War, Sewage Killing Lake in India
Oct. 11, 2002
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SRINAGAR, India (AP) _ War and its attendant blights are slowly killing off an enchanted corner of the world.
Dal Lake in the Kashmir Valley, long treasured by travelers for its beauty, majestic surrounding hills and languid houseboat culture, is being overwhelmed by untreated sewage and acres of aquatic weeds.
Kashmiri voters have just signaled their rejection of the Islamic militants behind the violence that has killed more than 60,000 people in the past 13 years. But they have elected parties opposed to negotiating with Pakistan over the disputed Indian-ruled state of Jammu-Kashmir, suggesting no significant change is imminent on the battle front.
Meanwhile, the lake that has been a refuge for travelers, British colonial rulers and Asia-loving backpackers is succumbing to overpopulation, environmental degradation and neglect.
Ancient records measured the lake at 29 square miles. By 1970 it was 8.5 square miles, and it now is just over 4 square miles.
The main culprit is man-made beds of reeds and soil anchored to the lake bed to create farm land for a lakeside population of 100,000 that increasingly has been driven to farming because fighting has destroyed the tourism industry.
``Many of us have given up waiting for the violence to end and the tourists to return. We've turned to farming,'' said Ghulam Rasool.
He used to ply a gaily colored, flat-bottomed boat called a shikara, taking tourists on placid outings on the lake, but now works part-time on a vegetable farm.
As the ``floating gardens'' have spread, and weeds have proliferated, many parts of the lake now look like little more than a network of dirty canals through dense stretches of weeds.
``In another few decades, Dal Lake will no longer exist. Only a swamp will remain,'' warns Sabah-ul Solim, a scientist at the National Institute of Aquatic Ecology in Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital spread around the lake.
Then there are the more than 100,000 troops India has poured into the territory. Many of them are bivouacked year-round in hotels that ordinarily would fill up only in the tourist season. Their untreated sewage pours into the lake.
Older lakeside dwellers remember better days, when the waters were crystal-clear.
``My grandmother used to wash our stock of Pashmina shawls in the lake waters, saying that's what makes them soft,'' said Nazir Ahmed, a shopkeeper. ``Now I wouldn't dip my finger in it. It's so polluted.''
Khursheed Naquib, chairman of Jammu-Kashmir's Lakes and Waterways Development Authority, said his department has begun shifting families living on the lake to other parts of the city, but few have accepted the offer.
``The land they've given us is barren. We had to fight to get drinking water and electricity,'' said Rasool. ``Every day is a struggle.''
Boat owners wait endlessly, hoping the occasional Indian tourist, or even rarer foreign visitor, will spend an hour or two on the water or a few days in an intricately carved wooden houseboat.
The state deployed mechanical harvesters in a massive weed-removal project in 1999, but the weeds grew faster than the machines could uproot them. The expensive harvesters now lie rusting in the lake.
Officials also have launched an awareness program to discourage the dumping of garbage into the lake. Billboards everywhere plead: ``SAVE DAL LAKE.''
But environmentalists say the root of the problem is the lack of a sewage treatment plant.
``It will take more than slogans to save the Dal,'' said Mohammad Yusuf Chapri, a houseboat owner-turned-lake conservationist.
Lawmakers in Jammu-Kashmir accuse the state government of reneging on promises to clean up Dal Lake. The government replies that it's busy dealing with the insurgency.
``Even now it's not too late, but the government has to show it means business by getting in water filtration equipment and pushing ahead with resettlement of the lake residents,'' said Saifuddin Soz, a Kashmir lawmaker.
Even with a continued insurgency, the prospect of a fresh administration leads some people to hope that Dal Lake will be restored to its former glory.
``Can you imagine a Kashmir without Dal Lake?'' asked Chapri. ``Without the Dal, Kashmir will be without its crown jewel.''