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India: Kashmir's dying water bodies

Jan 18, 2012

Pollution has posed a serious threat to the existence and ecosystem of Kashmir's lakes and rivers.

Srinagar:  In September 2011 a Wiki leaks cable about Kashmir politics was titled “Kashmir politics as filthy as Dal Lake” suggesting how manifest the deterioration of this famed water body of Kashmir had become.  While Wikileaks chose Dal Lake as a striking simile for Kashmir’s “filthy politics”, the fact remains that all the water bodies in Kashmir are feeding on a tide of pollutants and are shrinking at a rapid pace.

Wullar-lake-in-north-Kashmir.jpg

Environmental experts say that the devastation of these bodies of water has started particularly in the last two decades. The world famous Dal Lake, which attracts international tourists, has shrunk from 58 square kilometers in 1953 to 11 square kilometers. The lake has also lost 12 meters in depth.

"Massive encroachments and erection of many structures, house boats, and hotels have led to the reduction in the size of the lake," says Shahid Ahmad who teaches Environmental Science at Sri Pratap College in Srinagar. "Apart from the reduction in its size, the lake has also witnessed massive pollution."  

Sewage from houseboats and hundreds of hotels in the vicinity of Dal Lake finds its way into the lake. Around 65,000 people live in houseboats and small islands in the lake. The plans of the Kashmir government to shift the Dal-dwellers and rehabilitate them elsewhere are yet to be implemented with success.  

As filthy as politics

Tests conducted by the state's Pollution Control Board (PCB) from samples taken from the lake have shown high levels of lead, arsenic, iron, manganese, copper, and cadmium. Experts have expressed concern that these pollutants not only pose a threat to the water body and human health, but are also dangerous for the fish and other fauna in the lake.  

"The world famous Dal Lake, which attracts international tourists, has shrunk from 58 square kilometers in 1953 to 11 square kilometers"

Taking note of the deteriorating situation of the lake, the state's high court has literally taken responsibility of protecting the lake by issuing several directives ordering the government to safeguard the lake, which, according to the court, has "turned into a swamp."

The Dal Lake is not an isolated case in Kashmir, however. Reports show that the Wullar, Mansbal, and Anchar lakes are likewise under threat. Wullar, the largest freshwater lake in Asia, has shrunk from 190 square kilometers to 72 square kilometers. Despite having been named a Wetland of Intertional Importance under the 1990 Ramsar Convention, illegal use of 8260 acres of land officially designated as federally-protected lakefront continues at Wullar.

“The Hokersar wetland, situated 16 kilometres north of Srinagar, has shrunk to 4.5 square kilometres from its original area of 13.75 square kilometres. The Haigam wetland, further north, has been reduced to almost half its original size,” explained Ahmad.

The 240 kilometer Jhelum River, with a catchment area of thousands of kilometers, is also quickly becoming polluted. "The river has become a garbage dump over the last several years as most of the garbage finds its way into the river. Almost all the drains in Srinagar city and its suburbs flow into the Jhelum," says Ahmad. 

According to him, the depth of the river has also been significantly reduced thanks to soil erosion. “Much of the eroded sediment that flows into the river can be traced back to the widespread deforestation in the forest areas where the Jhelum flows.”

Statistics from government researchers show that the Jhelum is dying. Physically, the Jhelum is deteriorating thanks to a shrinking water channel and a rising of its bed. Biologically, nutrient levels are increasing and the presence of pollution resistant algae- a major indicator of poor water quality- is likewise on the rise.

Often overlooked

Pollution is so widespread in water bodies that it is even evident without testing from the PCB, which lacks the equipment necessary to perform the needed tests. Among the tests that the PCB is unable to perform are two of the most basic and important diagnostics for determining pollution levels in water, the biological oxygen and fecal coliform tests.

Lack of infrastructure and its maintenance also contributes to the pollution levels. The majority of water sanitation stations in Kashmir date from the 1970's or earlier, and the lack of repairs has forced many to shut down. These sanitation stations empty their contents into the very bodies of water they are intended to protect. A total of 37 million liters of untreated waste is reportedly discharged from these stations every day.

Solid waste management remains another barrier to cleaning up Kashmir's waters. Government officials charged with managing solid waste have been unable to even collect the necessary data on sanitation in the state. For example, no accurate data exists on how many households in Srinagar city have flush toilets, or how many rely on pit latrines or no toilet systems at all.

The majority of the state's population continues to dispose of solid waste on streets and open spaces, as well as down drains and storm water drainage areas. According to a 2006 survey by a local NGO, more than 70 percent of Kashmir's citizens throw solid waste on the streets and down the drains in residential neighborhoods and 47 percent in commerical areas. 

To demonstrate the complexity of the issue, a look at animal sacrifice is revealing. Sacrifice is highly common in Kashmir, with more than 3000 animals sacrificed every day in Srinagar alone. Unofficial estimates put the number at closer to 15,000. The expected quantity of waste generated from that level of sacrifice is 7.5 tons per day. Without being treated, this waste is disposed of in municipal dumping areas and then, finally, into Kashmir's waters.

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