The Messy Clean-Up of Dal Lake


With the backdrop of the Himalayas reflecting in still water and colorful gondola-like shikaras ferrying passengers across its surface, Dal Lake in India's Kashmir Valley provides visitors with classic postcard vistas. Swathes of vegetation blanket the lake in intense green patches, accented by pink and white lotus flowers popping up in full bloom. Small white-breasted kingfishers dart along the surface. And at the same time a call to prayer echoes across the water from Srinagar's lakeside Hazratbal Mosque.

But take a closer look and the idyllic scene begins to unravel. Those brilliant green swathes of vegetation are actually caused by pollution. Researchers estimate 18 million liters (4,755,000 gallons) of raw sewage flow into the lake each day, and the unhealthy influx of nutrients, mostly nitrogen and phosphorus, acts as a super-fertilizer. The result is an explosive growth of duckweed, water ferns, and algae that eventually depletes the water of the oxygen vital to fish and other aquatic life. Add to this a drainage system constantly clogged with muck, along with little wind to aerate the water, and the result, researchers say, is a lake in peril.

The state government of Jammu-Kashmir has been aware of the pollution for decades, but little progress on the cleanup has occurred because of the 16 year-old conflict between separatist Muslim militants and Indian forces. And though explosions from militant attacks still pierce the air, tourists are slowly returning, with last year bringing 230,000 tourists, the most since the insurgency began in 1989. And this past spring a new bus route connected Indian Kashmir to Pakistani Kashmir for the first time since 1947.

Now the government is looking toward a more stable future, and revisiting environmental questions formerly left hanging. At a projected cost of $100 million, the Dal Lake clean-up program includes the construction of Srinagar's first modern sewage system and the relocation of an estimated 50,000 people who live within the lake on natural and man-made islands. The authorities insist the lake cannot sustain a population of this size, and have returned to the long-planned project to relocate the "Dal dwellers" to colonies on the outskirts of Srinagar.

Dal dwellers are some of Srinagar's poorest residents, earning on average about $40 per month, according to one NGO's report. The majority of the residents within the lake say they would relocate given proper compensation for their homes and the promise of new employment, as many depend on the lake for jobs, from catering to tourists to farming. When they move to colonies six miles away from the lake and the city center, few opportunities for employment exist. Even with the compensation package they receive from the government, most can't afford to build new houses comparable to those they had on the lake. The government has so far evicted nearly 1,200 of the 4800 families they are set to move to the colonies. But rather than the tidy new communities that had been promised, these colonies are now known as Srinagar's first slums, replete with the stench of open sewage system that drains into Dal, raising questions about just what the relocation has accomplished

Relocated from Bad to Worse

Two years ago, 65 year-old Ghulam Hadr Tand, his wife, and three children were assigned to a colony three miles from Dal. From what the family could bring with them from the lake, Tand built a shack with the sheet metal scraps from their former home. "We were living in impoverished conditions within the lake," says Tand, a carpet weaver by trade. His fingers worked their way across an 8-foot wide loom holding a Kashmiri rug. "We were told we'd have better conditions if we moved out. But we're worse off."

The office in charge of the project, the Lake and Waterways Dal Authority (LAWDA), cites the relocation plan as the opportunity of a lifetime for the 50,000 Dal dwellers. Along the roadside heading toward their office on the lake are a few rusting signs that plea "Save Dal Lake" -- promotions from past clean-up campaigns. "The packages have been very nice," said Aijaz Rasool, a scientist at LAWDA. "The colonies have amenities as good as the city has."

But that's hardly the way most residents of the colonies see it.

In front of 48 year-old Ghulam Nabinanda's 1000-square foot cement home raw sewage flows in the dirt road. He built it in 2003 for his family of 10, using the entire $2,000 payment he received from the government. "No, there is a lack of amenities here," Nabinanda says, "and most importantly there are also no jobs." In order to get a fair assessment of his lake property he also says he had to bribe a government official.

When his family lived on Dal Lake, Nabinanda's wife and children collected grass and sold it as fodder for cattle, captained a shikara, and wove mats. "We were experts in mat weaving, but we can't do that here," said his 25-year old daughter Dilshada. "There were many avenues for earning a living on the lake, but here there are none."

'Kashmir is back on tourist pamphlets'

The major impetus behind the Dal Lake cleanup effort is the current upswing in Kashmir tourism. Tourists stroll along the Boulevard that hugs the shore of Dal Lake, shop for famous Kashmiri shawls, rugs, and handicrafts, and sip tea in cafes. Over 230,000 tourists visited Kashmir in 2004, compared to 191,000 visitors in all of 2003. But always within shouting distance are armed soldiers on patrol, or just out of view behind sandbags and barbed wire -- one soldier for every 15 civilians in Kashmir. It's a stark reminder that peace is nowhere near secured in the Valley. Still, officials are preparing for a post-conflict future.

"This place used to get bad publicity," said M. Saleem Beigh, the Director General of Tourism in Kashmir, last summer. But now that's changed, he said. "The insecurity has gone down. Kashmir is back on tourist pamphlets."

Many summer tourists head straight for one of hundreds of houseboats moored on the lake. The finest boats have preserved their hand-carved cedar facades. Others try to sell their name -- touting calling cards like "Kashmir Hilton," "Savoy," "Cheerful Charley," and "Tehran." Tourists can choose from over 600 houseboats scattered throughout the lake with prices ranging from $10 to $60 per night, including meals. Another option is to stay on hotels on the lake, though some are fully occupied by Indian troops who have converted them to barracks.

