Srinagar: More than a year-long effort to remove about 1,350 trucks of muck, silt and plastic waste from Khushal Sar lake in Srinagar--a herculean task accomplished by city locals--has given the previously polluted waterbody a new lease of life, and restored optimism in community efforts for environmental conservation.

At the helm of this lake restoration initiative is a local non-government organisation, the Nigeen Lake Conservation Organisation (NLCO), which began this campaign under 'Mission Ehsaas' in February 2021. Subsequently, volunteers and the district administration joined the effort.

Khushal Sar lake, located in Srinagar's old city, is fed by the Dal Lake, and is connected to a wetland, Gil sar. It also flows into Anchar Lake. Khushal Sar lake was moderately polluted in the spring and summer and highly polluted during the winter, a 2011 assessment had found.

Khushal Sar lake is not the only one in Kashmir to have succumbed to unchecked urbanisation. Srinagar city alone has lost about 9,120 hectares of wetland between 1911 and 2014.

The revival of Khushal Sar is a ray of hope for the region's lakes, important not just for conserving the ecology of the state, but also its resident's livelihoods. Yet, more needs to be done, such as the implementation of stronger lake and wetland conservation policies, and installing new sewage treatment plants, to keep the lake clean, experts say.

Mocked, then supported by the community, government

Khushal Sar, used earlier as a waterway, was encroached upon by land grabbers and 'unscrupulous' elements, and was used as a garbage landfill. Parts of it choked with domestic waste water and agricultural runoff.

"The contaminated lake became a breeding ground for diseases," said Mohammad Shafi Malik, who lives on the periphery of Khushal Sar. "Dogs foraged through the waste heaps on the lake bed. The lake had turned into a dumping ground."

The continued dumping of waste in the lake had also changed its natural vegetation, at the cost of both the local economy and the environment.

The waters of Khushal Sar and Gil sar, as per a 2020 study, receive about 465 million litres of sewage every day.

The Srinagar Municipal Corporation, the Lakes Conservation and Management Authority of Kashmir, and the Urban Environmental Engineering Department said that sewage from numerous locations enters the lake, but that they did not know the precise quantity. The government will set up a sewage treatment plant, the chief sanitation officer of the Srinagar municipality, Nazeer Ahmad Baba, told IndiaSpend.

Manzoor Ahmad Wangnoo, chairman of the Nigeen Lake Conservation Organisation, rowing a shikara in Khushal Sar in Srinagar, June 15, 2022.

When 65-year-old Manzoor Ahmad Wangnoo, chairman of NLCO, began restoring the lake with the help of his three cousins, many mocked him as several others had failed to resuscitate the lake. "After the initial 10 days, people slowly started joining us. At present, we have a team of 30 volunteers and record participation of many others as well."

Wangnoo has also been involved with the restoration of Nigeen lake.

"When I first saw the visuals of Khushal Sar lake [on television] all I could see was a cesspool. Now, you will find around 6-7 feet depth in the lake. Before our initiative, it was 2 feet." The restoration included dredging to take muck out of the lake and, Wangnoo said, volunteers in shikaras--or Kashmir's local boats--would also remove polythene by hand.

"We need lots of things to be done here, like demarcation of wetlands and installation of sewage treatment plants. People have to be reminded that these are water bodies and not dustbins."

Awareness and community initiative are key

Volunteers of the Nigeen Lake Conservation Organisation use shikaras to clean Khushal Sar lake in Srinagar, February 21, 2021.

Cleaning the water body made residents aware of the problems, and discouraged them from polluting the lake, Wangnoo said. NLCO engaged in dialogues with the residents of the area before starting the restoration effort.

"Mosques issued warnings against littering the water body and the mohalla [neighbourhood] groups raised funds for the project," says Latief Wangnoo, one of the first people to join the restoration effort. "Today, a person would think a hundred times before throwing trash into the water. Our greatest success, in my opinion, has been to change how residents dispose of their waste."

As the NLCO's initiative bore results, more and more people joined in and even pooled in money, said Wangnoo, NLCO's chairman.

Bashir Bhat, vice-chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Lake Conservation and Management Authority (JKLCMA), said that NLCO's efforts are significant because it guaranteed community involvement. "These lakes can only be restored with community engagement, and Manzoor Wangnoo's initiative has done that. It will inspire others to create similar projects at their own level in addition to joining the cause," he said. The evidence lies in the fact that, he added, in the past few months, there have been about 30 cleanliness drives at various lakes in the region and more organisations have stepped forward.

Machinery used by the local authorities to clean Khushal Sar lake in Srinagar, June 15, 2022.

Soon, even the government joined in. The trucks to lift the muck were provided by Srinagar Municipality, said Wangnoo of NLCO, also recalling that P.K. Pole, Divisional Commissioner for Kashmir, convened a meeting of all the involved departments and ensured that the officials extended their full support to the lake restoration. Wangnoo added: "Their cooperation gave me hope. The Lake Conservation and Management Authority (LCMA) also played a significant role as they introduced the most recent technology to stop the muck from entering the water bodies."

This community initiative was also recognised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the radio programme Mann Ki Baat in May 2022.

Unchecked urbanisation, a core issue

Various studies show that more than 50% of the wetland in and around Srinagar city has been lost over the years, said Irfan Rashid, an earth sciences professor at Kashmir University. "The last 50 years of satellite data also clearly indicate that the concrete areas around the water bodies have gone up, which is alarming in the sense that there is a lot of pollution and degradation of wetland catchments, which results in silt accumulation in the water bodies."

Silt reduces the depth of the water column and affects the water bodies' carrying capacity, and over the years, the depth of the wetland has reduced, Rashid said, pointing to it as a cause of the 2014 floods.

Collaboration between academia and the government is crucial to develop and implement an effective policy plan to save the region's water bodies and tackle the issue of flooding, said Rashid. "If this collaboration does not happen, wetland and environmental degradation will continue in Kashmir."

As the valley's unplanned land use, and clogged, shrinking water channels have made the region more vulnerable to floods, the government is navigating ways to deal with the crisis, government officials say. Aijaz Ahamad Keen, executive engineer in the Irrigation and Flood Control department said, "We have divided the flood mitigation strategies into three stages. The carrying capacity of the water channels will be increased by 46,000 cubic feet per second (cu.secs.) which will be completed soon."

The width of the spillage channel, empty channels that store excess water in a flood-like situation, will be extended, and dredging will be carried out to increase the area and capacity of the channel. Ahamad said, "Under the last stage, we will raise the capacity by 60,000 cu.secs., which is the maximum allowed in the project we presented to the government."

To tackle unplanned urbanisation, he said there are flood-prone locations that will be notified where construction will not be allowed. Floods like the one in 2014 occur rarely, Ahamad said, adding "we are preparing for that as well".

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