Srinagar: Despite, and partly because of, the increasing tourist footfall at the iconic Dal Lake, Biba Banoo, a fisherwoman in her mid-sixties, is perturbed. Her son Bilal Ahmed has been unable to catch any fish for three days. “He leaves at around 4 a.m. and returns home with barely 2 kg of common carp. The lake is becoming barren due to the growing pollution and pathos,” says Banoo, who sells the fish in the market, referring to the literal and emotional shrinking.

Banoo and her son are one of the 10,000 indigenous half-amphibious families who row Shikaras on the lake, clean it, cultivate vegetables and fish in the lake for their livelihood.

As its waters run out of the indigenous silver fish, these fisherwomen bank on the non-local fish stock, which they buy from the open market. “But it doesn’t attract many consumers in the valley, who are unaware of the impacts of pollution of the lake,” Banoo said.

Dal Lake is the second major surface water body in the valley, after Wular Lake, located in the centre of Srinagar city, surrounded by the Hari Parbat hill and Zabarwan mountains. Over the years, the contours of the lake have changed with the periphery changing into marshy land, and the lake’s aquatic ecosystem changing with growing pollution.

The authorities responsible for maintaining the lake say the sewerage and silt going into the lake are impacting the lake’s health and the ecosystem. They say about 400 tonnes of weeds are taken out of the lake every day, and that sewerage treatment plants are working around the lake. The authorities also cleaned 20 navigation channels of the lake, with a total length of around 10 km.

Biba Banoo, a fisherwoman in her mid-sixties, says the Dal Lake is becoming barren due to the growing pollution. Banoo and her son are one of the 10,000 indigenous half-amphibious families who depend on the lake for their livelihood.

How the lake changed over the years

In June 2023, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) shared satellite images of Wular Lake and Dal Lake (see below) suggesting that the twin water bodies in Kashmir have been shrinking over the years. The accompanying article cites a 2020 paper, by researchers from the National Institute of Technology, Srinagar published in the journal Applied Water Science.

The NASA Earth Observatory image from 2020, carried in a 2023 piece

However, the Jammu & Kashmir Lake Conservation and Management Authority (LCMA) said the NASA article relies on old visuals. “The 2020 NASA images show the lake full of lilies,” said Bashir Ahmad Bhat, vice chairman of the LCMA. “But we’ve long cleared that vegetation.”

A satellite image of the Dal Lake from 2020 showing lily vegetation in the lake.
Credit: Lake Conservation and Management Authority

Bhat shared a recent satellite image, showing the lake’s open water expense is 20.37 square kilometres (sq km). In the last three years, he said, the LCMA removed lily vegetation roughly in around 7 sq km and added it to the open water area. “This lily vegetation was overwhelming in a major portion of the lake. Around 20 navigation water channels of Dal Lake have been recently restored,” said Bhat.

A recent satellite image shared by the LCMA shows the lake’s open water expense to be 20.37 sq km.
Credit: Lake Conservation and Management Authority

The Jammu and Kashmir High Court, in an order in 2017, taking note of maps and satellite images available then, has also said that the area of the Dal Lake has remained the same. “In so far as the water/watery surface is concerned, it has not altered much over the years.”

But the contours of the lake have changed over time, as we said, with its periphery turning into marshy lands, which were then given for construction.

Research by authors from the Department of Earth Sciences of the University of Kashmir, and the Indian Space Research Organisation, published in 2017, shows the changing land use and land cover over the lake during the last 155 years. Marshy lands and plantations in the northern part of the lake have vanished as they were given for road construction, and led to significant loss of the lake area during the 1970s, the study says. Dynamic floating aquatic vegetation--that is, lilies, weed, reed, moss and azola vegetation--on the water surface of the lake has tripled, with the consequent reduction of the open water expanse.

The built-up area within the lake has increased more than 40 times during the past 155 years, from 0.05 sq km in 1859, to 2.02 sq km in 2013.

