Lakes Fill on a Tide of Pollutants
The Equatorial Press Lead Story Kashmir's lakes- among them the largest freshwater lake in Asia- are weathering a tide of pollution, while the villages that cling to its banks struggle with a poverty level that traps them in a cycle of waste and sickness. Can the Indian government step in and restart defunct sanitation programs, or is it their negligence and disinterest that has exacerbated the problem? (Photo by Shahbasharat/Flickr)

By Athar Parvaiz

Water bodies in Indian Kashmir are shrinking at a rapid pace even as large-scale pollution poses an equal threat.

Environmental experts say that the devastation of these bodies of water has started particularly in the last two decades. The world famous Dal Lake, which attracts international tourists, has shrunk from 58 square kilometers in 1953 to 11 square kilometers. The lake has also lost 12 meters in depth.

"Massive encroachments and erection of many structures, house boats, and hotels have led to the reduction in the size of the lake," says Professor M. Yousaf, the chairman of the Environmental Science department at the University of Kashmir. "Apart from the reduction in its size, the lake has also witnessed massive pollution," he added. Sewage from 1014 houseboats find its way into the lake. Around 65,000 people live in houseboats and small islands in the lake.

A report released by the state government said that tests conducted by the state's Pollution Control Board (PCB) from samples taken from the lake have shown high levels of lead, arsenic, iron, manganese, copper, and cadmium. The report said that these elements were consumed by fish, who were in turn eaten by local people, causing risk to their health.

The state's high court has issued several mandates ordering the government to safeguard the lake, which, according to the court, has "turned into a swamp." The Dal Lake is not an isolated case in Kashmir, however. Reports show that the Wullar, Mansbal, and Anchar lakes are likewise under threat. Wullar, the largest freshwater lake in Asia, has shrunk from 190 square kilometers to 72 square kilometers. Despite having been named a Wetland of Intertional Importance under the 1990 Ramsar Convention, illegal use of 8260 acres of land officially designated as federally-protected lakefront continues at Wullar.

The 240 kilometer Jehlum River, with a catchment area of thousands of kilometers, is also quickly becoming polluted. "The river has become a garbage dump over the last several years as most of the garbage finds its way into the river. Almost all the drains in Srinagar city and its suburbs flow into the Jehlum," said Sutinder Singh of the Kashmir government's Environment and Remote Sensing Department. The depth of the river has also been significantly reduced thanks to soil erosion. Much of the eroded sediment that flows into the river can be traced back to the widespread deforestation in the forest areas where the Jehlum flows.

Statistics from government researchers show that the Jehlum is dying. Physically, the Jehlum is deteriorating thanks to a shrinking water channel and a rising of its bed. Biologically, nutrient levels are increasing and the presence of pollution resistant algae- a major indicator of poor water quality- is likewise on the rise.

Pollution is so widespread throughout Kashmir's waters that it is being reported even without the full gamut of testing from the PCB, which lacks the equipment necessary to perform the needed tests. Among the tests that the PCB is unable to perform are two of the most basic and important diagnostics for determining pollution levels in water, the biological oxygen and fecal coliform tests.

A lack of infrastructure maintainence also contributes to the pollution levels. The majority of water sanitation stations in Kashmir date from the 1970's or earlier, and the lack of repairs has forced many to shut down. Those sanitation stations that do run empty their contents into the very bodies of water they are intended to protect. A total of 37 million liters of untreated waste is reportedly discharged from these stations everyday.

Solid waste management remains another barrier to cleaning up Kashmir's waters. Government officials charged with managing solid waste have been unable to even collect the necessary data on sanitation in the state. For example, no accurate data exists on how many households in Srinagar city have flush toilets, or how many rely on pit latrines or no toilet systems at all.

The majority of the state's population continues to dispose of solid waste on streets and open spaces, as well as down drains and storm water drainage areas. According to a 2006 survey by a local NGO, more than 70 percent of Kashmir's citizens throw solid waste on the streets and down the drains in residential neighborhoods and 47 percent in commerical areas.

To demonstrate the complexity of the issue, a look at animal sacrifice is revealing. Sacrifice is highly common in Kashmir, with more than 3000 animals sacrificed every day in Srinagar alone. Unofficial estimates put the number at closer to 15,000. The expected quantity of waste generated from that level of sacrifice is 7.5 tons per day. Without being treated, this waste is disposed of in municipal dumping areas and then, finally, into Kashmir's waters.

Athar Parvaiz is a journalist based in Kashmir.