But officials acknowledge that along with the tourists' rupees also comes the tourists' waste. The government now requires houseboats to install floating septic tanks -- the only concession houseboat owners have to make towards the cleanup effort. Unlike the lake dwellers, houseboat operators -- considered essential to the tourist economy -- are not required to relocate.

Only last year did Srinagar begin construction of a modern sewage system to handle the waste of the city's 750,000 residents. Until then, the sewage system had been a network of 15 pipes that drained straight into Dal.

In addition to the sewage, rapid deforestation of the valley has amplified erosion, subsequently sending more than 80,000 tons of silt into Dal each year. Expanding agriculture in the Dal catchment area also contributes serious levels of fertilizer run-off. The resulting abundance of plants in the lake is so thick in some areas that boat operators have to struggle to pull their heart-shaped paddles through the mass of vegetation.

A 1999 survey by HOPE, an environmental NGO with an office on the Boulevard, found that 90 percent of the lake residents were not fully aware that they were contributing to the degradation of Dal. HOPE now collects the household garbage that Dal dwellers routinely throw into the lake each day. With community trash bins now in place in each hamlet, HOPE's network of 30 workers collects three truckloads of garbage from 175 shops, 12 hotels, three restaurants and nearly 5,000 residences, each day. But what seemed to be a simple solution confused Dal dwellers at first, says Zahoor Wani, chairman of HOPE. Some residents refused to use the bins, as they thought HOPE would only profit from the collection of their trash.

But that's changed now. "Now if a worker doesn't come for 2 days, residents come to the office to complain," says Wani. "That is an achievement for us -- that they are complaining."

By better management and planning, says A.R. Yousuf, a professor of environmental studies at Kashmir Univeristy in Srinagar, it may be possible for the remaining population to live in harmony with the lake, as people have done for centuries. "But we are all responsible," Yousuf says. "We must have two or three plans to address this -- some of which should have happened 20 years back."

Reclaiming 'Natural Beauty' -- at What Cost?

Yousuf, who has lived near the lake all his life, believes that any benefits gained by the removal of the Dal dwellers may have unforeseen adverse effects. "They've been there for the last several hundred years. Taking them out will change the ecology of the lake." When residents remove the grasses used for weaving mats or harvest vegetables grown in gardens, he says, they actually help reduce the nutrient overload in the lake. "We need these people because they help remove nutrients," he says.

Nearly 50 percent of the vegetables for the entire Kashmir Valley come from Dal Lake, grown on "floating gardens." Rafts of reeds -- similar to chinampas used for farming by the Aztecs and still found in canals of Mexico City -- make up much of the solid ground Dal dwellers live and farm upon. As the reeds decompose, more layers are added until, within a few years, they've created a floating island. As soil is added to the island over time, they eventually have dry ground -- a process one local referred to as "making land out of water." The floating islands can be towed and adjoined to dry land in order to expand an existing plot.

For the Dal dwellers who have been uprooted, even if they could get back to the lake it would take time to recreate plots that thrived under generations of care. Even so, some Dal dwellers who have made the move dearly wish they could return to their former lives on the lake.

Fifty-year-old Ali Mohammad Raun, his wife and five sons left the lake 14 years ago and relocated to Bota Kadal, a colony with some of the better living conditions. In one sense, Raun's family is one of the lucky ones. They have managed to construct a two-story home, and his sons routinely find employment as vegetable sellers and electricians. But Raun says he's sorry they ever left Dal. "We started missing the lake," says Raun. He continues to take his canoe to the lake each day to collect vegetables. "My son started developing apprehensions and worrying about the future of our family, because of the lack of employment here." Raun repeatedly referred to this as "Dal Syndrome."

The relocation colonies have proven to be such a poor option for many Dal dwellers that some sold their plots after arriving in the colony and returned to the lake. A relocation colony with 100 plots established in 1992 is an active community, but houses no Dal dwellers. "The people got the plots and sold them off. There are no more Dal dwellers here," says one resident and local bank employee Mohammad Mughtaqbeen. Many, he says, headed right back to Dal. In response, when LAWDA authorities now remove Dal dwellers from the lake, they dismantle not only the resident's home, but also reclaim the land the house stood on, and use it as fill dirt in low-lying areas around the city. Altogether, researchers say the removal of 50 hamlets within the lake will recapture 1.2 miles of water surface area, and in the process restore the "natural beauty" of the lake.

Amidst the continuing conflict between Pakistan and India over control of Kashmir, authorities now realize that they can no longer afford to avoid the challenge of preserving the very environment they are fighting to control. "Politicians, even militants, should be thinking about the environment 50 years from now," says HOPE's Zahoor Wani.

The question of how to fairly relocate and employ tens of thousands of locals also continues to stump officials. "We need not remove all of them," says A.R. Yousuf, of Kashmir University, who has seen water quality deteriorate firsthand since he was a child growing up near the lake. "But we need to manage and regulate the hamlets."

In the alley behind the Raun's home is the two-room tin shack of weaver Ghulam Hadr Tand. He'll earn about $300 for four months work on each rug. Once completed, the local carpet buyer will turn around and sell Tand's rug to a tourist for more than double that price. His father trained him to weave rugs, and now Tand trains his children. But Dal, where his ancestors had lived for centuries, is where he longs to return. "My health is not well here," said Tand, "The environment of Dal was everything."

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