“The massive and injudicious urbanisation of the lake interiors, with no provision for the scientific disposal of the household wastes, has adversely affected the quality of the lake waters,” the study says.

A 2020 study also shows the built-up increased in the catchment area of the lake--from 20.15 sq km in 1980 to 38.6 sq km in 2018. Similarly, aquatic vegetation increased from 2.03 sq km in 1980 to 5.7 sq km in 2018. Aquatic vegetation, which is not part of the natural ecosystem, uses up oxygen, depriving other living beings--and could result in an area turning into a swamp.

Meanwhile, forest and agriculture in the catchment area of the lake reduced; agriculture reduced from 34.44 sq km in 1980 to 24.10 sq km in 2018, while forest cover reduced from 135.72 sq km in 1980 to 118.30 sq km in 2018.

Manzoor Ahmad Shah and Irfan Rashid, researchers associated with Kashmir University, told IndiaSpend that forests were converted for urbanisation. This led to export of nutrients and sediments in the lake which helped the growth of aquatic vegetation, and the lake started shrinking. Silt sedimentation and sewerage have choked the natural springs of the lake, and the water channels from near Zabarwan Hills were choked, which stopped the entry of glacial water into the lake.

The lake’s changing ecosystem

At 52, Gulzar Ahmad Dar from the fisherman colony of Dalgate that houses around 40 families says the entire family has been taking an antiallergen for some days. Allergies are due to increase in aquatic vegetation, and pollution of the lake, which also result in a stink over the lake for months in the summer, and causes a runny nose, sore throat, and itching.

Dar is the last fisherman of his family and possibly from his extended clan as well, he says. “My children are quite vocal about the social and survival issues related to fishing…I hardly make a profit of around Rs 400 a day by selling 3 kg of common carp fish, as the lake isn’t offering much,” he said, frowning. “How can my family with seven members survive on Rs 400 a day?”

The common carp was introduced in the Kashmir valley in the mid-twentieth century, and once it thrived in its new habitat, it became the main commercial fish in the market, as per a 2005 study. With human interference, the number of carp in Dal Lake has reduced over time, impacting fisherfolk.

“The pollution in the lake first impacted the habitat of fish,” says Irfan Rashid, the researcher from Kashmir University. “Agriculture runoff, detergents and soaps, animal waste, solid waste--plastic bottles and polythene--are contributing to this lake pollution.”

Anthropogenic pressures on lake water and pollution have adversely affected the water quality of the lake, and the population of endemic schizothorax fish, locally known as silver fish, has declined with the destruction of its breeding grounds, as per a 2020 report in the Indian Journal of Extension Education.

Men clear weeds near the Foreshore Road on Dal Lake. About 400 tonnes of weeds are taken out of the lake every day, and sewerage treatment plants are working around the lake to reduce pollution and its impact on the lake’s ecosystem, authorities say.

Even with reducing fish, there is growing competition on the lake as the fisheries department provided fishing licences to people who are not original inhabitants of the lake.

“This issuance of free licensing is furthering an existential crisis for the community,” Dar says. “Fisheries department would earlier throw the carp fish seeds (offspring of the carp) in the lake, but now they don’t even bother.”

An official from the fisheries department, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that their guidelines do not specify that fishing licences are only for original inhabitants of the lake, and that the department has to give 24% more licences each year as it generates revenue.

Muneer Ahmad, the Fishing Development Officer in Srinagar, said that though indigenous silver fish is hard to find in the lake, carp is available, and that 3 kg a day for a fisherman is enough. He added that the department continues to throw seeds to the common carp every year.

Dar says the government allows untreated sewage to flow into the lake, which promotes weed growth. “This unwanted vegetation choked the oxygen supply to fish.”

Government officials blame the growing organic load--sewage at different locations on the banks, untreated sewage from locals living inside the lake area and on houseboats, kitchen waste, dead fish, and agricultural runoff.

