation of a reinvigorated tourism scenario following the lifting of the COVID-19 induced lockdown in the UT.
Using Bio-digesters is a new and innovative way to combat the crisis of Dal in particular and other water bodies in general. The Defence Research and Development Organisation has developed and successfully tested the prototype Bio-digesters on a few houseboats and the purchase of Bio-digesters on 100 households and large-size Bio-digesters for 10 households each has been done on a pilot basis with financial implications of Rs. 3.50 crores.
There are examples of water bodies which have been in a much worse condition than the Dal Lake but have been restored to their earlier glory by a pragmatic use of technology and human effort. These are some of the measures that can be taken to improve the condition of Dal Lake:
(1) Removal of houseboats and hotels from Dal Lake and rehabilitation of owners at a suitable place.
(2) Rehabilitation of people who live in and around Dal somewhere else while keeping in mind their right to a safe and comfortable life as human beings.
(3) Afforestation of the catchment area.
(4) Control of grazing animals in the catchment area.
(5) Removal of excess weeds from Dal on a continuous basis.
(6) Construction of STPs at all inflow channels and ensuring that they are functioning at optimum capacity.
(7) Restoration of a natural outflow channel (drainage i.e. “Nalla Mar”) that will drain extra pollutants from Dal.
(8) Educating villagers regarding the importance of the construction of sanitation latrines so that direct disposal of sewage into the Lake is prevented.
(9) Reducing the use of chemical pesticides and farmers should be encouraged to use biological pest controls instead of chemical pesticides.
(10) Farmers should avoid the use of commercial fertilizers and animal dung in their farmlands in the catchment area. They should be encouraged to develop and implement nutrient management plans to reduce the excess application of fertilizers.
All these measures are expected to reduce pollution, which is remarkably high at present, and will help in the preservation of the lake for future generations.
The myriad of problems the Dal Lake is suffering from is but a single case of the larger disease Jammu and Kashmir and, by extension, the whole of India is suffering from. Srinagar is not the only city that is suffering from urban flooding: Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Surat, Gorakhpur and Guwahati are some of the other major cities in India where floods are increasing. This, while pointing to the need for an integrated, nation-wide general strategy to preserve the natural water bodies, regional and local specificities, especially when it comes to stakeholders, must be kept in mind. In Jammu and Kashmir, the restoration of the Dal lake should be the starting point of a UT-wide drive to protect and preserve the endangered water bodies which are integral to the region’s identity and affluence. All stakeholders including the Dal dwellers have to be taken due note of while devising and implementing strategies of restoration so that no stakeholders’ interests are harmed in any way. Moreover, the process has to have the enthusiastic support and speciality-based participation of all stakeholders who need to be made properly aware of the true grimness of the situation of the water bodies and their importance to their health, wellbeing and livelihood. At the end, when all technicalities are considered, plans made and execution strategies devised; it is the spirit of reverence towards one’s environment, history and heritage that should be the driving force behind Dal Lake’s restoration. If the seven-year-old Jannat has enough compassion to clean the Dal Lake every day for two years, surely others can contribute in whatever way they can as well.