Sun, Jun 04, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Pollution is killing off Kashmir's natural treasure

Dubbed by the Mughal emperor Jahangir as paradise, Dal Lake in Kashmir is silting up fast and in places the stench of the water is unbearable

By Amrit Dhillon  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

When Mughal emperor Jahangir first visited Kashmir in the 17th century and saw Dal Lake in Kashmir, he famously exclaimed, "If there is paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here" -- an opinion Indian families over the generations have endorsed by holidaying there at least once in their lifetimes.

But things have changed. Dal Lake surrounded by the snow-capped Himalayas, meadows, pine forests, cherry orchards, and saffron fields, is dying. Pollution from the nearby city of Srinagar and over-development along its shores as well as the hundreds of picturesque houseboats and the expansion of horticultural operations on the lake water itself have all taken their toll. Experts fear unless drastic action is taken, within a 100 years Dal Lake will simply become a marsh.

In a generation, the lake has shrunk by half. From being 5m deep just ten years ago it is now, in places, less than 3m deep as silt and debris from the horticultural operations -- or floating gardens -- have built up and the untreated sewage, flowing into the water from Srinagar, which has only one sewage treatment plant, has promoted a massive growth of choking weeds.

The foul water is also alarming local doctors who have now branded Jahangir's paradise a health hazard.

"We're already seeing rising cases of dysentery, hepatitis and other waterborne diseases," said Bilkees Ara, a senior scientist with the Kashmir State Pollution Control Board.

Which probably will come as no surprise to the many tourists who still flock to the area. For anyone dipping their hands into the lake, the opaque water running through their fingers feels dense, almost alive. The weed, thick as ropes, shifts just beneath the surface like a monster. Fifty thousand tonnes of the stuff is believed to die off each year and sink to the lake floor -- its decomposition adding to the water's pollution load.

"The boat ride was the best part of our trip," said Vanessa Volpato, a visitor from France. "It was so peaceful on the lake and wonderful to see people going about their daily chores in boats -- like Venice. But in some areas it smelt so bad we had to cover our faces."

For a state that has already been ravaged by 16 years of civil strife as militant groups have battled over the Indian state -- either for outright independence or an Anschluss-type union with Pakistan -- the slow death of Dal Lake will be another blow to local pride.

But despite some local fears about funds earmarked for sorting the lake out going astray there are hopes of a cleaner future.

India's high court, ruling on a public interest petition filed by a Kashmiri law student, has ordered the government to get cracking on several fronts: more sewage treatment plants, a dredging program to clear all the weeds, and the removal of the floating gardens and illegal homes.

And the Kashmir government has started to act. Two new sewage plants currently under construction will soon come on line to add to the one already in operation and giant weed harvesters -- a step up from men with nets who over the years have been fighting a losing battle with the thriving vegetation -- now trawl the waters.

Kashmir used to be known as the Switzerland of the East and if a song-and-dance sequence required a Swiss setting, Bollywood directors used to shoot it here. Local people are hoping that, if Dal Lake can be saved, they will be able to lay claim once again to that description.

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