“Indigenous fish cannot breed in an artificial water reservoir,” says Muneer Ahmad, an officer in the government fisheries department. “Earlier fishes had an upstream breeding ground in Tailbal Nallah where they used to breed and come back into the lake, but now there is no water passage for the movement of the fish.” (Tailbal or Telbal Nallah is an adjacent water body, separated from Dal Lake by the Foreshore road--built in the 1970s--marking the border of the lake on the northern side.)

Falling vegetable produce

Floating gardens locally known as raad are formed from the weeds collected by the lake dwellers. The weed consists of Typha Augustana and phragmites communis. These floating lands are movable with a length of 10 to 20 feet and three to four feet in breadth. Locals extract weeds along with the roots which contain soil as well. They later convert this into floating or movable gardens, by weaving the weeds together into mats that form the base of the garden. Cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, melons, pumpkins, chillies and brinjals are grown on these gardens.

Earlier, vegetable produce from the lake would cater to 50% of Srinagar city’s demand; it now hardly fulfils 5%, vegetable farmers claim.

A woman works on a vegetable garden inside Dal Lake.

“Things changed after the 2014 floods,” said Mohammad Amin, who grows vegetables for a living. “The floating gardens began losing their foothold. LCMA officials intensified their patrol and barred vegetation on the floating gardens.”

“Earlier, floating gardens had completely organic vegetation, but now with the use of fertilisers and pesticides, these add nutrients directly inside the lake,” said Shah, a botanist from Kashmir University. Over time, these floating gardens solidified into marshy land and finally into land masses, he added. The fertiliser run-off contaminates the lake water, triggering the growth of unwanted vegetation.

Pollution, inadequate restoration

Ghulam Nabi, in his sixties, runs a grocery outlet in the interiors of the lake. He recalls his childhood days when his mother used to collect the lake water in a copper vessel for drinking and cooking purposes.

“But ever since the government filled the Nallah Mar water channel and constructed the road, the city drainage was diverted towards the lake,” the grocer said. “After that, Dal Lake started becoming polluted and lost its grandeur.”

A woman carries drinking water on a shikara inside the Dal Lake. Ghulam Nabi, in his sixties, recalled his childhood days when his mother used to collect the lake water in a copper vessel for drinking and cooking purposes.

Talking of Nallah Mar, Zareef Ahmad Zareef, an oral historian in Kashmir, said the water channel would carry the city’s sewage into river Jhelum. But, instead of cleaning it, he says, the then government filled it with mud, constructed a road and diverted the sewage towards Dal lake. “People used to go from place to place in Kashmir through water transport only. But now many water channels [such as Nallah Mar] are closed.”

The government has installed five sewage treatment plants (STPs) around the lake in Habak, Hazratbal, Laam, Brari Nambal and Nalai Amir Khan. But they did not “rescue the lake”, Zareef adds. More sewage enters the lake than can be treated by the plants, a 2018 study shows: Only 75% of the lake periphery is connected to sewage treatment plants; the rest 25% goes untreated. The study also mentions that these STPs overflow during heavy rainfall and power blackouts.

A number of restoration plans by national and international agencies were implemented over the years.

In 2005, the government implemented the recommendations of a 2000 report from Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, including sewage treatment using Fluidized Aerobic Bed (FAB) reactor technology before it enters the lake.

In the first stage, the government installed three FAB-based STPs at Habak, Hazratbal and Laam, surrounding the lake. A 2020 report cites earlier studies from 2008 and 2009 which said these plants are malfunctioning and this will only exacerbate the problem of pollution in Dal Lake.

Another study, in 2022, suggested the need for skilled manpower for operating and maintaining the STPs, and constructive wetlands for tertiary treatment (where wetlands act as a final filter) before the water is discharged into Dal Lake.

The LCMA says that, currently, Dal Lake can potentially receive 48 million litres of sewage daily and five STPs are functional around the lake with a capacity to treat 36 MLDs. “Government has already approved the seventh STP at Gupt Ganga with the capacity to treat additional 30 MLD. All the houseboats on the lake with output of 1 to 1.5 MLD will be connected with the sewer within a few months,” said Bhat, the vice-chairman of the LCMA.

