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Kashmir: The Decline of Wular Lake

The rapidly disappearing beauty of Wular as seen from a boat in the northern portion of the lake. As invasive plant species, pollution, and silt continue to enter the lake, this sight may become a rarity. Image by Reana Thomas. Kashmir, 2014.

"Where is the lake?" Vegetation consumes a large area of Wular Lake as people from the villages reclaim the water and land for agricultural use. Image by Reana Thomas. Kashmir, 2014.

Heavy siltation and the loss of water retention cause Wular Lake to dry up severely during the summer. Image by Reana Thomas. Kashmir, 2014.

The mountainous roads near the town of Bandipora surround what looks like a huge meadow. A closer look reveals that the meadow is actually the water of Wular Lake hidden by floating vegetation, agricultural plots, and intentionally planted trees.

Even from the Wular Vantage Point, which provides visitors with a panoramic view of the northern side of the lake, many people often wonder where the actual lake is since a majority of it looks green. What used to be open water is now covered by rice paddies and thousands of willow trees that were planted by the government during the 1980s as a source of firewood.

Human intervention has caused much of the degradation with the problems stemming from multiple sources. Numerous issues stand in the way of Wular Lake’s survival, and thus the survival of the people who fully depend on it.

People are losing their livelihoods because the lake management authorities are not doing enough to conserve the lake. On the other hand, as globalized markets reach their villages, the residents are polluting the lakes with chemicals, such as dishwashing liquids, soaps, cleaning solutions, and fertilizers.

In a region that has already experienced strife and civil war from the partition between India and Pakistan, fighting over resources is not unusual. If Wular Lake fails to survive and the people are not able to meet their basic needs, they may indeed resort to violence.

Hydrological systems in Kashmir were tampered with long before the 1947 partition between India and Pakistan when maharajas ruled the lands. Ajaz Rasool, an experienced hydrological engineer, told the story of one Kashmiri maharaja in the early 1900s:

The king’s constituents living around Wular Lake faced severe flooding year after year. The lake was a sponge that retained large amounts of water from the glacial streams flowing down the surrounding Pir Panjal range of the Himalaya mountains. The flooding damaged the crops and homes of the people. The ruler decided to alter the water levels of the lake with the help of British engineers. This was done without much heed to the potential disruption it would cause to the environment.

The people were saved from the flooding, but now, over 100 years later, the whole system has completely reversed. Extremely low water levels are a cause for concern. The lake basin is not able to hold water due to siltation from deforestation and pollution, so it nearly dries up in July and refills during the winter. The lake is shallow, with a maximum depth of about 15 feet, and highly eutrophic, or rich in nutrients. The aggregate of these conditions makes a great environment for invasive aquatic weeds but an oxygen-poor system for fish and other animals.

“We have arrived at a time when people are considered a part of the ecology of any lake or wetland,” said Kashmiri environmentalist Dr. M.R.D. Kundangar.

When agricultural communities downstream ran out of water, they encroached on the lake itself and converted marsh areas into rice paddy fields. Wular Lake, one of India’s largest freshwater lakes that once claimed an area of 217.8 sq. km in 1911, has been reduced to about 80 sq. km today, with only 24 sq. km of open water remaining.

“Overall, the fish population [in Wular] has severely declined because of the human activity. It should be a self-cleaning system, but the pollution load is too much,” said Kundangar.

Chemical fertilizers, liquid and powder detergents, and human excrement all flow into the lake from the River Jhelum, which passes through the crowded city of Srinagar 40 km south of Wular, and also by the glacial streams that flow through smaller villages.

Sixty percent of the fish produced for Jammu and Kashmir come from the lake area, but with fish populations declining, the fishermen are quickly losing their income. Poverty and marginalization affect more than half of the population living around Wular according to the Comprehensive Management Action Plan for Wular Lake (2007). Today, many fishermen have to search for alternative sources of income through manual labor or selling vegetables in the cities.

A middle-aged fisherman said that the fisheries try to work together now and pool their catch to split the profits among the settlements. During the off-season, they try to harvest water chestnuts, which grow quite abundantly in the lake. But, with invasive aquatic species, like alligator weed, blocking out sunlight and consuming nutrients, the beneficial vegetation may not survive. Dr. Ather Masoodi, an aquatic weed biologist, predicts that alligator weed has the potential to completely cover the lake in the next 10 to 15 years if weed management does not start immediately.

The Wular Conservation and Management Authority was only created in 2012 and has been slow to implement the proposed efforts to clear the water body of weeds, trees, and siltation.

“We have different water and conservation authorities that are not coordinating with each other and thereby getting nothing done,” said Kundangar.

The expansion of tourism near Dal Lake in Srinagar also causes an increase in the flow of sewage and rubbish into the lake. Wular often receives less financial aid because it is not considered a commodity like Dal, which is next to the capital city and welcomes significantly more tourists. Water-borne diseases result from the soiled waters since the surrounding settlements collect their drinking water from the lake.

Economic instability means that practicality often wins over preservation. People who live around the lake are not as concerned with the long-term outcomes for the environment if they are worry more about providing for their families. They are aware that the hydrological regime has shifted over the past couple decades and they foresee having to move into cities to find work.

“Sewage must be intercepted and treated, but this all needs a peaceful environment to work in,” said Rasool.

Political instability is another threat that is often more pressing than environmental hazards. The continuous presence of the Indian army and navy who patrol the lakes and towns often becomes a compounded issue. Kashmiris live with the expectation that anything can happen at any moment.

The question remains: Will deteriorating environmental conditions lead to more violence?