- The Dal Lake’s area has shrunk from 75 sq.km to 12 sq.km
- 20 million litres of untreated sewage flows into the lake daily
- 6 operational STPs are finding it difficult to treat the sewage inflow
Kashmir’s beauty transcends the imagination of poets, writers and storytellers. Its picturesque terrain, though an inspiration for many painters, photographers and filmmakers, has a mysterious unseen, untouched, unexplored quality. Political conflicts have not been able to strike Kashmir out of most travelers bucket list. Drawn in hordes from different parts of the country and the world, the city of Srinagar, one of India’s oldest cities and Kashmir’s summer capital receives millions of tourists every year, who come to soak in the serene views of the mountains, valleys and of course, the Dal Lake. A local saying proclaims that the waters of the Dal Lake, Srinagar’s crown jewel, have the ability to cool down any simmering tension hovering in the air. But what happens the day there is not enough water in the Dal?
No longer can this reality be dismissed as doomsday prophecy. Pollution has mired not just the water of the lake but is threatening its very existence. From indiscriminate sewage disposal, encroachments to growth of weeds the destruction of the lake is spread over several years.
A natural lake, Dal has existed for centuries and flourished during the Mughal rule, especially during the reign of Jahangir who constructed gardens that provided best views of the lake. The views of Dal, over the last 30 years reveal the toll pollution is taking. Though Central and state authorities have invested to restore Dal’s glory, pollution continues to be a constant threat to the lake’s existence.
The Principal Risk Factors
Instances of pollution in and around the Dal Lake were reported from the early 19th century, when the last of the Mughals and the British chose Srinagar as a summer getaway spot. The tourist influx began then and since then, has not stopped. Over 13 lakh tourists visited Srinagar in 2015 alone, and the three main factors that have consistently endangered the lake are excessive disposal of pollutants in the form of sewage, silt deposits from erosion and physical changes to the lake’s geography.
The Dal lake’s problems began primarily in the 1980s, when encroachments started coming up around the lake area. With the growing tourist influx, hotels, houseboats came up in big numbers. Waste from these was disposed in the lake, as was the natural trend back then. With the growing number of hotels, new sewage lines were also built in Srinagar, and around 12 to 15 outlets disposed untreated sewage directly into the lake, said Muzammil Khurshid Ali, Chairman of Green Kashmir, an NGO working to restore the Dal Lake.
The lake, which once covered an area of 75 square kilometres has shrunk to 12 square kilometres in the last two decades. The lake’s depth has also come down by nearly 12 metres and is a grave sign of the dangers the lake faces. Numbers from the Dal Lake’s pollution statistics look ominous as the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LWDA) estimates that nearly 80,000 tonnes of silt, 31,000 kg of nitrates and 4,000 kg of phosphates are added annually to the lake. In the past three decades, the nitrate and phosphate rich water has been responsible for gastrointestinal diseases for people living around the lake.
Depleting Water Quality And Inefficient STPs
The Dal Lake has been damaged extensively due to the part played by the local population. Nearly 7,500 people live in the houseboats that populate the Dal’s surface. More than 50,000 people populate the small islands nearby and household waste from them is inevitably dumped into the Dal. Continuous disposal of waste has severely depleted the lake’s water quality. Oxygen density in the water has come down from 10.2 mg/litre to 6.8 mg/litre. Dissolved solids such as phosphorus and nitrogen have increased, taking their levels from 30.2 mg/litre to 200 mg/litre. In certain parts of the lake, algae growth has made the water green.
Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs), necessary to treat sewage have sadly not been of much help in treating the Dal Lake’s pollution problem. A July 2017 estimation by Srinagar’s Lakes and Waterways Development Authorities (LWDA) said that nearly 50 million litres of sewage flows into the Dal Lake daily, of which 20 million litres is untreated. There are a total of five STPs in Srinagar of which three have become exhausted. The STPs’ inability to to treat more than 30 million litres daily (MLD) of sewage is hampering the lake largely. The near the lake STP was built in 2006 but in 11 years, has nearly exhausted its capacity. A High Court order in July 2017 directed the state government to install an additional STP to treat the inflow of sewage into the lake.
We had also recommended the setting up of an STP but had stated that it will take at least three years to set up one. The High Court has however given the state government a year to set up an STP because in three years, more than 21 billion litres of untreated sewage will flow into the lake and render is absolutely lifeless, said Dr Abdul Hafiz Shah, Vice Chairman, Jammu and Kashmir Lakes and Waterways Development Authority.
Efforts To Save The Dal Lake
It would be unfair to say that there have been no efforts to save the Dal Lake. Over Rs 1,100 crore has been spent on improving the lake’s state since the 1980s. But as has been the case with several river and lake conservation projects expenditure did not necessarily translate to results. The Dal Development Project was launched by the Central government in 1986 and constituted of a team from the Ministry of Urban Development to look into the Dal pollution matter, but could do little to stem further pollution of the lake. Kashmir’s turbulent political atmosphere of the late 1980s and early 1990s also proved to be a deterrent. In 1997, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests launched the ‘Save Dal’ project worth Rs 500 crores. This project also looked at rehabilitating people living near the lake but till 2005, only 435 out of 6,000 families were rehabilitated. In the last 8 to 10 years, though certain steps of demolishing a few hotels and cleaning out weeds have been carried out, there have been no major efforts on the part of the LWDA to curb the pollution problem in Dal. In 2010, the Government gave anther Rs 356 crore for Dal conservation which is currently being used to invest in weed cleaners, de-silters and STPs.
Restoring the Dal Lake
The problem is not that no action has been taken about the Dal. The problem is that the actions have always been late, says Mr Khurshid Ali.
While conservation efforts have been going on in the Dal Lake for long, the growth of hotels, houseboats and households near the lake have also been simultaneous. Thus, the conservation efforts have failed to make much impact because the pollution has also grown in equal measure. The first and foremost step to combat pollution in Dal would be to construct more STPs and check the amount of untreated sewage flowing into the lake. Till now, no conservation project has taken into the account the role the local population can play in saving the lake. Involving more people to create awareness, especially among hotels and local shops can ensure that waste disposal in the lake is kept at bay. Authorities like the LWDA, state pollution control board and state government should be watchful in how they approach the situation, and ensure that violators of the lake are duly punished. Unless adequate measures are taken, the Dal Lake may further shrink from its current 12 sq. km area to becoming non-existent in the future.