Resettlement and rehabilitation

In 2007, under the National Lake Conservation Plan, Rs 298 crore was provided for Dal and Nagin lakes, LCMA officials said. Later, under the Prime Minister’s Reconstruction Programme (PMRP), Rs 356 crore was provided for the rehabilitation and compensation to inhabitants. Of this, only Rs 80 crore was provided and Rs 65 crore was spent.

In 2012, the government also sanctioned a project costing Rs 416 crore to develop nine colonies for resettlement of the inhabitants. Of this, only Rs 180 crore was spent, according to LCMA vice-chairman Bhat.

Currently, a new project worth Rs 272 crore under PMRP is under way for rehabilitation.

In 1997, the Jammu and Kashmir state government formed an autonomous body, the Lakes And Waterways Development Authority. This was renamed as the LCMA in 2021. The LCMA is responsible for conservation and management of the lake as well as rehabilitation and resettlement of the Dal Lake dwellers.

In 2001, the government started efforts, under the Dal Lake Conservation and Rehabilitation Programme, to resettle the lake’s inhabitants elsewhere to reduce pollution. “We developed eight colonies till 2004 and when they were completely settled with almost 2,100 families, the government started looking for other areas where the process of rehabilitation will be resumed and Rakh-I-Arth came into view,” says Gulzar Ahmad Bhat, secretary of the LCMA. These colonies are in the periphery of the lake.

In 2006, the state government transferred 7,526 kanals and 7 marla of land (equivalent to about 3.8 sq km) at Rakh-I-Arth area in Bemina on the outskirts of the city to the LCMA. In 2008, a residential colony was proposed at the location--about 12 km away from the lake--at a cost of Rs 402 crore in a phased manner. In the first phase, 1.51 sq km of land was to accommodate 4,600 families.

Lake-dwellers on a bridge inside Dal Lake. Since 2004, the government resettled lake-dwellers in colonies--first, 2,100 families in eight colonies around the lake and since 2011, about 1,100 families to Rakh-I-Arth, about 12 km away.

As per the Comptroller And Auditor General report for the year ending March 2011, the LCMA had taken possession of only about 0.24 sq km (out of 3.8 sq km) of land at a cost of Rs 34.68 crore till 2011.

The report also mentions that LCMA was not able to implement the Dal lake Conservation and Rehabilitation Programme successfully. “To prevent the dislocated dwellers from returning to the lake and filling up this watery land for residential/agricultural purposes, it was proposed to acquire 14,547 kanals [7.35 sq km] of watery area under the Rehabilitation Program,” the report says. However, only 27% of about 1.97 sq km was acquired by March 2011.

“We started rehabilitating Dal Lake dwellers to Rakh-I-Arth from 2011 and till now almost 1,100 families have been rehabilitated to Rakh-I-Arth,” says Gulzar Ahmad Bhat, the LCMA secretary.

But Amin believes that the lake restoration project uprooted his community. “They forced my tribe out of the lake in the name of curbing pollution and abandoned them in a godforsaken area,” the lake dweller says. “But the pollution problem still persists.”

As Banoo wonders about the dwindling fish production, the Dal Lake’s health matrices are falling and disintegrating its native population--about 1,100 families have shifted to Rakh-I-Arth, as we said.

Bashir Ahmad Bhat, the vice chairman of LCMA, says the LCMA now feels the inhabitants are the main stakeholders and are part of the ecosystem. He said that starting 2023, the LCMA has discontinued resettlement efforts and is working on new eco-hamlet projects where the inhabitants will be rehabilitated within the lake and connected with STPs--within two months--and modern garbage management technology.

Every day at around 10 a.m., a boat of the Srinagar Municipal Corporation arrives to collect waste from the Dal dwellers. “This is just a make-believe clean picture of the lake,” Banoo says. “It never caters to the backwaters.”

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