Srinagar's prime tourist attraction, Dal Lake, is no more the scenic beauty it used to be. It's turning into an eyesore, thanks to sewage discharge and weed growth. A paper titled Water Quality assessments of Dal Lake, Jammu & Kashmir published in the International Journal of Scientific And Engineering Research in December 2017 (PDF of the report attached below) reveals that 1,200 houseboats alone dump about 9,000 metric tonnes of waste into the lake in a year. Further, 15 major drains empty into the lake, bringing along 18.2 tonnes of phosphorous and 25 tonnes of inorganic nitrogen nutrients.
The second largest lake in Kashmir, Dal Lake has four basins: Gagribal, Lokut Dal, Bod Dal and Nagin. According to the study, Lokut Dal and Bod Dal receive about 97,000 kg of sewage every day.
Another research report published in November 2017, Status of Pollution Level in Dal Lake of Jammu and Kashmir - A Review (PDF of the report attached below), estimates that besides nitrates and phosphates, about 80,000 tonnes of silt get deposited in the lake every year.
Tariq Patloo, the president of the Houseboat Owners’ Association (HOA), explains how this incessant dumping is contaminating the water body. Blaming rising sewage discharge from the localities of Rainawari and Babdem, he says, "Tourists don’t come due to the bad condition of the lake. No one wants to stay in houseboats as the surroundings are unpleasant.”
Ghulam Mohammad Itoo, a resident of Rainawari, concurs. “The strong stench is making life unbearable for people living here,” he says.
Prof. Shakeel Rhomsoo, the head of the Earth Sciences Department at the University of Kashmir and an expert on Dal Lake, says its western side is the most polluted as it receives untreated sewage. He says this has resulted in the extensive growth of weed and lakhs of rupees are spent every year to remove it.
Cleanup efforts not enough
A detailed project report that Alternate Hydro Energy Centre of Roorkee University (now IIT Roorkee) had prepared for the J&K Lakes & Waterways Development Authority (JKLDA) in the year 2000 reveals that Dal Lake has been receiving sewage for a long time. The 17-year-old report indicates that the lake was getting increasingly polluted even then owing to untreated sewage and solid waste from Srinagar's peripheral areas, houseboats and agricultural return flow from catchment areas.
A public-interest litigation on the conservation of Dal Lake filed in 2002 is still pending. Over the past years, the J&K High Court had passed many directives but, as advocate Nadeem Qadri says, even the best efforts of the authorities have failed to help conserve the lake.
The JKLDA vice-chairman Dr Abdul Hafiz Shah says strenuous efforts are being made to upgrade all the sewage treatment plants (STPs) and a new one at Dal Lake’s Nishat basin is also being planned. An executive engineer with the JKLDA, Ishtiyaq Ahmed Shah says, “Tenders have been advertised for engaging an expert authority to upgrade the STPs”.
Prof Rhomsoo stresses that upgrading the STPs is critically important. He says the STPs are inefficient and don’t treat the sewage completely. A government report confirms his allegation. The State Policy For Waste Water Reuse For Jammu & Kashmir published in April 2017 (PDF of the report attached below), cites the J&K Urban Environmental Engineering Department's finding that 80 percent of the state's total water supply contributes to sewage generation.
Heavy metals detected in water
Further, Prof Rhomsoo explains how dumping of electronic waste and plastic in Dal has led to a high concentration of heavy metals in its water. He says that through fish and other aquatic plants that people consume, these heavy metals find their way into the human body. He says increased exposure to these elements can cause damage to the brain, liver and kidneys.
Hailed as the crown jewel of Kashmir, parts of Dal Lake are in a pitiable condition today. The paper, Water Quality assessments of Dal Lake, Jammu & Kashmir, concludes that the colour of the lake's water has changed from bluish green to hazel due to higher turbidity which has reduced the lake's aesthetic appeal and resulted in a lower inflow of tourists. The report goes on to state that the lake's water is unfit for drinking and the general water quality is not good. The lake's aquatic life is under threat owing to depletion of dissolved oxygen.
Little progress has been made in cleaning
Last October, chief minister Mehbooba Mufti visited the interiors of the lake and expressed concern over its rising pollution level. Two committees were set up to conserve the lake: a scientific-advisory committee and a monitoring committee. Their recommendations have already been submitted but nothing has been done so far, says Rhomsoo, who is a member of the scientific advisory committee.
He says, “The suggestions included upgrading STPs, augmentation of artificial wetlands, assessment of pesticides, water-quality analysis, vegetation mapping, de-weeding and uprooting of lily pads. Currently, lily pads have covered a large portion of the lake.” The JKLDA’s Shah says all these issues are being carried out on a war footing. He points out that the work on uprooting lily pads and de-weeding is going on.
The HOA president Patloo agrees that 50 percent of lily pads have been uprooted but wonders when other issues such as dumping of untreated sewage, illegal constructions and encroachments on wetlands will be taken care of.
Apart from houseboat owners, vegetable sellers or shikarawalas also depend on Dal Lake for a living. Worried over tourists' increasing reluctance to visit the once-picturesque water body, they are concerned about their future. “The lake is dying and so are we,” says Ayoub Aslam, a vendor.
While Dal is always in the public eye, Kashmir’s other major lakes such as Anchar, Wular, Gilsar, Khushalsar and Nagin are also in a pitiable condition owing to unchecked pollution and encroachment. The restoration of Dal Lake holds the key to their future as well.
(NusrathSidiq is a Srinagar-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)